Sharon Ruston - Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science, and Medicine of the 1790s. Review by Travis Chi Wing Lau
Travis Chi Wing Lau
University of Pennsylvania
Since her first book, Shelley and Vitality (2005), Sharon Ruston has modeled innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship that intervenes in both the history of science and medicine, as well as Romanticism. Her newest book begins with the observation that scholars in Romanticism have long failed to recognize the scientific origins of ‘Romanticism’ itself. As opposed to merely contextualizing the Romantic period in terms of certain developments in science and medicine, Ruston argues that scientific and medical writing actually produced and underpins “what we now, anachronistically, call ‘Romanticism’” (9). In line with recent scholarship attempting to reframe Romanticism beyond it being a period of “anti-science” or a break in the long-standing Enlightenment progress narrative, Ruston calls for us “to rethink the relationship between the Enlightenment and Romanticism,” in which the former persists powerfully into the latter (9). This reconsideration of conventional literary periodization is perhaps the book’s most provocative claim.
Ruston’s “case study” method reveals how key concepts of Romanticism (the natural, the imagination, literary creation and creativity, and the sublime) “were informed by, challenged by, or emerged in opposition to scientific material and knowledge” (3). In pursuit of the ways Romantic authors engaged with scientific and medical ideas, Ruston examines paratextual material to revise typical readings of more well-known primary texts. For instance, in her first chapter, Ruston turns to Wollstonecraft’s review of natural history works in the Analytical Review to better understand Vindication and its rights-based discourse in terms of scientific debates surrounding the shifting concept of the “natural” in the 1790s. Similarly, in Chapter 2, Ruston looks to Godwin’s translation of the animal magnetism report and his diary documenting his close relationships with physicians, natural historians, and chemists as evidence for the formative influence of science and medicine in Godwin’s philosophical and political ideas. Ruston then argues in her third chapter for the interrelation between Romantic literature and science by demonstrating how scientific accounts of generation and reproduction provided the foundations and vocabulary for writings about literary creativity. Examining a broad range of Romantic writers like William Godwin, Edward Young, Joanna Baillie, Samuel Coleridge, and Mary Shelley, Ruston demonstrates how these writers responded to and drew from organic and biological metaphors of creation.
The study is notably bookended by Humphry Davy. As Ruston mades clear from the introduction, one of the goals of this book is to “argue for Davy’s centrality to Romantic-period culture, both literary and scientific” (20). Ruston underscores Davy’s personal connections to prominent Romantic writers like Southey, Coleridge, Baillie, Moore, and Byron. In fact, it is Wordsworth’s connection to Davy through Coleridge that allows Ruston to make a case for Lyrical Ballads as an “experiment” with the same scientific valences as in Davy’s writings at the Pneumatic Institute. Chapter 4 focuses on Davy’s poetry and fascination with the sublime and draws an unexpected connection between Wordsworth’s “preface” and Davy’s 1802 Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures in which chemistry and poetry prove to have much more in common than scholars might previously have believed. Ruston historicizes the sublime by demonstrating that it was equally “a product of medical and scientific thought as well as literary and aesthetic thought, and that it was appropriated by natural philosophers for their own purposes” in the Romantic period (132).
For Ruston, the mobility and portability of the concept of the sublime through different discourses exemplifies “Romantic writing as a product of its historical times, marked by revolution and repression, rather than as a single unified movement” (3). Ruston reminds us that to understand Romanticism as such a revolutionary “product,” we cannot forget the period’s ongoing dialogue between the humanities and the sciences. Given that the very Romantic division between the arts and sciences “was itself imbued with scientific language and ideas,” studies of Romantic science could not be more critical to Romantic literary scholarship (27).