From astronomy to literature – Bridging the gap

Recent years have seen more and more people proclaiming a crisis in the humanities. In an age where politicians seem to have mutated into one-track worshippers of the Gods of Mammon anything, which can’t be measured in terms of the profits it will generate, preferably in the short rather than the long-term, is placed on the list for defunding. Humanities departments are ‘downsized’ (a hideous euphemism), threatened with closure or simply closed as not cost-effective. In an aged increasingly dominated by a weird mix of profit maximisation and techno-scientism the humanities have apparently been weighed and not found wanting, but categorised as superfluous to requirements. In this situation it is helpful to be reminded that the sciences and humanities have throughout their existence regularly stimulated and cross-fertilised each other. Within the history of science one historian who dedicated her life to documenting and illuminating that symbiosis was Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894–1981), who devoted her ample talents to examining the connections between literature and science during the so-called scientific revolution. I’m quite happy to state that in my early days as a wannabe historian of science Marjorie Hope Nicolson was one of my guiding lights showing me that science is not an activity divorced from society but one deeply immersed in it. This lady of literature and science has found a worthy successor in Anna Henchman and her recently published work The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy & the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature[1].


The nineteenth century saw, with major developments in a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines, in what some have called the second scientific revolution. Already beginning in the late eighteenth century both physical optics and astronomy experienced wide reaching advances, which in turn led to an extensive reconsideration of humanities’ place in the world and the world’s place in the cosmos. It is this reassessment of humankind’s vision of itself and its place in the cosmos, its origins in the sciences of optics and astronomy and its reflections in the contemporary literature that forms the subject of Henchman’s book.

Mercury Venus

Following an introduction laying out her game plan and introducing the reader to various concepts important to her theme the book is divided into two sections Observers in Motion and Astronomy and the Multiplot Novel. In the former Henchman takes the reader through a discussion of astronomy, optics and points of view centred around the writings of John Herschel, probably the most significant figure in both astronomy and optics in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then moving on to a wider sweeping discussion of philosophical perspectives. Next up is journalist and essayist Thomas de Quincy, best known to modern readers for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater (which your reviewer confesses to having read in his youth) but here considered for his attempts to come to terms with the emerging modern astronomy and cosmology in his 1846 essay Systems of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes. Rosse had the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world constructed at his observatory in Ireland and did much to open up the field of deep space astronomy inaugurated by Charles Messier and William Herschel in the eighteenth century. This work did much to unsettle mankind’s view of the universe and its place in it. This disturbance is the subject of de Quincy’s essay, which Henchman dissects, from several different directions, with great skill. The third and final part of the first section concerns itself with the way that the new astronomy is reflected in the work of one of the Victorian period’s most loved poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson. To quote just one sentence, “Tennyson is unique among his contemporaries, not perhaps in the extent to which he uses stellar imagery, but in the extent to which he requires that imagery to be consistent with astronomical observation”.


The second section of the book turns, as its title clearly states, to the nineteenth-century multiplot novel and the analogies to be found there to the astronomical universe, which in the nineteenth century was rapidly transitioning from the comparatively small and homely cosmos that humanity had inhabited, as the centre of, from the beginnings of human awareness up to the eighteenth century into a the vast unfathomable space of multitudinous galaxies a small corner of which we inhabit today. After a brief introductory chapter aptly entitled Novels as Celestial Systems Henchman delivers two chapters of in depth analysis of the works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. The second section, and the book, closes out with the chapter Narratives on a Grand Scale: Astronomy and Narrative Space in which Henchman suggests, “…that much as individual characters have cosmological conceptions–views of the totality of things– so do works of fiction. Novelists such as Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens create fictional cosmoses, each of which behaves according to a logic of its own. This unstated logic makes an entire narrative space feel stable or unstable, coherent or incoherent, complete or partial.” This chapter closes with a comparison, in these terms, of the presentations of the Napoleonic wars in Hardy’s The Dynasts and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Mud moulded ball

At the beginning of her brief five-page conclusion Henchman questions her own title. “What, then, is the sky within?” Her book is a stimulating and provocative attempt to answer this question for Victorian writers and their attitude to the rapidly changing, expanding and challenging science of astronomy in their century. Henchman in, what is a comparatively short book packed full of information and analysis, very deftly juggles a large amount knowledge from the fields of nineteenth-century literature, astronomy, cosmology, philosophy, and optics together with modern philosophy and literature theory. The stimulating text is complimented with many well-chosen astronomical and optical illustrations printed in engaging shades of grey (Three of which appear above). An important aspect of any academic book is the academic apparatus, which is here first class. Extensive and informative endnotes (that I, like most academic readers, prefer footnotes to endnotes should already be well known to regular readers of this blog!) are complimented by an equally extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index.

This is very clearly an academic rather than a popular or semi-popular book and it can and, in my opinion, should be read by any academic from student through doctoral student to lecturer and professor not only in literature studies but also in the history of science or nineteenth-century history in general. All of these would benefit from reading this book with its all-round perspective crossing numerous discipline boundaries. It would be a great win for the more general reader if Henchman were to turn her obvious scholarly and writing talents to producing a more popular version of her research in a further volume. I learned much reading this book and I’m certain that many others will also do so.




[1] Anna Henchman, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy & the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of science

19 responses to “From astronomy to literature – Bridging the gap

  1. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, no? Though there is something entrancing about the notion of reading opium…

  2. I am currently reading Arthur Koestler’s very brilliant ‘The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe”. Having also enjoyed Margaret Wertheim’s “Paythangoras’ Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars” it sounds like The Starry Sky Within will really complement these. Great review. Cheers.

    • Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers is beautifully written if at time somewhat historically inaccurate and in the meantime also somewhat dated. It’s one of the books that inspired me to become a historian of science and I still have my well thumbed copy on my bookshelf.

      • Ah I didn’t know there were too many inaccuracies. It is a very flowing read though and bringing the epoch alive. Are there any other newer books you know of to complement it?

      • There’s something wonderful and awful about a book that’s compelling reading but factually defective. It can inspire so much further research but it leaves junk that has to get cleared out of the mind too.

      • laura

        re: Joseph, Koestler’s take on Copernicus is so compelling and brilliant and also just so so unfair I don’t know how I feel about it. I did stimulate a lot of great Copernicus research though.

        On the other hand, his opinion that Galileo had no friends and was unloved in his time is just stupid. And his implication that Kepler went mad and abandoned his family at the end of his life bothered me a lot too (after reading more on the subject) in part because I feel like Koestler was projecting his own (outrageous) misogyny on the character he identified with best.

      • Laura, what ever Arthur Koestler might or might not have been he was certainly not a misogynist

      • laura

        Thony, he was legendary for misogyny! It practically drips off the page in the Sleepwalkers. (Actually he’s the only author who I haven’t read more of simply because I find his woman-hating hard to take.) e.g.

    • Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers is marked by presentism (aka whiggism); this comes out most clearly in his chapter on the ancient Greeks, “The Divorce from Reality”. A couple of quotes (more could be easily cited):

      There is something profoundly distasteful about Ptolemy’s universe; it is the work of a pedant with much patience and little originality, doggedly piling “orb in orb”…. a monumental and depressing tapestry, the product of tired philosophy and decadent science.

      the universe was put into deep freeze, science was paralyzed…
      The frightened mind, always on the defensive, is particularly aware of yielding an inch to the devil.

      To some extent, Koestler can be excused here: presentism was mostly the order of the day for professional historians of an earlier generation.

  3. Wonderful review! I’ve just finished McGrath’s Science and Religion: a New Introduction and Einstein’s Heroes by Arianrhod, as well as several books about Faraday, and this sounds like it will fit in very well. Thank you.

  4. Daniel

    oh Lord, not the “STEM shortage” again: the only two types I’ve heard this language from is 1. CEOs using a lot of H-1B indentures (and the pols they buy) and 2. technocrats who think we’re “falling behind” and the new Dark Ages are around the corner and the Hun is at the gate OMG OMG: they’re usually the ones panicking over one-quarter of Americans not knowing if the Earth goes around the Sun while forgetting that one-fifth of elementary students think it’s flat … in Britain

    truth is, without a lot of legwork or a “handshake” inside-track job STEM is the “new English degree” in the U.S.: in its crisis, some in the sector start pointing fingers–as though violins, medieval studies, and Beverly Cleary were behind the surfeit of students and the shortage of “entry-level” jobs they’re suited for

    also, Henchman’s cover illustration reminds me of the Franeker planetarium, a great place to go to if you’re ever in Frisia (it’s in Jan Oort’s hometown)

    • Did you actually read the post before splurging your totally incoherent and irrelevant comment onto this page?

      • Daniel

        that was in response to the introductory part: “Humanities departments are ‘downsized’ (a hideous euphemism), threatened with closure or simply closed as not cost-effective. In an aged increasingly dominated by a weird mix of profit maximisation and techno-scientism the humanities have apparently been weighed and not found wanting, but categorised as superfluous to requirements.”

        ever since Sputnik (or earlier) in the US there have been semiregular waves of panic that the country is “falling behind” in math and science–in the 80s it was “the failing schools” and now it’s “ed reform” and “STEM shortage” (Neil deGrasse Tyson comes to mind): and every time the US schools start pushing for more math and physics there’s always a strong subtext that it’s the humanities that have been taking too big a slice of the school budget pie; if STEM graduates can’t find jobs, then it’s blamed on “a country that no longer respects science” and not, say, the H1B visas beggaring Indians to beggar Americans

        I wasn’t meaning that you were a believer in the “STEM shortage”–no offense meant at all

  5. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol: #37 | Whewell's Ghost

  6. Kyle Penderman

    Sixty pounds for the book? I, uh, will wait for the movie.

  7. Pingback: From astronomy to literature – Bridging the gap | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

  8. Huenemann

    Where does the title come from? Is it just a creative re-working of Kant’s “the starry skies above and the moral law within”?

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