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