Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes

Every December, the New York Times compiles a list of what they consider the best 100 books of the year. The Age of Wonder appeared on that list this past year and, captivated by its subject and starry cover, I asserted that I wanted it. Unfortunately, it never got past my Christmas list, and I had to wait for the library to have a copy for me. And, finally, they did.

For a historical piece it is surprisingly original. It unfolds urgently, yet majestically, as any story from the Romantic Age should. Holmes explores the dichotomy of science and religion as they influenced the dawn of the Romantic Age. By “Romantic Age” I mean the early 19th century, where we find some of the most lustrous and imaginative poetry, prose and art, all influenced by the realization of expansive knowledge through science. Examples of this may be found in the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Southey and Keats.

The work is science-sympathetic and relies heavily on primary sources like diaries and letters. Holmes uses explorer and botanist Joseph Banks as the bass line, giving the reader access to his fellow “scientists” and our sympathies lie where his did since (as President of the Royal Society for 41 years) he was such a powerful influence over the sequence of events. He was important in dictating who received funding, who was popularized, etc. It is not really until his death that we find fault with one of those he supported (and who succeeded him as President of the Royal Society), and that is only because that man took issue with Joseph Banks, despite what he owed his late predecessor.

It was a tumultuous time – England was at war with both France and the US and King George III’s madness was revealed, and the line of the monarchy disturbed. Yet science grew and developed, even between warring nations was there collaboration. For the very first time, one could see deep into the heavens and wonder whether we are truly alone as intelligent beings, whether any God or gods could have created only one chosen people on one planet in all of that space, whether God existed at all--of course, atheism and agnosticism have existed since before the Romantic Age, but science definitely exacerbated the situation. For the very first time, man was conquering not only land and sea, but also the air. And this entire discovery bore a new age of poets, artists, and writers, all of who were influenced by the innumerable questions and the splendorous answers revealed by advances in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, exploration and aeronautics. As the world around them got bigger, everyone’s understanding was suddenly smaller, allowing for an entire universe of unknowns. Science fiction was born of this era, where fantasy became possibility and, in some cases, reality. Nature revealed herself to science, and the world was shocked into romantic wonder.

Holmes’ history is solid and full, though there is one bone I simply must pick with him. There are maybe two or three times in the course of the text when Holmes casually mentions Jane Austen, whose most prolific period aligned with the dawn of the Romantic Age. On page 342 (hardcover ed. 2009) he discusses Humphrey Davy’s proposal to Jane Apreece which, considering their feelings for one another, perhaps should have been accepted immediately. But prior to the proposal, Davy had cautioned Apreece by saying that marriage would indeed make her happy, but might stifle some of her societal pursuits. Holmes goes on:

      So Jane Apreece prevaricated in a way that Jane Austen (just

      writing Pride and Prejudice) would have approved of. She
      twice refused Davy’s offers of marriage, took to her bed in
      Berkeley Square and announced she was ill and incommunicado.
      But she was astonished by the tender and unguarded declaration
      this released from Davy…In the passionate declarations that
      followed, it seems that each was able to reassure the other.
      Davy agreed to the momentous step of giving up full-time
      lecturing at the Royal Institution (a thing he had secretly
      wanted to do for some time), while Jane assured him that her
      fortune would allow them to travel, while he continued his
      chemical researches independently. This was a tantalizing
      prospect for both of them.

                                                                   (Holmes, p. 342)

A have a few points to make here: First of all, yes Jane Austen was revising Pride and Prejudice between 1811 and 1813 (the events concerned took place in 1812), however she was not “just writing” the piece. She had already finished the manuscript of First Impressions 15 years earlier, in 1797, and was now revising it as Pride and Prejudice. There is a difference. Secondly, Pride and Prejudice is hardly the book to reference when suggesting any kind of approval for rejecting a proposal of marriage where there is good faith and attraction. The Elizabeth Bennet / Mr. Collins episode makes this clear:

      ‘I am not now to learn,’ replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of

      the hand, ‘that it is usual with young ladies to reject the 
      addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when 
      he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is
      repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no
      means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to
      lead you to the altar ere long.’ ‘Upon my word, Sir,’ cried
      Elizabeth, ‘your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my
      declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young 
      ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk 
      their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am
      perfectly serious in my refusal.—You could not make me happy,
      and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who
      would make you so…’

                                                                (Austen, Vol. 1, Ch. XIX)

Indeed, Elizabeth has no wish to accept Mr. Collins’ proposal, even if her present rejection somehow managed to release a “tender and unguarded declaration” from Mr. Collins as with Davy and Apreece. And in the case of Mr. Darcy, whom Elizabeth does eventually accept, she had no cause to do so in at the time of his first proposal and in fact had “every reason in the world to think ill of” him. Neither of these refusals is a model nor a recommendation of Jane Apeece’s refusal of Davy, as Holmes implies.

Aside from that minor disagreement I had with Holmes, I truly enjoyed his account of pre-Victorian science. The narration is engaging and it manages to be sparing in its terminology, allowing for a layman’s appreciation of the wondrous and expanding universe. I leave you with a quote from Davy which, I believe, sums up the purpose and goal of the age. In response to Jane Apeece’s teasing him for being “absurdly romantic about her” he replied,

      If this be romantic, it is romantic to pursue one’s object in

      science; to attach the feelings strongly to any ideas; it is
      romantic to love the good, to admire the wise, to quit low
      and mean things and seek out excellence.

                                                                      (Holmes, p. 341)


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