8 December, 2014Issue 26.5AcademiaScience

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Point of View: Astronomical and Literary Perception

Gillian Daw

Anna Henchman
The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Oxford University Press, 2014
£60.00 (hardback)
320 pages
ISBN: 9780199686964


Astronomy has always been of interest to writers, and astronomical phenomena and the sensations produced in viewing the heavens have been consistently reflected in their imaginative output. Ptolemy, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Anna Letitia Barbauld, among many others, found inspiration in the moon, planets, stars and immense spaces of the universe. The Victorian period was no exception, due to the influence of literary history and the Victorians’ fascination with astronomical science. The writers Anna Henchman chooses to study in The Starry Sky Within—Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot—all use astronomical allusions in their work. Like many people of the period, these writers read widely in the subject and viewed the night-sky. Tennyson, for example, owned his own telescope, and De Quincey was great friends with the astronomer John Pringle Nichol and stayed at his Glasgow observatory. Studies of the connections between astronomy and literature remain scarce, especially when compared with the interdisciplinary interests in other Victorian sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology. However, some attention has already been paid to the writers in Henchman’s book and their textual use of astronomy by Isobel Armstrong, Pamela Gossin and Sally Shuttleworth. Nevertheless, Henchman offers a distinctive approach; she applies astronomical theory, and the psychological uncertainties its alteration of spatial perception caused, to her readings. Astronomy she identifies as describing “not only a physical state”, but also a psychological one. The Starry Sky Within is a thought-provoking new book in the interdisciplinary field of science and literature.

Henchman makes a nuanced analytical study of the writers’ creative output attending in the main to De Quincey’s essay “System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes”, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Hardy’s Two on a Tower and The Dynasts, and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. She shows how their experience of astronomy invoked problems of visual perception, and how these concerns are translated in their writing. “In nineteenth-century Britain”, she writes, “both astronomers and literary writers were preoccupied with problems of where we see things from.” Through Hermann Von Helmholtz’s Victorian theorizing of optics, Henchman interestingly links the mobility of the eye, its constant movement through the visual field, from point to point, from near to distance, with the mind’s constant adjustment and modification of its focus. These acts of focus she regards as paralleled in the imagination’s ability to allow quick alteration in focus and scale. Inspired by the optical concerns of the first chapter, Henchman moves next to De Quincey’s essay, followed by the poetry of Tennyson, and then in the second section—”Astronomy and the Multiplot Novel”—to novels by Hardy and Eliot, and a final chapter “Narratives on a Grand Scale: Astronomy and Narrative Space”, where she compares Hardy’s The Dynasts with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Her understanding of the scientific texts on optics and astronomy by William and John Herschel, Helmholtz, and Richard Gregory produces her interpretation of how, in the case of the writers examined, their reader’s minds are invigorated by visual and mental motion. Henchman points to Thomas Hardy’s incorporeal mental journey from the earth through the universe of trees, planets, the moon and the stars, in his poem “In Vision I Roamed”: “And as I thought my spirit ranged on and on / In footless traverse through ghast heights of sky.” These lines, in which Hardy expresses the mobile extension of “the self out into the universe”, encapsulate the principal themes of The Starry Sky Within: “an observer’s changing locations in space, and the way the cosmos constantly rearranges itself as a result of that motion.” It claims that nineteenth-century astronomical research aided writers in expressing “a set of formal concerns” that are crucial to large-scale narrative works such as In Memoriam, Bleak House, and Middlemarch. Having established her thesis, Henchman’s argument remains focused throughout her book.

Henchman rightly maintains that astronomy disturbed stable knowledge. By its very nature, astronomical observation makes it difficult to reconcile abstract conceptions, what we are told is there in the heavens, with sensory experience—the “apparent and the real”, as John Herschel called the discrepancy. Invoking Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (1986), Henchman decides that this irreconcilability is productive rather than limiting. In the case of De Quincey, “the source of astronomy’s inspiration lies in how it stimulates the mind rather than in how it offers an increase in stable knowledge.” Instability is foregrounded by Henchman, and is highlighted in her application of the astronomical and optical theory of parallax to her analysis of “point of view” in the chapters that follow. Point of view is the narrative theory of “contrasts in narrative positioning”, the spatial language of shifts in points of view, or “centers of vision” in the texts under examination. Parallax, which Henchman defines as a “fundamental principle of vision that relies on both perspectival perception and the observer’s own motion”, is requisite to nineteenth-century astronomy’s quest for precise measurement of the distances and motions of the stars and planets. According to Henchman, parallax is also a basic act of human perception and is essential to the workings of the multiplot novel, including Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and large-scale works like Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Parallax creates the “constant motion that the reader experiences in oscillating between the perspectives of narrators and individual characters.” The alterations in point of view produce a “comprehensive system” in which the constituent characters are understood dynamically as part of the whole. Multiplot novels, asserts Henchman, are “celestial systems.” In the case of Hardy, astronomy gave the writer a methodology for constructing the connection between character and character, reader and character. For Henchman, the scenes of astronomical travel in the minds of the “stargazers” in, for instance, his novel Far From the Madding Crowd are equivalent to the mind travel, “out of their own subject positions” Hardy wants his readers to undertake in coming to know the minds of his characters.

There are shortcomings in Henchman’s text, and probably the most worrying for readers seeking knowledge of astronomy in the Victorian period and its literary effect are those relating to her understanding/presentation of the science. It is notable that the astronomer Victoria Trimble, in her Times Higher Education review of The Starry Sky Within, finds “some 50 items” that are astray scientifically and historically. As well as incorrect dates, and questionable definitions and applications of astronomical and optical theories, Henchman also makes disquieting assumptions. “No way”, she stresses, could De Quincey have known that John Herschel compared the Great Nebula in Orion to a monster. Herschel called the nebula a “monstrous animal” in his 1826 paper published in the Memoirs of the Astronomical Society of London, twenty years before De Quincey’s essay, and his description was reported, for instance, in the Literary Gazette in 1828 and the Athenaeum magazine in 1829. Is it so unlikely that De Quincey was unaware of Herschel’s pronouncement? Should the author be so sure? After all De Quincey is known to have discussed astronomy with John Pringle Nichol, the then Professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, and whose 1846 book Thoughts on Some Important Points Relating to the System of the World, De Quincey reviews in his essay. It is at least possible, if unprovable, that De Quincey learned of Herschel’s comparison in his conversations with Nichol. It may seem like a small point, but the mapping out of influence is important to the field of literature and science.

Regrettably, Henchman also paints a gloomy picture of Victorian astronomy. What is lacking is a feeling for the sense of wonder astronomy produced in its practitioners and the general population, something which modern-day astronomers vouch for: as said the astronomer David H. Levy in a recent lecture on astronomy and literature at the University of Sussex in November 2014, “Watching the workings of the night-sky, now that is poetry.” It is lamentable that the illustrations, while relevant, are so overwhelmingly—16 out of the 32 in fact—taken from Asa Smith’s American textbook Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy (1850) and the 1871 edition of Amédée Guillemin’s The Heavens. Why take illustrations from an 1850’s American text when her thesis is concerned with “nineteenth-century Britain” when books and periodicals of the period abound with representations, many of which were read, as their libraries, letters, and diaries evidence, by the writers in question? This limitation shrouds the astronomical spirit of the period, a spirit of which the reader will find little account in this text. The Starry Sky Within is not a book for a non-expert reader, since in many instances the application of astronomy to the literature results in some confusingly dense passages of prose. On many occasions Henchman also assumes the expertise of her reader, including failing to introduce them to, for example, the chemist Humphry Davy, the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith, and the philosopher Alexander Bain. Unfortunately, such flaws are not inconsequential: they constrain the usefulness of Henchman’s incursion into the much neglected field of Victorian astronomy and literature.

Gillian Daw is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. She researches the connections between astronomy and literature.