The Age of Wonder: a truly wonderful book

January 27, 2010 at 2:31 am (Book review, books)

I have mentioned  The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes in several posts but have not really done it justice. Subtitled, ” How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” this is a capacious chronicle of exploration and discovery; the events it covers begin in the mid-1700’s and conclude around 1840. In that time span, momentous advances in astronomy occurred, audacious experiments were performed, and alchemy was transformed into chemistry. The ground work was laid for scientific inquiry to become what it is today.

This is a cunningly constructed book in which the stories of the major players are interwoven seamlessly with one another. Personal and private lives receive equal weight in Holmes’s narrative. In the time of which Holmes writes, the lines between various disciplines were fluid rather than hard and  fast, as they often appear to be in our own day. Science and the arts not only coexist peacefully, they furnish each other with inspiration.

The author’s lucid explanations allow the nonscientist to marvel at the achievements of these men and women without getting mired in abstruse details. In fact, Age of Wonder is so filled with fascinating stories and revelations that I was more or less mesmerized throughout. Richard Holmes is such a skilled raconteur – even his footnotes are riveting!

It’s been a while since I finished this book, but even if I’d finished it yesterday I would still lack the intellectual equipment  to do it justice in this space. My copy is replete with post-it flags, though, and I would like to share some of my favorite gems from Holmes’s compendious narrative, which begins with naturalist and ethnographer Joseph Banks:

‘He wrote witty, faintly scurrilous letters to his sister Sophia, and kept the first of his great journals, most notable for their racy style, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation. On his return in November 1766 [from an expedition to Labrador and Newfoundland], with a vast quantity of plant specimens, Banks was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, still aged only twenty-three.

Joseph Banks, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Joseph Banks, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The the Royal Society looms large in the story of the history of science in Britain; ultimately, Banks would enjoy a long and fruitful tenure as its president. (The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, is this year celebrating its three hundred fiftieth anniversary.)


Next up: the German-born astronomer (and musician) William Herschel. Herschel’s painstaking observation of the heavens, performed with telescopes he built himself, yielded up many riches, the most famous of which is the discovery of the planet Uranus:

‘Using a series of parallax readings, he calculated that the planet was large and unbelievably remote, over sixteen times further from the sun than the earth, and twice as far out as Saturn. The size of the solar system had been doubled.

Herschel’s life and work made for fascinating reading, but for me, the real revelation here concerned his sister. Caroline started out as William’s assistant and amanuensis. Gradually her skills as an observer grew so great that she began making discoveries of her own.

Herschel’s paper ‘On the Constitution of the Universe’ (1785) is filled with fascinating insights and conjectures. In it, he credits Caroline with the discovery of a small ‘associate nebula’ in Andromeda. Holmes notes that ” this was Caroline Herschel’s first new addition to the universe.”

William Herschel

Caroline Herschel


From the astronomical endeavors of the Herschels we move on to the efforts of French and English balloonists to achieve the long-held dream of flight. I was somewhat surprised to encounter this chapter, entitled “Balloonists in Heaven,” but the reader will here find some of the most astonishing stories in the entire book. The craze began in France but quickly spread to England. Many readers will have heard of the Montgolfier brothers, but there were many others who built hot air balloons and participated in manned flights.

The Montgolfier hot air balloon

The risks were considerable; for every triumphant flight there seems to have been another  that ended in tragedy. (I was especially pleased that in a footnote, Holmes references the famous hot air balloon sequence with which Ian McEwan‘s novel Enduring Love begins.)

One of the most arresting stories in this section concerns the French balloonist Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and an English convent girl named Susan Dyer. These two had a most improbable love affair. As I was reading about them, I could not help thinking, There’s a terrific movie idea in this material. The drama of these star-crossed lovers would be set against the drama and peril of ballooning. The visuals alone would be spectacular!

The author sums up thus:

‘Ballooning produced a new, and wholly unexpected, vision of the earth. It had been imagined that it would reveal the secrets of the heavens above, but in fact it showed the secrets of the world beneath. The early aeronauts suddenly saw the earth as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature. For the first time the impact of man on nature was  clearly revealed: the ever-expanding relationship of towns to countryside, roads to rivers, cultivated fields to forests and the development of industry.

Holmes notes that this new view of earth is comparable in its revelatory power to this famous photo taken from space by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968:

William Herschel seized on the possibility of using a balloon to convey a telescope into the upper atmosphere. His vision was realized some two hundred years later when the Hubble telescope was launched into orbit.

Herschel himself takes center stage again: he is preparing to build an enormous state-of-the-art telescope. It is to be forty feet long and five feet in diameter. The mirrors will each way about a half a ton. Logistical challenges abound, not the least of which involves the acquisition of funding. (Sir Joseph Banks managed to convince King George to make a generous grant in aid of the project.)


Now we come to the explorer Mungo Park. This is a name I recalled faintly, mostly because of its oddity. Park was Scottish; his mother named him after a Gaelic saint.

Mungo Park

Poor Mungo Park! His travels in Africa constitute an almost unrelieved chronicle of suffering and loss. Yet there are moments of consolation, even revelation. After he has been roughly handled by the Moors, an African woman invites Park into her hut. What he assumes to be a sexual overture turns out to be something quite other. Once inside the hut he finds himself the guest of the woman’s various female relations. Surrounding him in the firelight, they begin to sing. To his amazement, he finds that he is able to understand the words of their sweet, sad song: “‘The winds roared and the rain fell.  The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree.  He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he….'”

Richard Holmes continues:

‘The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realized that it was he–the heroic white man–who was in reality the lonely, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift.


And now we meet Humphry Davy, whose remarkable, turbulent life is in some ways the centerpiece of this book. This is a name I barely knew, and yet Davy’s accomplishments are nothing short of epochal. Davy was from Cornwall; he studied with Dr. Thomas Beddoes in Bristol.( This was the father of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who spent some twenty-five years penning a long, strange narrative poem called Death’s Jest-Book. I first encountered  this oddity as the title  of the 2003 entry in the Dalziel/ Pascoe series written by Reginald Hill. It’s one of the longest mysteries I’ve ever read, but it’s by a master of the genre, and I was heartily sorry when it ended.)

Humphry Davy

Davy’s earliest experiments involved studying the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. In the process, he pioneered the ‘blind’ study. One of the people who had several “inhalation sessions” with Davy was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who pronounced himself greatly intrigued with the effects of the gas. He was stimulated to further observations on science in general: “[Coleridge] thought that science, as a human activity, ‘being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical.'” Richard Holmes adds,

“Science, like poetry, was not merely ‘progressive’. It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world. This is what Davy believed too, and ‘Hope’ became one of his watchwords.

Of course, there is the other side of that coin, perhaps best epitomized by Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. This is the subject of the chapter entitled “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul.” In the early 18th century, a debate raged concerning ‘vitalism.’ What exactly was the life force? Scottish physician John Abernethy defined it as a ‘subtle, mobile, invisible substance, super-added to the evident structure of muscles, or other form of vegetable and animal matter, as magnetism is to iron, and as electricity is to various substances with which it may be connected.’  But William Lawrence, a physician and anthropologist, heaped  scorn on this formulation and in a famous lecture on the subject, proclaimed that the human body is simply “a complex physical organization” and that “…the development of this physiological organization could be observed unbroken, ‘from an oyster to a man.'”

Wow – That’s a shot fired across the bow! That last bit about the oyster and the man became instantly notorious. Already we see the notion of the divine spark being pushed aside as irrelevant; Lawrence was, not surprisingly, decried as an atheist. Now, all of this is occurring before 1820. As a point of reference, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. But before that came Mary Shelley’s frightening, hallucinatory vision of scientific ambition taken a step too far:

‘Mary’s brilliance was to see that these weighty and often alarming ideas could  be given highly suggestive, imaginative and even playful form. In a sense, she would treat male concepts in a female style. She would develop exactly what William Lawrence had dismissed in his lectures as a ‘hypothesis or fiction’. Indeed it was to be an utterly new form of fiction–the science fiction novel….She would pursue the controversial–and possibly blasphemous–idea that vitality, like electricity, might be used to reanimate a dead human being….She would invent a laboratory in which limbs, organs, assorted body parts were not separated and removed and thrown away [as in the dissection process], but assembled and sewn together and ‘reanimated by a ‘powerful machine’, presumably a voltaic battery. Thus they would be given organic life and vitality. But whether they would be given a soul as well was another question.

Holmes goes on to recount the now-famous story of what happened at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva in 1816. A group staying at the Villa was comprised of Mary, her husband Percy, her half-sister (and Byron’s some time lover) Claire Claremont, Lord Byron himself, and his physician John Polidori. In order to pass the time, they challenged one another to come up with a ghost story. This was the setting for the genesis of Frankenstein. It actually took Mary some fourteen months more to complete the manuscript. (For a more detailed and very sympathetic treatment of Mary Shelley’s life and work, I recommend The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.)

Mary Shelley

For me, the real gift here is the science background the author provides. It places Frankenstein in a recognizable context, showing the novel to have been conceived at least partly in response to the discoveries and controversies of the day.


There are so many more riches in this book – I have barely scratched the surface here. when I finished my library copy of The Age of Wonder,  I went out and bought my own. I also bought it as a holiday gift for several people.

I recommend the review in the New York Times. Click here to read Richard Holmes’s introduction.


At this point, I can only wonder if I will ever again encounter such a treasure trove.

Richard Holmes


  1. christine hankinson said,

    you’d love the Atmosphere of Heaven too by Mike Jay, published recently.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for the recommendation – I will seek it out.

  2. Cialis said,

    nq7K7H Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] A Passion for Nature:  the life of John Muir – Donald Worster Zeitoun – Dave Eggers The Age of Wonder:  how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science – Richard Holmes Parallel Lives: five Victorian marriages – Phyllis Rose The Art of […]

  4. Every once in a while, the judges get it exactly right « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Hall, Hilary Mantels’ magisterial work of historical fiction, received the fiction prize. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes’s astonishingly capacious history of science in the Romantic Age, won for […]

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