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Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Jonathan Taylor is lecturer in English at Loughborough University, with specialisms in nineteenth-century literature and creative writing. He is the author of Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003), and is co-editor of Figures of Heresy (Sussex Academic Press, 2005). He is the author of various essays and journal articles. He also writes for radio, and is currently writing a novel–memoir about his father.

This book takes as its starting point Pierre-Simon Laplace’s much-cited dream in 1812 of ‘a vast intelligence’ which can ‘embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom’ and for which the future and the past are equally calculable. Laplace sets out the echt-Enlightenment ideal of scientific omniscience and the classic statement of a deterministic universe. The author investigates some of the ways in which Laplacian and, indeed, Newtonian models of observation and the universe are at once assimilated and complicated by Romantic and Victorian writers such as Carlyle, Burke, Abbott, Poe and Wordsworth. In particular, it aims to retrace some of the ways in which Laplacian–Newtonian models of scientific ‘intelligence’ come to inform nineteenth-century writers’ views of themselves and their own modes of observation.

The author also explains how some of these literary reimaginings look forward to more modern conceptions of science in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as Chaos Theory and Einsteinian Cosmology. Oddly enough, contemporary science would seem to realise Carlyle’s vision of a ‘Natural-Supernaturalism,’ fusing Laplace’s mechanical vision with Romanticism. This book covers a vast array of topics, including Philosophy, Wagner’s music and music in general, Jungian analysis, and ends with the “omniscient” narrator in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, as an example of what came to be the dominant mode of narration in later Victorian fiction.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-125-2
Hardback Price: £49.95 / $69.95
Release Date: September 2007
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-647-9
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: November 2014
Page Extent / Format: 224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Introduction On Celestial Omniscience and Laplace

1. On History, Chaos and Carlyle

I Deterministic History
II Democratic History
III Fractal History

2. On Cosmology, Heresy, Abbott and Poe

I Deistic Cosmology
II Heretical Cosmology
III Revolutionary Cosmology

3. On Microcosms, Macrocosms and the Music of the Spheres
I Connections, Analogies and Similarities
II Solipsistic Music
III Microcosmic Music
IV Macrocosmic Music

Afterword On Demonic Omniscience and Dickens


Taylor challenges the conventional view that science evolved steadily from the determinism of the 19th century to the uncertainty and chaos of the 20th. He shows how some of the most now-lampooned scientists of the Victorian era in fact admitted that the human mind highly influenced the understanding of the universe, and how artists widely portrayed science as malleable to desire and prejudice.
Reference & Research Book News

In Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Jonathan Taylor demonstrates the ways in which various Romantic and Victorian writers absorbed and complicated the ideas of scientific omniscience. In particular, Taylor shows how Pierre-Simon Laplace’s and Isaac Newton’s sense of the universe allowed these writers to reimagine themselves and reshape their writing. He also sees a continuity between these ideas and modern scientific thought, especially the branch dealing with Chaos Theory.
Studies in English Literature

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