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About this book

The growing field of literature and science is for the first time given a fully theorized overview. Using case studies from a three hundred year history, Sleigh focuses on literary form and argues that novels did not just reflect or inform areas of science, but were part of a broader, ongoing cultural negotiation about how to read things.

Table of Contents


A brain surgeon stands confronted by a violent man. The aggressor’s mental state is exacerbated by the fact that he is slowly tipping over the edge of a degenerative neural pathology. What specialist knowledge can our scientist use to defuse the attack? What facts and understanding about the mind can he draw upon to salve this example of the human condition? The answer is none at all. Only his daughter, a poet, can do so.
Charlotte Sleigh

1. Empiricism and the Novel

Beginning is easy. Modern science and the modern novel in the Englishspeaking world both trace their origins to the same time and the same place: the last forty years of the seventeenth century in Britain. Their common origins are, as numerous historians have noted, no coincidence. Both novels and experiments were new technologies for making truth, a vital accomplishment for a fragile era in which old certainties had been destroyed. Truth, as we shall encounter it, is more than simple factuality. It implies a prioritisation: something that matters more than other things. It is something worth valuing: something that speaks to and for a culture or society. Truth embodies the context and methods of its own making as well as being a set of facts and propositions that are affirmed.
Charlotte Sleigh

2. Epistolarity and the Democratic Ideal

On an icy January morning in 1803, George Forster was found guilty of the murder of his fourth child and estranged wife. Dragged from the bottom of the Paddington canal, their dead bodies formed the conclusion to a sorry family saga that had seen two of his children placed in the workhouse, and another who was dead already. Mr Bushwell, Forster’s boss from a coach-making workshop, had come to visit him in custody before the trial to see if he could help. Forster begged him to go to the Green Dragon at Highgate and ask if anyone remembered him being there on the evening of the murder, taking a glass of rum and asking after a Mrs Young. This, he hoped, would be his alibi. Mr Bushwell obliged, but it turned out that he was not allowed to give his evidence in court. Silenced by the power of the law, Forster listened helplessly as the judge pronounced the most dreaded verdict: hanging and anatomisation. When Christ returned to resurrect the faithful and take them with him back to heaven, Forster’s damned body would be in pieces.
Charlotte Sleigh

3. Idealism and the Inhuman

In 1830, the Iron Man arose in its terrible beauty from the inventor’s bench, stronger and quicker than any mortal. Almost before he was out of his cradle, he strangled men. By the power of his mighty, mechanical arm, he crushed their resistance, until they became docile subjects of his rule. This was no Frankenstein’s creature, however; no fiction, but rather reality. The Iron Man — or the self-acting mule, to give it its proper name — was what factory workers called the device that could take yarn after it was drawn and twisted and wind it at the correct tension into the shape of a cone. Before its day, this work was done by human mule-spinners; their job had been a skilled one and in consequence highly paid. However, the spinners had fomented industrial unrest in the 1820s, and by 1830 Richard Roberts’s invention had turned these troublemakers out of work, substituting them with the self-acting mule and its semi-skilled operators. The new employees were expendable and so could not strike for higher wages.
Charlotte Sleigh

4. Realism in Literature and the Laboratory

Almost exactly 200 years after Aldini performed his shocking experiments on the body of George Forster, there was another taboo-breaking use of dead bodies in front of a London audience. This time, the performer was Gunther von Hagens, a Polish-born anatomist who came to fame and infamy through his development of a technique known as ‘plastination’, which enables the internal tissues of the body to be preserved and displayed. Von Hagens has to date produced four ‘Body Worlds’ exhibitions in which partially dissected, plastinated human corpses are displayed for the public to view. Wearing his trademark black fedora, he has also conducted public human dissections and autopsies. In 2002, he performed the first public autopsy in Britain for 170 years; its audience, unlike Aldini’s select invitees, was anyone who tuned into the UK’s Channel 4. Needless to say, such events caused great controversy. Many people felt that the corpses were treated in a disrespectful manner; there have been allegations that von Hagens has been unethical in sourcing his corpses.
Charlotte Sleigh

5. Scientists, Moral Realism and the New World Order

Michael Faraday trod a long path from blacksmith’s son to darling of the Royal Institution. Along the way, he was acutely conscious of the need to avoid giving the impression of hubris; his reputation depended upon presenting himself as humble spokesman of nature. Accordingly, he was shocked when the chemist William Hyde Wollaston bet him two-to-one on a particular fact of nature. This was a presumptuous, not to say flippant, attitude with which Faraday was not at all comfortable. In his ‘Lecture on Education’ (1854) he reconciled the bet with propriety as a quantitatively specific expression of confidence. Nevertheless, his preference for a more modest relationship with truth remained uppermost in his discussion: good judgement, he explained, should always come in the guise of ‘humility’ and ‘ought to end in absolute reservation’. Faraday put it bluntly to his audience that it was not so much what they studied that was important, so much as the moral attitude they took towards it.64
Charlotte Sleigh

6. Subjects of Science

Early in 1898 a young, female college student came to the Boston physician Morton Prince, exhibiting a puzzling variety of physical and psychological symptoms. Chief amongst them was aboulia — a lack of will. Prince’s first thought was to try and hypnotising ‘Miss Beauchamp’, as he named her in his 1906 account of the case.80 Hypnotism was a recent science, and the latest method for precisely cases such as this. However, Prince came to realise with increasing astonishment that when he hypnotised her, his patient disappeared entirely, replaced by somebody else with a completely different personality. He entertained a real-life Jekyll and Hyde in his consulting room, although, as he noted, thankfully neither party was as evil as Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation. Over the course of the following months and years at least four separate personalities came to light, and Prince dubbed three of them ‘the saint, the woman, and the devil’.
Charlotte Sleigh

7. Says Who? Science and Public Understanding

Some of the happiest people on American TV suffer from chronic illness of one sort or another. High cholesterol, excess weight, depression; all these conditions have sufferers apparently bathed in sunlight and surrounded by their carefree, laughing families. Or so it would appear in drug commercials. One almost wishes for a serious affliction so that one can enjoy the lifestyle that follows, thanks to the products of the pharmaceutical industry. Even Homer Simpson can be perfected in this way:
Charlotte Sleigh
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