Book reviews – ‘The Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes
We asked six Bristol Festival of Ideas fans to review some of the books shortlisted for this year’s Book Prize. Here are their responses to Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder:
Review by Hilary Finch:
This book, The Age of Wonder, was an education for me coming as I do from a completely unscientific background. The huge scope of it had me fascinated, confounded by my ignorance and enlightened me about Romantic poets as well as what we now call science, but then philosophies. The period covered is from the late eighteenth century to early Victorian times and the beginnings of modern sciences leading to Charles Darwin. As we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth it is fitting to understand what came before him, what influences, books, people and events led him on to his own discoveries and ultimately his Origin of Species.
Of all the books I have read for the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize, The Age of Wonder was far and away the best read in my mind as it encapsulated so much history of people, places and the times, the thoughts and lives of such a varied list of characters. The botanist Joseph Banks leads off with his trip to Tahiti in Endeavour with Captain Cook. His position later as President of the Royal Society (elected in 1778) ties together the other protagonists, William Herschel, his son John later, the various balloonists, Mungo Park and his African adventures, the Cornish man, Humphry Davy, his great friend the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and then leading on to Michael Faraday plus a host of other important figures. Banks is there behind them all at one time or another then to be followed briefly by Humphry Davy in the chair.
It was also interesting to read about Humphry Davy’s time in Bristol with his mentor the philanthropist, chemist and political radical, Thomas Beddoes in Hotwells. Having made my home in Bristol on and off since the 1960s it is always great to learn more about this old city and the people who came and went here.
This is a big book to give the credit it deserves in a few short lines, but it has been the most stimulating read I have had for a long time and a book that I shall treasure and return to as part of my self education. I will use it as a reference to other reading that my education in various schools in the UK and abroad completely left out. Thank you Mr Holmes for opening my eyes!
Review by Charles Freeman:
If there was one book I had flagged as a possible contender for the Prize, it was Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder. Holmes’ Coleridge was an absorbing biography and here he turns his attention to Coleridge’s contemporaries in the field of science. The canvas is broad, from Tahiti to the stars, from hot air ballooning to the explosive coalmines of northern England. It is an exhilarating analysis of the characters and their achievements with, as one would expect from Holmes, fine writing and allusions to contemporary literature. Unknown figures such as Caroline Herschel, sister of William, and an impressive astronomer in her own right, and Mrs Sage, the first woman to ascend in a balloon who may have also achieved another first aloft in the arms of a raffish Old Etonian, Mr Biggins, jostle alongside Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy and the African explorer Mungo Park. This is a book that gives real pleasure beyond its exploration of the foundations of modern science.
Review by Barry Ramshaw:
This sumptuous book charts the ‘second scientific revolution’ at the turn of the eighteenth century, and illustrates how the great minds of the Romantic period were at the forefront of the transition to modernity.
Although the Romantic ideal embraced the idea of the lone genius and the ‘eureka moment’, the age also produced individuals passionate about precision, objective observation and progressive, logical deduction when investigating natural phenomena.
Centre stage is Joseph Banks, adventurer and early scientist. Banks went on to act as inspiration and patron to a generation devoted to the search for scientific truth.
Rich in biographical detail, the book follows the careers of the astronomer Herschel (and his indefatigable sister Caroline), scientist and inventor Humphry Davy, explorer Mungo Park, and a huge supporting cast.
Holmes shows how the literature, poetry and philosophy of the times formed a close and at times almost symbiotic relationship with these developments and the text is interwoven with and enhanced by the writings of Milton, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and many others.
A genuine treat.
Click here to read an interview with Richard Holmes.
Read more about the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize here.Jump to top 1 Comment »
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