We invited the six shorlisted authors for the firstBristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize to talk to us about their nominated books. Here, Richard Holmes talks to us about his book The Age of Wonder:
Why did you write the book?
I got interested in the poet Coleridge’s friendship with the scientist Humphry Davy. I gradually realised that the sciences – chemistry, astronomy, geology, medicine, even ballooning – had had an extraordinary impact on writers during the Romantic period. Our modern version of the ‘two cultures’ had largely suppressed that fact. I also discovered the reverse – that writing, including poetry – had had immense impact on the scientists and explorers, and the way they understood their own work. I pursued this idea for nearly ten years, while launching a new MA course in Biography at the University of East Anglia.
What was The Age of Wonder and when did it take place?
It was a truly astonishing period of scientific flowering. It took place essentially in the same period as Romanticism in English literature (1770-1830), and was intimately associated with its ideals. But in the traditional history of science this seemed a kind of black hole between Newton and Darwin. I marked it between two voyages, rather than two books. Between Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific (1768), and Charles Darwin’s departure on the Beagle (1831). Bristol and Bath feature strongly in the story.
How important were the two cities then in contributing to the Age of Wonder?
One can almost speak of British Romanticism having its birthplace in these two cities and their surrounding countryside, including the Mendips, the Wye valley and the Quantock hills. I like to think of a kind of West Country Renaissance. But it’s only when you put the arts and the sciences together that this becomes evident. Then you see how many truly pioneering figures both in science and poetry are associated with it – Thomas Chatterton, William and Caroline Herschel, Dr Thomas Beddoes, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Humphry Davy….
How can we rebuild a sense of wonder?
Coleridge said it was by keeping the child alive inside the adult. How would bringing together arts and sciences help contribute to a better society? It would help educate children in a richer, more rounded way. It would make adults better informed about the world. It would make us all – dare I use the French revolutionary word? – better citizens. But better citizens of the planet.
Apart from The Age of Wonder, which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I have been thinking about a series of plays for radio which dramatise and explore the roots of science in the Romantic period. The first one was called A Cloud in a Paper Bag, about ballooning. The next is called Anaesthesia, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in March. I have at least three more in hand…. I love radio. You can listen to it in the bath, in the car, in the kitchen. You can also now Listen Again. In fact I believe radio, not TV, will be the true medium of ideas in the future. I particularly love BBC Radio Bristol, and make most of my programmes there with one of its star producers, the birdman Tim Dee.
Which idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I think Ruth Padel’s idea to tell Charles Darwin’s whole life as a series of poems is fascinating, and will lead to an interesting shake-up in British biography.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone
should read and why?
I think the whole point is: be a Romantic, find out for yourself.
Click here to read reviews of Richard Holmes’ book, The Age of Wonder?
Read more about the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize here.