Thesis ID: CBB001562098

Astronomy and the Problem of Perception in British Literature, 1830--1910 (2004)


Henchman, Anna Alexandra (Author)

Harvard University
Scarry, Elaine
Fisher, Philip
Armstrong, Isobel

Publication Date: 2004
Edition Details: Advisor: Scarry, Elaine; Philip Fisher; Isobel Armstrong
Physical Details: 236 pp.
Language: English

"Astronomy and the Problem of Perception in British Literature 1830-1910" investigates the ways in which four Victorian writers apply their knowledge of the astronomy of the day to their own practice of creating rapid and disorienting shifts in perspective. For each, the night sky becomes a graphic example of two types of knowledge: daily sensory perception and conceptual understanding. Each epistemological mode is necessary and valid, yet in astronomy they present absolutely contradictory models of the world: the senses reveal a fixed dome of stars circling the earth, while conceptual understanding describes an infinite interstellar universe with no single center. For these writers, astronomy becomes an important resource for thinking about the way in which the mind negotiates these two ways of looking at the world. The dissertation centers on the literary works of Thomas De Quincey, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and draws extensively from the texts on astronomy they studied: essays and treatises by William and John Herschel, William Whewell (Tennyson's tutor at Cambridge), Mary Somerville, John Pringle Nichol, R. A. Proctor, Herbert Spencer, Norman Lockyer and others. Each of the authors I treat read widely in astronomy, befriended contemporary astronomers, and visited university observatories; Tennyson also had a two-inch telescope at his home. And yet, to date, few scholars have remarked on the frequency with which references to astronomy appear in their literary works. No book-length project has examined the role of astronomy in nineteenth-century British literature, and no literary critics of any period have focused on astronomy's unique relationship to sensory perception. In the field of history of science, by contrast, the last twenty years have seen exciting work on the epistemological problems faced by nineteenth-century astronomers. My dissertation bridges this disciplinary divide to show the striking connections between the preoccupations of Victorian writers and those of the astronomers of their day.


Description Cited in Diss. Abstr. Int. A 65/05 (2004): 1794. UMI pub. no. 3131862.

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Authors & Contributors
Heather Laura Brink-Roby
Lyons, Sara
Kimberley Dimitriadis
Hollander, Rachel
Badolato, Elizabeth
Shearer, Emily Carroll
Victorian Literature and Culture
Victorian Studies
Journal of Literature and Science
19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
St. John's University (New York)
Northwestern University
Middle Tennessee State University
University of Massachusetts Press
Oxford University Press
Science and literature
Poetry and poetics
Evolutionary psychology
Hardy, Thomas
Eliot, George
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord
Darwin, Charles Robert
Gaskell, Elizabeth
Dickens, Charles
Time Periods
19th century
Great Britain
Royal Society of London

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