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Title: Creative sparks : literary responses to electricity, 1830-1880
Author: Pratt-Smith, Stella
ISNI:       0000 0004 2736 6424
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2011
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This thesis examines accounts of electricity in journalism, short stories, novels, poetry and instructional writings, composed between 1830 and 1880 by scientific investigators, popular practitioners and fiction authors. The writings are approached as diverse and often incongruous impressions of electricity, in which the use of figurative and narrative techniques brings into question distinctions between science and literature. It is proposed that the unusual combination of electricity’s historical characterisation as an elixir vitae, intense investigation by contemporary scientists, and close alliance with new technologies offered unique opportunities for imaginative speculation. The thesis contends that engaging with these conflicting characteristics created a synthesis of scientific, social and literary responses that defy epistemological and generic categorisation. Fictionality is approached in chapter two as a central feature of scientific conceptualisation, experiment and discovery, particularly in the work of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. In chapters three and four, the landscape of popular non-fiction books and periodicals is mapped, to show the ways in which the period’s publication contexts and forums, reading patterns, and use of literary practices contributed to wider engagement with ideas about electricity. Chapters five and six focus on fiction writings, identifying parallels and divergences between actual electrical science and its fictional portrayal. Short stories are shown to have emphasised associations between electricity, neurosis, deformity and the occult, complicating contemporary scientific optimism and presenting electricity as an alluring yet dangerous phenomenon, which disordered the natural world and man’s relationship with it. These characteristics are identified further in the metaphorical references of several canonical novelists, in the exploitation of electricity, elixirs and power depicted by William Harrison Ainsworth and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and through a case study of the text and reception of a popular novel about electricity by Benjamin Lumley. The thesis contends that electricity’s anomalous and protean nature produced distinctively hybrid responses that enhance our understanding of contemporary popular writing, its contexts and how it was read.
Supervisor: Whitworth, Michael Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: English Language and Literature ; History of science ; nineteenth-century ; Victorian ; electricity ; elixir vitae ; Michael Faraday ; James Clerk Maxwell ; fiction ; periodicals ; short stories ; Ainsworth ; Bulwer-Lytton ; Lumley