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Title: Science and eccentricity in early nineteenth-century Britain
Author: Carroll, V. L.
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2006
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This dissertation is about the perceived relationship between science and eccentricity in early nineteenth-century Britain. Taking a cultural-historical approach, it explores how ideas about science and eccentricity gave order and meaning to people’s lives. It begins by examining how eccentricity was defined as a cultural phenomenon. The term ‘eccentric’ was first used figuratively to describe people who were seen to be like comets, and, into the nineteenth century, eccentricity continued to be associated with comet-like qualities: visionariness, liminality and lawlessness. These themes recur throughout the main body of the thesis, which is composed of three case-studies. In each study, eccentricity is looked at in connection with a different medium of self-presentation. Chapter 2 explores eccentricity as cultural performance: focusing on the carnivalesque lectures and demonstrations of the anti-Newtonian natural philosopher and prophet, William Martin (1772-1851), it argues that eccentric characters could serve useful social functions. The central argument of the chapter concerns the role of audiences in the creation of eccentric identities. This is explored through the activities of Martin’s opponents and ‘disciples’. Eccentricity could be mediated through performance, but it also had a literary dimension. Chapter 3 applies techniques of close reading to two ‘eccentric’ books by the Somerset fossil collector, Thomas Hawkins (1810-1889). Hawkins aimed to flesh out the Mosaic account of Creation by supplementing biblical exegesis with evidence from geological science. He styled himself as visionary, recording profound interpretations of fossil signs in ambiguous, vatic language. The chapter examines how Hawkins constructed his ‘eccentric’ prophetic persona through writing. It argues that his books were labelled ‘eccentric’ because they disregarded the genetic conventions governing the production of scientific works. The final case-study explores the relationship between eccentricity and visiting. Focusing on response to the natural history collection of Charles Waterton (1782-1865), it describes how visitors draw on stories, images and gossip in interpreting objects on display. The early nineteenth century saw the rise of the culture of the celebrity. To many visitors, Waterton was the most curious specimen in the collection. The chapter explores how visitors’ anecdotes, circulated in memoirs, travel narratives, newspapers and magazines, functioned to establish and propagate eccentric reputations. The dissertation ends with some reflections on how the case studies might contribute to our understanding of eccentricity in British culture today.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available