Five Questions: Sharon Ruston on Romantic Science

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Sharon Ruston - Creating Romanticism

Professor Sharon Ruston has recently joined the University of Lancaster, having previously held appointments at the University of Salford, Keele University and the University of Wales, Bangor.  She has published widely on literature, science and medicine in the Romantic period, and, among many other activities, has served as academic co-ordinator for the LitSciMed doctoral training programme and co-edited (with David Higgins) a useful collection on Teaching Romanticism, which draws on the survey of Romantic-period teaching which she completed for BARS in 2006.  Her latest book, Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science and Medicine of the 1790s, came out earlier this year; below, we discuss the process of writing this book and its relation to her current project: co-editing, with Professor Tim Fulford, The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy and his Circle.

1) How did you come to decide that this was the next book you wanted to write?

After Shelley and Vitality (my first monograph that came from my PhD), I wanted to move outwards to think about Romanticism and Science as a whole.  I have been keeping little notes and ideas since my PhD and hoped that these would be the basis for my ‘big’ second book.  I guess that these things never quite go as planned.  The next book that I wrote was the Continuum guide to Romanticism, which encompassed the whole period – though I was able to do a chapter on science and medicine – and then after that there were edited collections of essays, Literature and Science and Teaching Romanticism.  In the back of my mind was always the idea of the big book and this is my attempt at it without having the twenty years to dedicate to it that I really would have wished for.

2) The four chapters of your book examine the relationship between the discourses we would now call science and literature through the lenses of four particular cases. What led you to choose this structure, and how did you select these particular examples?

The case studies approach was pragmatic foremost; it allowed me to look at four different authors/topics in a discrete manner but also to use these to build up a larger argument.  My ambitious ‘big book’ plans were reduced to thinking about instances at the beginnings of the Romantic period – mostly in the 1790s – when literature and science, or literature and medicine, came together in some fruitful and interesting way.  I argue that these moments are formative for the creation of what we now anachronistically call ‘Romanticism’.  The examples were chosen because these were the ones that fascinated me most and which seemed the most significant.

3) How has your work on Romantic science changed the ways that you present the period to undergraduates and postgraduates?

Many of my lectures and seminars are now inflected with ideas from Romantic-period science and medicine; for example, lectures on sensibility take into account the physical symptoms and medical discourse of this ‘disease’.  I have also taught a number of specialised modules that are led by my research, such as Monstrous Bodies, which examines Wordsworth’s labouring and mad bodies, Keats’s sensual bodies, Wollstonecraft’s idea of the female body, and others.

4) How did your work collecting and editing Humphry Davy’s letters influence the writing of Creating Romanticism (and visa versa)?

One of the four chapters of the book is on Davy and he really is important to the book in many ways.  He appears in other chapters too, as a friend of Godwin’s and Coleridge’s, for example, and I argue in the conclusion that if we are going to be using outdated terms such as ‘Romanticism’, they should be culturally-inclusive.  Davy is as much a Romantic as Wordsworth.  Working on the letters while writing this book helped me to get to grips with Davy’s polymorphic interests: his chemistry, his poetry, his politics, and his social network.  It made me realise just how central he was to Romantic-period culture and helped me to define just what it meant to be ‘Romantic’.

5) What are your future plans for the Davy edition?

We have an OUP contract for a four-volume print edition, which is to be submitted at the end of 2017.  After that date, unfortunately, the website on which you can read each new letter found and transcribed will disappear ( so I urge people to explore the letters before that happens!