"[C]onfidently moves corpuscular chemistry into a closer relationship with literature than might be apparent from a first impression."—Times Literary SupplementIn a groundbreaking study of the relationship between chemistry and literary history, Helen Thompson explores the ways in which chemical conceptions of matter shaped eighteenth-century British culture. Although the scientific revolution championed experimental, sense-based knowledge, chemists claimed that perceptible bodies were made of invisible particles or "corpuscles." Neither modern elements nor classical atoms, corpuscles were reactive, divisible units of matter. Imperceptible but real, the corpuscle transformed empirical knowledge in early modern science and the novel.
"An intellectually and imaginatively riveting book. Helen Thompson's original and erudite study of the 'chymical' underpinnings of the ostensibly modern representational practices that were reified in the eighteenth-century novel dramatically reorients our understanding not just of that genre but of the conditions of its existence."—Jayne Lewis, University of California, Irvine
"The intellectual qualities of Fictional Matter are formidable: dense yet highly articulate writing, a deep understanding of Boyle's, Locke's, and Newton's thought, conceptual precision, and analytic brilliance. This is required reading for anyone thinking about the relationship between science and literature."—Wolfram Schmidgen, Washington University in St. Louis
Thompson offers new analyses of the chemistry, alchemy, color theory, physiology, environmental science, and medicine pioneered by Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hales, John Mitchell, John Arbuthnot, and Thomas Sydenham to argue that they shaped cultural conceptions of racial, class, sex, and species identity. Juxtaposing science with readings of novels by Daniel Defoe, Eliza Haywood, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, William Rufus Chetwood, and Penelope Aubin, she shows how, at the level of form as well as character, novels represent perceptual knowledge that refers not to innate essence but to dynamic and unstable relations.
The realist narrative mode that experimental science bequeaths to literary history, Fictional Matter argues, does not transparently mirror perceptible objects. Instead, novels represent the forms and relations through which imperceptible particles stimulate sensory experience. In this lucid, revisionary analysis of corpuscular chemistry, Thompson advances a new account of the influence of experimental science and empirical knowledge on the emergent realist novel.
Helen Thompson is Associate Professor of English at Northwestern University. She is author of Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.