New Perspectives on the New Philosophy: Women’s Scientific Literature in the Long Eighteenth Century

Melissa Bailes
Tulane University

Early modern women writers’ participation in natural philosophy, or what we now call “science,” constitutes one of the most fascinating critical arenas to emerge in recent years. Judy A. Hayden’s edited collection of essays, The New Science and Women’s Literary Discourse: Prefiguring Frankenstein (Palgrave, 2011), examines women’s engagements with science to provide greater understanding of this prominent, yet largely unexplored corpus of literature. Broad in both chronological and generic coverage, the collection spans from the English Civil Wars through British Romanticism and encompasses women’s poetry, drama, novels, translations, and travel narratives, as well as medical, philosophical, and political treatises. As Hayden outlines in her Introduction, the “New Science” strove for clear language, making it accessible even to persons without formal education, including women, who traditionally employed variations of scientific methods, experiments, and modes of measurement in their domestic tasks. During the long eighteenth century, although learned women were frequently satirized, they attended public lectures and informally discussed scientific topics, while also attaining and relating information about the new philosophy in periodicals and texts or translations, sometimes directed specifically at women. Explaining the choice to end this study in the early nineteenth century Hayden gestures toward science’s professionalization as hindering women’s ability to write scientific literature beyond the Romantic era. Nevertheless, the essayists of this collection, in her words, “explore the manner in which women writers dispute scientific ideas and theories and express their own reasoning” throughout this era of interdisciplinary possibility (11).

In the text’s opening chapter, “Before Frankenstein,” Sarah Hutton contrasts Mary Shelley’s cautionary novel with earlier women writers’ enthusiastic treatment of scientific themes. While acknowledging women’s disadvantages in studying science compared with men, Hutton challenges classic narratives propounded by feminist scholars such as Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn Fox Keller that assume women’s exclusion from the history of science.[1] She interrogates gender boundaries often presented as commonplace to Baconian experimental philosophy, instead delineating that scientific institutions barring women were unnecessary to female participation in the new science which, because hospitable to nonspecialists, made it possible for women to capitalize on science’s imaginative potential. In this vein, Alvin Snider’s chapter 2, “Hutchinson and the Lucretian Body,” demonstrates that Lucy Hutchinson’s translation (wr. ca. 1675) of the Roman poet’s materialistic and atheistic De rerum natura, while opposed to her Calvinist beliefs, influenced her subsequent writing. In particular, Snider focuses on Hutchinson’s retelling of Genesis, Order and Disorder (1679), to show how her scriptural theme, as well as overt repudiation of Lucretian philosophy, enables her to explore Lucretian atomism while retaining a position of Christian virtue.

Chapter 3, Jacqueline Broad’s “Cavendish, van Helmont, and the Mad Raging Womb,” reveals how Margaret Cavendish disputes the assertions of contemporary male medical experts and especially the Flemish chemist and physician, Jan Baptista van Helmont. Broad admits that Cavendish’s support of the Aristotelian-Galenic medical tradition, which views women as inferior to men, may make this female author seem less forward-thinking to modern audiences. However, she also contends that Cavendish is more modern and even feminist in denying women’s susceptibility to madness and responsibility for producing birthmarks and birth defects in their children. Continuing this medical theme, in chapter 4, “Conway: Dis/ability, Medicine, and Metaphysics,” Holly Faith Nelson and Sharon Alker argue that while Cavendish largely failed in her overt attempts to enter the masculine sphere of science, Anne Conway’s physical disability enabled her less-threatening participation in scientific discourse as a patient. According to Nelson and Alker, Conway’s chronic migraines signified fragility and thus femininity in excess, prompting male contemporaries to praise her brilliance, morality, and beauty, and suggest that her disability served as nature’s counterbalance to these gifts. Her male physicians repeatedly failed to treat her condition properly, nearly killing her on multiple occasions, and these events helped justify her urgent evaluation of medical treatises and alternative or more spiritual forms of health care in her Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690).

Karen Bloom Gevirtz’s chapter 5, “Behn and the Scientific Self,” claims that methods and concerns of the “New Science” helped shape Aphra Behn’s fictional narratives and the formal and topical interests of the emerging novel genre. Gevirtz explains that, with the exception of the narrator in Oroonoko (1688), Behn’s narrators exemplify exploration, not acceptance of a reliable, objective, actual observer. She thereby charts Behn’s participation in experimental philosophy’s investigation of what it means to be, or to represent in writing an experiencing and thinking self. In chapter 6, “Astell and Cartesian Scientia,” Deborah Boyle describes Mary Astell as formulating Cartesian dualism in terms of the “separate spheres” philosophy. For Astell, public life transforms humans into animals or machines lacking souls, while the feminine, private realm represents the space in which science and culture may be best pursued. Despite her delineation of striking overlaps in the thinking of Astell and René Descartes, Boyle asserts that Astell’s conception of “science” consists in truths about religion and morality—categories Descartes excludes from his scientia.

Chapter 7, Hayden’s “Centlivre: Joint-worms and Jointures” presents Susanna Centlivre’s play, The Basset-Table (1705), as simultaneously mocking and celebrating the scientific curiosity of philosophic ladies. Centlivre references experiments published in the Philosophical Transactions and joins Astell and Behn in asserting that women’s supposed inferiority, rather than being natural, is culturally contrived. Hayden argues that since the learned heroine goes unpunished and achieves all that she desires, Centlivre ultimately endorses female learning and engagement with science. In chapter 8, “Du Châtelet and the Rhetoric of Science,” Judith P. Zinsser explores the Dissertation on fire written by Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, who is perhaps best known as Voltaire’s lover and collaborator in scientific experimentation. While Voltaire supported Isaac Newton’s assertion that fire is matter, Du Châtelet disagreed. She and Voltaire each submitted their essays anonymously to the Académie des sciences, where Du Châtelet’s work could be judged apart from her sex. Although neither treatise won the prize, both were published as among the best received by the Académie.

Chapter 9, “The Life of Burney’s Clockwork Characters” by Julie Park, employs Jacques Vaucanson’s automata to illustrate the mechanical qualities of characters in novels by Frances Burney. Like Vaucanson, in his construction of, for instance, a mechanical duck with a functional digestive system, the novel genre sought to reproduce interior as well as exterior features of human life. For Park, such comparisons reveal how eighteenth-century narratives contributed to ideas of self as object. Frederick L. Burwick’s chapter 10, “Inchbald: Animal Magnetism and Medical Quackery,” analyzes the satirization of Franz Anton Mesmer’s medical science in Elizabeth Inchbald’s popular play, Animal Magnetism (1788). As Burwick delineates, animal magnetism or hypnotism, which the Faculty of Medicine dismissingly attributed to the imagination, engendered anxiety about its potential charlatanry and sexual exploitation of female patients, both of which Inchbald humorously parodies in her drama. Chapter 11, Marjean D. Purinton’s “Lee: The New Science and Female Madness,” discusses two prominent legal cases of female insanity, Margaret Nicholson’s attempted regicide and Mary Lamb’s matricide, as lenses for reading Sophia Lee’s tragedy, Almeyda; Queen of Granada (1796). Purinton elucidates how Almeyda’s gender and race embody contemporary associations with the passions, including madness. According to her, Lee’s heroine puts on madness like a mask, assuming an aggressively masculine position of public speech and action by which insanity paradoxically transcends social, familial, and medical constraints.

In chapter 12, “Barbauld: ‘Embryo Systems and Unkindled Suns’,” Dometa Wiegand investigates Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s poetic interrelations of astronomy, navigation, and empire, as well as her contributions to the greater Romantic lyric. As Wiegand illustrates, Barbauld’s writing reflects interest in voyages of scientific exploration such as those of Captain James Cook and astronomical events including the transit of Venus. However, Wiegand explains that the poet’s work also displays ways in which her dissenting education tempered enthusiasm for science with caution about its misuse for commercial gain. Finally, Pam Perkins, in chapter 13, “Grant: Gender, Genre, and Cultural Analysis,” compares the aims and reception histories of two texts by the Scottish writer Anne Grant, Letters from the Mountains (1807) and Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders (1811). While Letters received public adulation and depicts Highland life from the perspective of the domestic sphere, her Essays suffered criticism for attempting to merge these private concerns with the public role of scientific observation. Responding to this latter work, many readers rejected Grant’s bid for objective authority, wishing instead to conflate her with the Highland culture she sought to analyze. For Perkins, this exemplifies women’s difficulties in breaking with conventionally feminine modes of communicating information.

Addressing a wide range of scientific fields, including atomism, insanity, mesmerism, and astronomy, this collection provides admirable coverage of and welcome attention to women’s scientific literature. Its thirteen chapters significantly contribute to scholarship in this field, yet Hayden acknowledges the impossibility of encompassing within a single volume all of this era’s women writers who engage with science. The text thus lays excellent groundwork, leaving room for future essays perhaps addressing other scientific-minded women writers, such as Elizabeth Carter, Maria Edgeworth, and Charlotte Smith. Women’s use of botany, zoology, and geology, for example, offer further opportunities for critical analysis, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, as imaginative authors reacted to naturalists including Carl Linnaeus and Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, whose discoveries and classifications often were inflected with gender implications. This collection draws attention to the importance of studying women’s literary employment of science and of placing them in dialogue with contemporary male authors who also melded these developing disciplines in interesting ways. Leaving opportunities for future expansion and investigation into women writers’ participation in science in the long eighteenth century, The New Science and Women’s Literary Discourse establishes a lively and informative survey, meriting the attention of anyone interested in either women writers or the history of science throughout this era, while provoking exciting questions and insights about convergences of these critical contexts.


[1] See, for example, Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco, 1980); and Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, 1985).