Questioning Nature: British Women’s Scientific Writing & Literary Originality, 1750-1830

Questioning Nature: British Women’s Scientific Writing & Literary Originality, 1750-1830, by Melissa Bailes

Synopsis: In the mid-eighteenth century, many British authors and literary critics anxiously claimed that poetry was in crisis. These writers complained that modern poets plagiarized classical authors as well as one another, asserted that no new subjects for verse remained, and feared poetry’s complete exhaustion. Questioning Nature explores how major women writers of the era―including Mary Shelley, Anna Barbauld, and Charlotte Smith―turned in response to developing disciplines of natural history such as botany, zoology, and geology.

Recognizing the sociological implications of inquiries in the natural sciences, these authors renovated notions of originality through natural history while engaging with questions of the day. Classifications, hierarchies, and definitions inherent in natural history were appropriated into discussions of gender, race, and nation. Further, their concerns with authorship, authority, and novelty led them to experiment with textual hybridities and collaborative modes of originality that competed with conventional ideas of solitary genius.

Exploring these authors and their work, Questioning Nature explains how these women writers’ imaginative scientific writing unveiled a new genealogy for Romantic originality, both shaping the literary canon and ultimately leading to their exclusion from it.


Published: May 2017 | ISBN: 978-0813939766

Mini-bio: Melissa Bailes specializes in British literature of the long eighteenth century (1660-1830), the history of science, transatlantic and transnational studies, and women’s writing. She has published on these topics in journals such as ELH, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Studies in Romanticism, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Eighteenth-Century Life, and European Romantic Review. – University Profile

Both erudite and engaging, this book makes a significant contribution to the study of originality in the period. I do not know of another study that connects this concept so ingeniously to scientific literature and issues of gender. An impressive contribution to the study of women writers of the period, to concepts of originality, and to the intersections of these categories and scientific literature.

Judith W. Page, University of Florida, coauthor of Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870

By foregrounding gender and originality as drivers of cultural production, Bailes reveals the true extent of the common ground shared by literature and science in the period. Questioning Nature offers the richest account available of women’s science writing in the Romantic period.

Noah Heringman, University of Missouri, author of Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work

The British Society for Literature and Science Book Review
Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature Book Review

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Hardcover Edition: Questioning Nature: British Women’s Scientific Writing and Literary Originality, 1750-1830
Kindle Edition: Questioning Nature: British Women’s Scientific Writing and Literary Originality, 1750-1830


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