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The Age of Wonder


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Richard Holmes, prize winning biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, explores the scientific ferment that swept across Britain at the end of 18th century in his ground-breaking new biography 'The Age of Wonder'. 'The Age of Wonder' is Richard Holmes's first major work of biography in over a decade. It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, 'The Age of Wonder' and which Holmes now radically redefines as 'the revolution of Romantic Science'. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, stepping onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, hoping to discover Paradise. Many other voyages of discovery swiftly follow, while Banks, now President of the Royal Society in London, becomes our narrative guide to what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder. Banks introduces us to the two scientific figures that dominate the book: astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphry Davy. Herschel's tireless dedication to the stars, assisted (and perhaps rivalled) by his comet-finding sister Caroline, changed forever the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the meaning of the universe itself. Davy first shocked the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments in Bristol, then went on to save thousands of lives with his Safety Lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. But at the cost, perhaps, of his own heart. Holmes proposes a radical vision of science before Darwin, exploring the earliest ideas of deep time and deep space, the creative rivalry with the French scientific establishment, and the startling impact of discovery on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. With his trademark sense of the human drama, he shows how great ideas and experiments are born out of lonely passion, how scientific discoveries (and errors) are made, how intense relationships are forged and broken by research, and how religious faith and scientific truth collide. The result is breathtaking in its originality, its story-telling energy, and not least, in its intellectual significance. Lead title / Richard Holmes's first new book since his award-winning work on Coleridge. / 'Coleridge: Darker Reflections' has sold over 25,000 copies in the UK / The author is one of the most revered non-fiction writers working today. Every book he has published has won a major prize. / Guaranteed blanket review coverage.

About the Author

Richard Holmes is a Fellow of the British Academy, Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia(2001-2007), has honorary doctorates from UEA, Kingston and the Tavistock Institute, and was awarded an OBE in 1992. His first book, 'Shelley: The Pursuit', won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974. 'Coleridge: Early Visions' won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year, and 'Dr Johnson & Mr Savage' won the James Tait Black Prize. 'Coleridge: Darker Reflections', won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He has published two semi-autobiographical works, 'Footsteps' in 1985, and 'Sidetracks' in 2000. His most recent book 'The Romantic Poets and their Circle' was published by the National Portrait Gallery in 2005. He lives in London and Norfolk with the novelist Rose Tremain.


The Romantic imagination was inspired, not alienated, by scientific advances, argues this captivating history. Holmes, author of a much-admired biography of Coleridge, focuses on prominent British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the astronomer William Herschel and his accomplished assistant and sister, Caroline; Humphrey Davy, a leading chemist and amateur poet; and Joseph Banks, whose journal of a youthful voyage to Tahiti was a study in sexual libertinism. Holmes's biographical approach makes his obsessive protagonists (Davy's self-experimenting with laughing gas is an epic in itself) the prototypes of the Romantic genius absorbed in a Promethean quest for knowledge. Their discoveries, he argues, helped establish a new paradigm of "Romantic science" that saw the universe as vast, dynamic and full of marvels and celebrated mankind's power to not just describe but transform Nature. Holmes's treatment is sketchy on the actual science and heavy on the cultural impact, with wide-ranging discussions of the 1780s ballooning craze, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and scientific metaphors in Romantic poetry. It's an engrossing portrait of scientists as passionate adventurers, boldly laying claim to the intellectual leadership of society. Illus. (July 14) Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Praise for Coleridge: Early Visions 'One of the greatest literary biographies ever written.' Daily Telegraph 'Dazzling. A biography like few I have ever read.' James Wood, Guardian Praise for Coleridge: Darker Reflections 'One of the greatest biographies of the century. Pure joy to read, it is a shimmering portrait of the mature artist veering between brilliance and despair' Financial Times 'This - and I can't remember ever thinking this before so strongly - is a biography to grow old with' Independent Praise for Shelley: The Pursuit 'If the art of biography was ever damned, Shelley: The Pursuit redeemed it.' New York Times Praise for Dr Johnson and Mr Savage 'As tense as a detective story and as rich as a Hogarth print, this is the work of a master-biographer.' John Carey, Sunday Times Praise for Footsteps 'This exhilarating book, part biography, part autobiography, shows the biographer as sleuth and huntsman, tracking his subjects through space and time.' Hilary Spurling, Observer 'Nothing is simple in this intricate, complicated and fascinating book, which is like a set of Russian dolls, biography containing travel-writing containing autobiography containing and so on! Holmes is indeed a biographer and a romantic in every sense.' Richard Boston, Guardian Praise for Sidetracks 'A masterful study of the human heart - his, yours, mine - demonstrating that, in the right hands, biography can be the most dazzling literary form of all.' Sara Wheeler, Daily Telegraph

While Romanticism in Great Britain is known mostly as an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement, rapid and revolutionary scientific discoveries were an underlying catalyst to the era's vaunted sense of "wonder." It was also a period when remarkable individuals working alone could make major contributions to knowledge. Historian and biographer Holmes (Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage) conveys the history of Romantic-era science through vivid biographies of a few such individuals. Notable among them are Joseph Banks, a botanist whose experiences in Tahiti were life-changing; William Herschel, the eccentric astronomer who (aided invaluably by his devoted sister, Caroline) discovered the planet Uranus; and Humphrey Davy, an intrepid chemist who conducted gas inhalation experiments on himself. These and others are depicted against the cultural tapestry of an age of idealism, which was both fueled and threatened by the advances of science. The subject makes this book most relevant for readers of general science and history of science, but its engaging narratives of the period could appeal to a broader readership. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/09.]-Gregg Sapp, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

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