27 September 2018

Review: Useful Knowledge by Alan Rauch

Hardcover, 292 pages
Published 2001
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2018
Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect
by Alan Rauch

I like this book, but it feels like two separate projects. The first chapter is about the ways knowledge was disseminated in the early nineteenth century: encyclopedias, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and educational texts for children. Rauch demonstrates how British society became interested in the acquisition of knowledge, but also how there was some pushback against it-- Coleridge was outraged by how miscellaneous encyclopedias were. There was no system! Anything could be next to anything based on the whims of the alphabet!

The other five chapters examine the depictions of knowledge in five different nineteenth-century novels (not all Victorian, despite the subtitle): Jane Loudon's The Mummy!, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, Charles Kingsely's Alton Locke, and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. I don't think a strong connection is forged between the first chapter and the other ones; I don't see how encyclopedism (for example) influences my understanding of The Mummy! (for example). What I also find a little frustrating is that the concept of "knowledge" is kind of diffuse-- most of the time, Rauch seems to use it to basically mean "science," but sometimes it's more broad, and so much so that it's hard to trace a strong trajectory through the book. I do think the analysis of The Mummy! takes the book a little too seriously at times, but on the other hand, I really enjoyed the analysis of Alton Locke. I haven't read it myself, but I do love a good discussion of Kingsley, religion, and science, and Rauch brings out the correspondences that Kinglsey saw between the transformation of species and spiritual transformation. I haven't read The Professor, but Rauch made it sound like something I ought to read, which is always a good thing, too.

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