24 January 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Michael Graham, Philosopher ("Stella," 1895)

PDF eBook, 177 pages
Published 1895
Read January 2019
Stella and An Unfinished Communication: Studies of the Unseen
by C. H. Hinton
"But I thought, Stella, that the forbidden tree was the tree of knowledge."
     "That was Adam's tree, Hugh! There were two trees in the garden of Eden, a big one for Adam, and a smaller one near it for Eve. Her tree was the tree of being seen and known. When she ate that kind of fruit, she became visible, she was no longer as she was meant to be." (32)
This book contains two novellas by Charles Hinton, a mathematician who coined the word "tesseract." The first, "Stella," is the reason I read it, a story of scientific invisibility that predates H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man (1897). Michael Graham is our man of science, but it's kind of borderline as an inclusion in my project, because 1) we never actually see his point-of-view, as he's dead by the time the story begins, and 2) I don't think he's ever actually described as a scientist or a man of science.

Spoilers head, though this is one of those books you won't see much of a reason to read if you don't know some of them. Graham was actually a philosopher trying to figure out how to create altruistic people; he determined that adults cannot be adapted to new moral codes because their minds formed around old ones, and it's even difficult to raise children because the environment of society will impose itself on them (23). So he decided to raise a child in absolute secret. His theory became that he needed to find out what the soul did when the most fundamental self-regarding impulses were denied (48). For boys, that's taking things, but for girls, that's being seen. It's impossible to stop a boy from wanting things (because then he will die), but it is possible to stop a girl from being seen if you adjust her index of refraction! So he raised a girl named Stella from birth in a state of invisibility.

The book is narrated by Hugh "Steddy" Stedman Churton, a lawyer sent to wind up Graham's affairs. While staying in Graham's old house, he meets and falls in love with Stella; eventually, Stella is kidnapped by a medium looking to use her to enhance his bogus seances.

It's a strange book, but a very enjoyable one. There's a certain weird logic to Graham's ideas, and Hinton is surprisingly good at depicting the tension between different ideas; this isn't one of those Victorian books where someone expounds a theory and you're clearly meant to take their side. Graham's ideas are weird, of course, but Churton's insistence that Stella needs to be visible and marry him feels very small-minded. He's unwilling to open himself up to the strange possibilities that the universe has to offer beyond our dimension, and he clearly doesn't value women when he can't see how attractive they are. Additionally, though the novella is obviously exploring the way women need to be seen, I don't Churton ever recognizes his need to be seen, but he definitely has one too.

The novella is only 107 pages long, and I zipped through it in a couple sittings. I think it helps that Hinton clearly has a sense of humor and of adventure. The joke on p. 105 made me laugh aloud.

There are some other men of science in the book, too. Frank Cornish is Churton's friend and Graham's nephew who gets an M.D., but spends his time researching, not in medical practice; he helps Churton figure out some of the science behind Stella's invisibility. There's also "Professor C——", a chemist who helps Churton track down Stella. Churton gets Professor C—— to help him because of his love of experiments; Churton says, "he possessed in a marked degree that ardour for experiment which becomes a second nature with scientific men" (61). However, there's one point where Churton and Professor C—— probably could have rescued Stella earlier but C—— wastes time asking her questions about coefficients (65).

I don't think it will make it into my project, because the science is mostly, well, invisible, but it will make it onto my list. Thanks to Elizabeth L. Throesch's book on Hinton for alerting me to its existence.

Additionally, the book contains another novella by Hinton, "An Unfinished Communication," about a man who goes to see an "unlearner." It starts out funny, with some good jokes, but quickly becomes ponderous, and I stopped putting the work into figuring out what was going on.

No comments:

Post a Comment