Aug. 1st, 2009

purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (books)
When I read Dr Johnson's London by Lisa Picard I lamented in passing my history teacher's prejudice against the 18th century and my resulting lack of knowledge on the subject, especially since it was such a key period in the history of science. [livejournal.com profile] lonemagpie recommend The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow (among other books) and his recommendation was backed by [livejournal.com profile] parrot_knight so it duly went onto my "to read" pile.

Shortly after reading Dr Johnson's London I also read The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson and it was fascinating to read the same general period covered from, basically, the opposite end of the social scale but nevertheless discussing people who were also adversely affected (when they weren't making money out of it, that is) by the repressive regime of the early 19th century. However the bulk of The Lunar Men concentrates on the earlier 18th century which it presents as a more liberal and free-wheeling society. Incidentally Thompson also looked back with regret at the pre-industrial age but I have a vaguely itchy "rose-tinted spectacles" feeling about the whole era. Thompson was explicitly comparing the implicit social contract he believed existed between landowner and agricultural labourer with the lack of any social contract between factory owner and worker which made me suspicious that a kind of pastoral idyll was in play. In this case, of course, its simply the fact that the book focuses on the upper, or at least upper-middle, strata of society that makes me wonder about the suffering that may have been occurring lower down the social scale.

The Lunar Men is a much better book than Dr Johnson's London and a far more accessible one than The Making of the English Working Class. It's a fairly straightforward piece of narrative history, relating the lives and works of a group of men who were briefly joined together in a society of "Lunar Men" which studied science and philosophy together. I found it was a fascinating and engaging look at the era of the gentleman scientists and the dawn of mass industrialisation. If I had one criticism it would be that some of the characters, such as Darwin (grandfather of the more famous Charles), Wedgewood (yes, of the china) and Boulton (who worked with Watt on the Steam Engine as well as numerous other things) rather eclipse the others and sometimes I found a Lunar Man being mentioned whose background and name I could not recall, leaving me a little unclear how they fitted into the whole. That quibble aside though I'd say the book accomplishes its task (to give a flavour of the life and times of these men) admirably.

Highly Recommended.

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