Strange Compositions: Chemistry and its Occult History in Victorian Speculative Fiction

by Susan Hroncek

Institution: Wilfrid Laurier University
Year: 2016
Keywords: Literature in English; British Isles
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2129805
Full text PDF: http://scholars.wlu.ca/etd/1854


This dissertation examines how depictions of chemistry in Victorian literature are influenced by concerns regarding the history of chemistry and its relationship to the occult. Among these depictions, I consider non-fiction writings of the period, such as histories of science and articles from periodicals, but I focus on novels that prominently feature chemistry, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story (1862), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff (1894), T. Mullet Ellis’s Zalma (1895), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897). These texts link chemistry with its origins in alchemy, the occult, and the East in order to question chemistry’s legitimacy as a professional, materialist science and to critique the rapid progress of chemistry by foregrounding the threat that experimental substances posed to society. The frequency of negative depictions of chemistry during the Victorian period indicates how, despite discoveries that revolutionised industry and medicine, the British public regarded the science and its practitioners with suspicion. During a period as fascinated with origins as with progress, these texts expand upon the uncertainties of a society struggling with the tumultuous relationship between chemistry’s past, present, and future. Popular fiction responded to societal concerns about the origins of chemistry with speculative narratives that depict a collision between chemical innovations and elements of chemistry’s occult or Eastern past. In A Strange Story and Jekyll and Hyde, this clash results in nineteenth-century reinterpretations of the traditional alchemical quest for the Elixir of Life and prompts re-evaluations of the nineteenth-century vitalist debates and discourses on the existence of the soul. Meanwhile, Olga Romanoff, Zalma, and The Beetle depict the monstrous return of chemistry’s marginalised histories—namely, of female and Eastern practitioners—to reclaim authority over chemical knowledge and new technologies, including chemical weapons and mind-altering potions. These five novels explore how the “nightmare” of chemistry’s origins—as early science historian Thomas Thomson dubbed them—not only influence contemporaneous chemical practice, but also impact future progress. Ultimately, these texts do not critique chemistry itself, but rather how scientists and governing bodies employed chemistry prior to both the popularisation of science fiction and the first recorded instance of atomic transmutation—when chemistry’s future, not its past, became the new nightmare.