Brian Cowlishaw’s The Body, The Rail, and the Pen: Essays on Travel, Medicine and Technology in 19th Century British Literature


  • Alicia Barnes


Brian Cowlishaw’s recent collection on science and technology in nineteenth-century literature directs the essays contained within to a readership of “non-specialists”, those who might resemble their nineteenth-century counterparts, “intellectually curious non-experts, ordinary readers who wanted to keep up with the latest developments” in “scientific writing” (2). The Rail, the Body and the Pen seeks to expand the reach of critical, scholarly writing and make exciting developments in literary research open to all who are interested. This is a noteworthy purpose, and one that reflects, I think, wider discussions throughout academia on the cultural chasm between academic and public discourse, the intellectual elitism that has excluded wider reading audiences from research writing and perpetuated the idea of the ‘ivory tower’. In order to do so, Cowlishaw promises an exploration of “how nineteenth-century technologies speak through the literature of the time and change the ambient culture” without the reader having to “trudge through field-specific or academic jargon” (1, 2). It is an ambitious aim, and one that this collection does not quite achieve. At a time when incredible advances in science and technology – including artificial intelligence, vaccinations, and space exploration – are a regular topic in everyday, popular discourse, significant connections between interested readers of contemporary developments, nineteenth century readers, and the collection’s own readership could have been made. As the editor sets up his purpose for the book, this comparison between readership and the continuing trends in popular scientific writing could demonstrate the relevance this type of literary research has for everyone, not just academics.