'In My Mind's Cabinet': Epistemology, Emotion & the Impact of Natural History on Victorian Literature & Culture 1820-1880

Rosalind White

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Reflected in the ‘dark hyaline’ of a rock-pool framed by ‘shining fronds of oar- weed’, Edmund Gosse (the son of famed naturalist Philip Henry Gosse) recalls the ‘shapes of a middle-aged man and a funny little boy’ forever immortalised ‘in [his] mind’s cabinet’. For it was only in such circumstances, ‘delicately lifting the weed curtains of a windless pool’, that his father lost ‘that hard look across his brow’ (Father and Son 37, 80).

In this epoch of ‘everyday naturalising’ scientific epistemology was intimately bound up with subjective emotion. Men declared themselves ‘on the lookout for an entomological wife’, women valued the solitude of their ‘seaweed hours’, and children — accustomed to conflating science with domestic habit — earnestly asked their playmates ‘where does your father do his barnacles?’

This thesis interpolates between the history of science and the history of emotions, two interdependent fields that have, in recent years, mutually orbited around the same question: what stories emerge from the past when we cease mining it for teleological argument? Positioning itself alongside such efforts, In My Mind’s Cabinet traces the golden age of natural history through to its twilight years: exploring the degree to which one’s status as a naturalist intersected with other aspects of their identity, contextualising the pursuit’s underlying tensions and anxieties, and acknowledging the months, or even years, an idea might have spent percolating in the privacy of the domestic sphere.

Unravelling what George Eliot would term the ‘certain human lots’ (Middlemarch 142) that underpinned scientific practice, I delve into the scientific self-fashioning that constituted the emotional “ecology” of natural history: contending that a naturalist’s reliance on their family was not just a matter of necessity but a favoured methodology. Ultimately, I argue that excavating the age of the “amateur” naturalist from under the nineteenth century’s conception of its own modernity exposes a number of lost epistemologies — “natural historical ways of knowing” that, in turn, exercised a profound influence upon literature, art, and the wider culture.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Livesey, Ruth, Supervisor
  • John, Juliet, Advisor
Award date1 May 2022
Publication statusUnpublished - 2022


  • Victorian
  • natural history
  • history of science
  • nineteenth-century literature
  • Nineteenth Century
  • Philip Henry Gosse
  • Lewis Carroll
  • George Eliot
  • History of Emotions
  • Material Culture
  • Victorian studies

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