In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Online Sources
  • Anthologies
  • Geology and Culture
  • Women and Geology
  • Geology and Visual Culture
  • Prehistoric Animals
  • Paleontology, Archaeology, and Anthropology
  • Geology and Religion
  • Geologists and Paleontologists

Victorian Literature Geology
Michelle Geric
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0207


Geology became a distinct scientific discipline over the course of the nineteenth century, and the groundwork for this development began in the late eighteenth century, with most culturally significant discoveries occurring between the 1780s and 1850s. In geomorphology, the emphasis on the accumulation of imperceptible geological changes over long periods (gradualism) established Earth’s immense age, which in turn offered Darwin a frame within which to postulate evolutionary theory. Somewhat overshadowed by the impact of Darwin, research into the literatures and cultures informing geology in its intensely formative years in the 1830s and 1840s is still an understudied area. These decades exerted a far-reaching influence on Victorian literature and culture and saw a tremendous growth in the popularity of geology as an amateur pursuit. Geology’s construction of Earth’s history grew up alongside the rise of modern human historiography, and much valuable scholarship has sought to trace the interconnectedness of geological and human narratives of history. The development of the field of “literature and science,” following the groundbreaking work of Gillian Beer, produced important interdisciplinary research into the “literary” construction of geological knowledge and demonstrated the Victorian sense of the indivisibility of scientific and cultural ways of knowing. In the late twentieth century a major “cultural turn” in the history of geology also produced a wealth of scholarship that took account of geology’s material cultures by examining objects, the contexts of display, lecture circuits, and cultures of publishing and reading. Literary criticism has also drawn attention to material culture, and a more nuanced picture of the production of geological knowledge has emerged from historians’ and cultural critics’ attention to the pressures of class, economics, gender, and social and political partisanship. Overall, exchanges between historians of geology and literary and cultural critics provide excellent examples of the richness that can be achieved by interdisciplinarity. More recently, the concept of the Anthropocene has provided a new critical prism through which to approach 19th-century literature. As the period in which the discovery of geological time and serial species extinction took place, the nineteenth century has specific resonance for Anthropocene studies, and this exciting and important critical frame has injected fresh energy into research into 19th-century geology and the literatures and cultures that brought it into being. Finally, it must be noted that the texts cited here reflect the largely Anglocentric nature of scholarship written in English on the history, literature, and culture of geology. The field would benefit from more attention to the writings and fieldwork contributions of other influential Continental geologists.

General Overviews

The studies cited in this section are some of the main histories of 19th-century geology, which offer a key to the development of research in the area. The most complete history of the development of geology as a science can be found in Rudwick 2005 and Rudwick 2008. These two huge volumes survey the formative years of geological debate and controversy from the 1750s to 1840s. They represent the most comprehensive accounts of geological cultures and are essential reading for students and scholars researching 19th-century geology. Though superseded by later more nuanced analysis, Gillispie 1951 is nevertheless an important landmark in the emergence of geological historiography. For a history of geology that takes account of Continental geologists, Greene 1985 is a useful source. Now a classic text, Gould 1987 focuses on three main individuals—Thomas Burnet (b. 1635–d. 1715), James Hutton (b. 1726–d. 1797), and Charles Lyell (b. 1797–d. 1875)—and is important for its exploration of linear and cyclical patterns of thinking in human history, myth, and geology. Laudan 1990 provides a revision of earlier histories of geology that tended to read geological schools of thought as diametrically opposed. Torrens 2002 and Freeman 2004 are both broad studies. Freeman provides a good introduction to the cultures informing and informed by geological discovery, while Torrens’s study includes a focus on the practice of geology—its practical application—including useful information on lesser-known geologists. Secord 1997, in the Penguin abridged reprint of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–1833), gives a useful and informative introduction to Lyell and his text. Blundell and Scott 1998 offer a collection of essays on Charles Lyell that form a good introduction.

  • Blundell, D. J., and A. C. Scott, eds. Lyell: The Past is the Key to the Present. London: Geological Society of London, 1998.

    Important collection of twenty-three essays offering a thorough introduction to the geologist Charles Lyell. Divided into three sections, for students of 19th-century geology, culture, and literature, the first two sections are most useful. These include a biographical essay and assessments of Lyell’s place within the contexts of geological culture.

  • Freeman, Michael. Victorians and the Prehistoric: Tracks to a Lost World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    While addressed to a broad lay readership, there is still much for the student and scholar of geology and Victorian culture to gain from this richly illustrated account of the cultural reception of geological knowledge. Sections consider the canal and railroad excavation that led to geological finds, the assimilation of deep time, the significance of fossils, dinosaurs, geological reimaginings of the “Deluge,” and exhibition culture.

  • Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Genesis and Geology: A Study in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790–1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

    Classic text in the historiography of geology, breaking new ground in the 1950s in its attention to geological controversies and religious thinking in the decades before Darwin. Modern criticism of Gillispie’s text draws attention to its exaggerated polarization of geological schools of thought as either progressive (scientific) or regressive (religious). Nevertheless, essential reading for scholars seeking to learn about the development of modern critical approaches in the historiography of geology.

  • Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

    Seminal text that offered in 1987 a revised history of the discovery of geological time. Exploring progressive and cyclical modes of human thought and history, Gould demonstrates the role of myth and metaphor in the creation and understanding of deep time. Gould approaches the subject via the key figures of Thomas Burnet, James Hutton, and Charles Lyell.

  • Greene, Mott T. Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501704741

    Wide-ranging and important history of geology that does much to rectify Anglocentric histories by offering a comprehensive account of the contribution of Continental geologists to the development of thinking in geology. Covers the late-nineteenth century well, along with such topics as the development of theories of global tectonics.

  • Laudan, Rachel. “The History of Geology, 1780–1840.” In Companion to the History of Modern Science. Edited by R. C. Alby, G. N. Cantor, J. R. R. Christie, and M. J. S. Hodge, 783–798. London: Routledge, 1990.

    This accessible and concise introduction begins by setting out the “old” version of the history of geology, one that read “uniformitarians” and “catastrophists” as conflictual, and then discusses the “new” and more nuanced accounts that emerged in scholarship toward the end of the twentieth century. Laudon usefully draws attention to the Anglocentric nature of histories of geology.

  • Rudwick, Martin J. S. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226731148.001.0001

    Covers the 1780s to the 1820s and is the most authoritative and extensive text on the development and history of geology. Essential reading for scholars seeking an understanding of the foundations of Victorian geological thinking. Across seven hundred pages the text traces the reconstruction of “geohistory” and the subsequent expansion of the age of the Earth.

  • Rudwick, Martin J. S. Worlds before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226731308.001.0001

    Companian volume to Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time, it covers the 1820 to 1840s over six hundred pages and is the most authoritative and extensive work on the development of geology and its interdependent branches of study, including stratigraphy, mineralogy, paleontology, and geomorphology. Includes examinations of theories, discourses, and controversies around transmutation. Essential reading for understanding Victorian geological thinking.

  • Secord, James A. “Introduction.” In Principles of Geology. By Charles Lyell. Edited by James A. Secord, ix–xliii. London: Penguin, 1997.

    Useful and concise introduction to Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–1833) and to the contexts of its original publication.

  • Torrens, H. S. The Practice of British Geology, 1750–1850. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate 2002.

    A collection of papers by the author that concentrates on the practice of geology and records the contributions of lesser-known geologists to geological knowledge. While the latter chapters have more relevance for the Victorian period, this is an excellent source for those seeking to learn more about the practical application of geology and its importance for industrialization in Britain, America, and beyond.

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