Romantic Science

“Romantic imagination, even within science, played a key role in the transition from knowledge production to knowledge regulation.”

Join us for a lecture by Richard Sha (Department of Literature, American University) on Frankenstein and romantic science.

Frankenstein & Romantic Science

Wednesday, February 7, 2017, 1 pm at 228 Battelle-Tompkins Hall


No work of literature has influenced more how we think of science and technology than Mary Shelley’s first novel.  In this lecture, Richard Sha will outline Romantic science, talk about why it was so fraught and influential, and consider how certain branches of science like obstetrics and embryology shaped the novel.  He shows within the science of the time, what it means for the monster to call himself an “abortion,” and how the three narrators of the novel reflect upon ideas of biological and cultural development.

About our speaker

Richard C. Sha is Professor of Literature at American University, as well as a member of its Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.  His new book, Imagination and Science in Romanticism, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press in August 2018, and considers how science then shaped ideas of scientific discovery and artistic achievement.  Chapters focus on chemistry and physics, neurology, physiology, and obstetrics and embryology.  The book shows what is lost when the imagination is not understood properly as it was, an engine for epistemology.  The research for this book was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The book he is now working on, Modelling Emotion in Romanticism and Beyond, examines how writers from Goethe through Voltaire to Leopardi experimented with different models of how to connect emotions to subjectivity.  What kinds of things were the emotions, and how to stitch them together to achieve personhood?  How do scientific models both simplify and idealize, and how do models capture how artists think about what it means to be human?  He argues that Romantic thought challenges our current fascination with the unconsciousness of affect, and that these writers had productive models of structuring the relations between emotions and the feeling subject.  Together with Joel Faflak, he edited Romanticism and the Emotions, published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.  Recent articles treat Byron’s sexuality, Distributed Cognition in Blake, what’s wrong with affect theory, and what “erotic” means for Romantic poets.  He is the recipient of three teaching awards at American University, including being named the 2012 “Scholar Teacher of the Year.
On October 24, the Literature Department will hold a special colloquium on Frankenstein. Sha is currently teaching a course on Science and Romanticism, and they recently discussed the novel. He attempts to convey to students Mary Shelley’s erudition and curiosity. For instance, Shelley once wrote about the death of her child, and in the next sentence mentioned reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And given Frankenstein’s depth and profundity, it’s remarkable that Shelley started drafting the novel at age 17.
Sha has read Frankenstein some 30 times, and he finds it endlessly fascinating. “I’m sure on the 31st time of reading, I will start thinking about a passage that I’ve never really thought about before.”

Check out some of Richard Sha’s books below. Click here to learn more about his publications. 

Richard C. Sha’s upcoming book, Imagination and Science in Romanticism grapples with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, her husband Percy’s Prometheus Unbound, and many other relevant texts.

It’s daunting to think of how much has been written on Frankenstein. If you actually thought about that, you would not choose to write about it. That said, there are all of these unexplored avenues, and that’s something that I try to impress upon my students. You ask an important question, and then figure out how you’re going to get an answer to that question,” he says.

He looks at Mary Shelley’s interest in obstetrics and embryology. Shelley lost three of her four children, and her mother, noted feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after giving birth to her. Sha says these existential questions of life and death influenced Frankenstein. Sha starts with the notion that Frankenstein is about a man trying to give birth. Since Shelley was seeing obstetricians during this period, this would have been significant to her writing. She was seen by the Clarke Brothers, the same midwifery firm that treated her mother. “Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever, which is an infection because these midwives didn’t realize the importance of washing their hands when they were treating patients,” he says. “What makes this story really horrific is that Mary Shelley is attended by the same brothers.”


Richard C. Sha’s revealing study considers how science shaped notions of sexuality, reproduction, and gender in the Romantic period.
Through careful and imaginative readings of various scientific texts, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Longinus, and the works of such writers as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lord Byron, Sha explores the influence of contemporary aesthetics and biology on literary Romanticism.

Revealing that ideas of sexuality during the Romantic era were much more fluid and undecided than they are often characterized in the existing scholarship, Sha’s innovative study complicates received claims concerning the shift from perversity to perversion in the nineteenth century. He observes that the questions of perversity—or purposelessness—became simultaneously critical in Kantian aesthetics, biological functionalism, and Romantic ideas of private and public sexuality. The Romantics, then, sought to reconceptualize sexual pleasure as deriving from mutuality rather than from the biological purpose of reproduction.At the nexus of Kantian aesthetics, literary analysis, and the history of medicine, Perverse Romanticism makes an important contribution to the study of sexuality in the long eighteenth century.



The Visual and Verbal Sketch in British Romanticism investigates the varied implications of sketching in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century culture. Calling on a wide range of literary and visual genres, Richard C. Sha examines the shifting economic and aesthetic value of the sketch in sources ranging from auction catalogs and sketching manuals to novels that employed scenes of sketching and courtship. He especially shows how sketching became a double-edged accomplishment for women when used to define “proper” femininity.

Sha’s work offers fresh readings of Austen, Gilpin, Wordsworth, and Byron, as well as less familiar writers, and provides sophisticated interpretations of visual sketches. As the first full-length work about sketching during the Romantic era, this volume is a rich interdisciplinary study of both representation and gender.




There has recently been a resurgence of interest in the importance of the emotions in Romantic literature and thought. This collection, the first to stress the centrality of the emotions to Romanticism, addresses a complex range of issues including the relation of affect to figuration and knowing,

emotions and the discipline of knowledge, the motivational powers of emotion, and emotions as a shared ground of meaning. Contributors offer significant new insights on the ways in which a wide range of Romantic writers, including Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Immanuel Kant, Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas De Quincey and Adam Smith, worried about the emotions as a register of human experience. Though varied in scope, the essays are united by the argument that the current affective and emotional turn in the humanities benefits from a Romantic scepticism about the relations between language, emotion and agency.