Interview: Dr. Patricia Fara

The Romantic Period’s scientific achievements affected all aspects of writing and poetry, especially as the public witnessed new discoveries. Captain James Cook’s circumnavigation of the globe influencing Coleridge’s writing of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and William Bligh’s mutiny on the Bounty influencing Byron’s “The Island” are two examples of this fascination. Joseph Banks, an English naturalist, botanist, and patron of the natural sciences participated in Captain Cook’s voyage and has remained an important figure in Romantic science scholarship as well as the history of science.

Dr. Patricia Fara is one of the scholars who has written about Banks and Romantic science. Famous for publishing work beloved by both academia and the wider public, Fara urges scholars to resist limiting themselves with disciplinary boundaries, categorizations, and stiff formalities. Filled with fascinating historical context and beautiful prose, reading Fara’s work is both intellectually stimulating and fun.

Fara shares a simple truth about her process, explaining, “I have an imagined audience in mind – the students I teach… As I sit in front of my computer screen, I think how I might explain something to them if I were talking – what examples would they be familiar with, what preconceptions might they have, what questions would they ask me?” Fara’s article, “Joseph Banks: Portraits of a Placid Elephant,” featured in The Public Domain Review, brilliantly traces the evolution of the famous Romantic figure’s public image while simultaneously demonstrating her dedication to writing scholarly work that appeals to a larger audience.

INTERVIEWER

 How did you become interested in Joseph Banks?

 FARA

I am a strong believer in the importance of serendipity, a word invented in the eighteenth century by Horace Walpole and apparently one of the ten hardest English words to translate into a foreign language. For me, it means taking advantage of whatever fortune throws my way, and looking back, I can see how strongly my research has been affected by chance encounters, discoveries and conversations. In 1995, when I was a post-doc at Cambridge, I happened to hear about a three-month fellowship being offered in Canberra, and I decided to convert my scanty knowledge of Joseph Banks into a research proposal that would be appreciated by Australian assessors. Opportunistically, I oriented it round the themes of masculinity and imagery, at that time both newly fashionable analytical approaches. The strategy worked – and it was as a consequence of studying portraits of Banks that I decided to use my newly acquired artistic knowledge to consider pictures of Isaac Newton, and then I wandered into considering the construction of scientific genius.

 INTERVIEWER

Your article traces the evolution of Banks’ public image. You explain that the earliest pictures of Banks mocked him as “a Botanic Macaroni,” which you cite as “a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of neuter gender… It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, it wenches without passion.” Could you tell us more about this figure and the role it played in 18th century England?

 FARA

We know about Macaronis largely through satirical comments – such as the one I quoted – as well as a series of exaggerated caricatures that appeared in the 1770s. Fashionable young gentlemen regularly went off on a Grand Tour to Italy, where they were supposed to acquire a taste for art and architecture. Named after the unfamiliar pasta they learnt how to eat, the Macaronis were generally reputed to be effete young men who had lost their fine English manliness under the malign influence of the continent. They were said to wear ridiculously extreme clothes, including elaborate wigs and fancy sticks, and many allegations were made about their sexual orientation. This is my favourite Macaroni image, which I admire for its reflexivity:

14 July 1772 Etching © The Trustees of the British Museum
14 July 1772 Etching
                     © The Trustees of the British Museum

A caricature of Banks is in the top left of the shop window display of Macaronis, which provides evidence that many people had the opportunity of seeing him portrayed in this way and that he was a public figure of fun. Moreover, the men in the street are themselves caricatures, so the artist is questioning the concept of any clear binary division between people on two sides of the glass, or between those who are being mocked and the audiences who are laughing at them.

INTERVIEWER

 How was this project—which I’m assuming was an extension of your amazing book, Sex, Botany, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks—similar to or different from your other projects?

 FARA

 My article on Banks represents my preferred approach to writing and lecturing, which is to integrate images and text. This inclination may stem from my previous career as a scientific educator, when I was writing scripts for 35mm slide presentations, and had to make the commentary and the pictures work together to explain the ideas. For several years, I ran a regular column in Endeavour, for which the brief was to choose two pictures and write an essay of 1000 words – that was one of my favourite projects. Turning to consider content rather than style, this article is representative of my interest in exploring what it means to be a historical hero or a scientific genius – and that’s part of my larger bid to understand how and why science has come to dominate modern society.

 INTERVIEWER

 Can you tell us about your experience working between genres? From my understanding, you’ve not only published several academic and popular books, but you also contribute regularly to popular journals, radio, and television.

FARA

 In general, I’m rather wary about categorization and drawing sharp boundaries. It seems to me that a continuum approach is generally far more helpful, whether it be to do with supposed distinctions between academic/popular, high/low, science/arts, nature/culture or male/female. […] I try to communicate ideas and information clearly and in an entertaining way rather than worrying too much about tailoring my style to suit a supposed audience. In my opinion, too many scholarly articles are so formal that they defy comprehension. Making something sound complicated can be a tactic for trying to convey the author’s inherent superiority (or even to mask ignorance): far better to use short sentences and straightforward vocabulary. Conversely, although readers outside universities may not be familiar with technical jargon, that should not entail condescending to them by reducing concepts to a child-like level of simplicity. This process of infantilisation is particularly evident in museums. My greatest frustration is dealing with editors who want me to repeat familiar stories about geniuses and breakthroughs rather than narrate fresh interpretations of the past.

 INTERVIEWER

 Do have any advice for scholars who would like to make their work appeal to a broader public beyond their specialty field?

 FARA

 The structure of a popular book is completely different from that of an academic one – and they’re far harder to write. Most obviously, there’s no need to start by reviewing the literature and staking out the territory. Instead, you need to entice readers into paying for your book, so I try to begin with a dramatic and unexpected episode that will seize their attention. I have an imagined audience in mind – the students I teach. Many of them are second-year science students at Cambridge who have chosen history and philosophy of science as one of their three options. Although extremely intelligent and ambitious, they do not necessarily know anything about the subject; moreover, because they are much younger than me, their attitudes and general knowledge are different from mine. As I sit in front of my computer screen, I think how I might explain something to them if I were talking – what examples would they be familiar with, what preconceptions might they have, what questions would they ask me?

 INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for graduate students in the field of Romanticism?

 FARA

Yes: try to forget about present-day disciplinary boundaries. Modern science/arts distinctions lay far ahead in the future – the word ‘scientist’ wasn’t even invented until 1833 – so to be surprised that a doctor wrote poetry or that a poet knew a lot about flowers or that scientific ideas could be expressed in verse is anachronistic. The most obvious example is Goethe, but there are many others, including both Shelleys and Humphry Davy. I’ve noticed that books by specialists in English literature are often structured by individual poems or novels, whereas historians of science tend to organize their ideas thematically, drawing examples from different works of literature within a single chapter.

One thought on “Interview: Dr. Patricia Fara”

  1. Great interview as always Jenna. Very much appreciated the seeing Fara’s thoughts on writing on romanticism for a general readership.

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