Natural history was a popular pastime for the middle classes in the 19th century. The Companion to the Microscope is a guide designed for amateur naturalists and middle-class children who owned microscopes in order to examine specimens from nature.
C Gould, the author of The Companion to the Microscope, was also a microscope manufacturer. The guide begins with a diagram of one of Gould’s microscopes, and an explanation of how to assemble and use it. The rest of the book consists of descriptions and lists of various items suitable for inspection under a microscope.
Natural history and religion
During the first half of the 19th century, natural history was often regarded as having a religious purpose, since understanding the beauty and complexity of nature might help one to understand the beauty and complexity of God. This view is evident in The Companion to the Microscope: ‘the more we enquire into [the works of Nature], the more comprehensive and just will be our ideas of the power, wisdom and goodness of the Deity’ (p. 53).
As evolutionary theory developed, the idea of natural history as a religious pursuit became problematic.
The microscope in Middlemarch
[e]ven with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom (Ch. VI)
But the microscope has a presence in Middlemarch that goes beyond the metaphorical. Lydgate uses a microscope to conduct his medical research, while the amateur naturalist Farebrother uses one as part of his hobby. The different quality in the two men’s microscopes reflects Eliot’s metaphor: Farebrother borrows Lydgate’s superior instrument to examine some ‘pond-products’, a loan which will enable him to see what he would miss were he using his own, weaker lens (Ch. XXXVI).
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- The novel 1832–1880, Power and politics
Middlemarch is set in the period leading up to the 1832 Reform Act. Professor John Mullan explores how George Eliot uses the novel to examine different kinds of reform and progress: political, scientific and social.