Decorated initial T

he combination of wondrous events and educational purpose made the fairy tale an ideal medium for popularizing science as long as the author could tailor his use of technical language to suit young audiences. This ability to use vocabulary suited to young readers doesn’t appear in Conversations on Geology by Granville Penn (1761-1844), author of A Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies (1822), The Bioscope, or Dial of Life, Explained (1814), An Examination of the Primary Argument of the Iliad (1821), and Memorials of the professional life and times of Sir William Penn (1833). Penn, who was foremost among the early popularisers, mistakenly uses inappropriately technical and forbidding language. He was also a Scriptural geologist, and in Glaucus or, The Wonders of the Shore. Charles Kingsley castigated him as ‘a well-meaning fanatic’ who ‘tried (as is the fashion in such cases) to make a hollow compromise between facts and the Bible, by twisting facts just enough to make them fit the fancied meaning of the Bible, and the Bible just enough to make it fit the fancied meaning of the facts’ (p.192). It may not be a coincidence, however, that in 1828 Penn had preempted Kingsley’s enterprise in tailoring scientific study for the young.

The title-page, a two-page spread of the detailed table of contents,. and another illustrating human skeletons in rocks. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

His major work has a forbidding title: Conversations on Geology comprising a familiar exposition of the Huttonian and Wenerian System; The Mosaic Geology, as explained by Mr. Granville Penn; and the late discoveries of Professor Buckland, Humboldt. R. McCulloch, and others. The geological systems and the names testify to his geological knowledge. Despite the title, the work turns out to be a modest address to ‘those who regard a knowledge of the earth’s structure a science worthy of the attention of youth’ (my italics, p.7). He offers no apology for his attempt to ‘simplify and render its study inviting’. But he can hardly have been aware how simplifying and making attractive scientific study would be the dominant aims of his successors in the field. In his case, he introduces young people to geology through the genteel medium of ‘conversations’.

Penn’s Conversations open with a young boy asking his mother about the seashells featured in their marble fire place:

EDWARD: Did you say, mother, in the heart of solid rocks, sand far inland? There must surely be some mistake in this; at least it appears to me incredible.

MRS. R: Incredible as you suppose it to be, my dear boy, you may see it with your own eyes in the marble of this chimney-piece, which, as you may perceive, is studded throughout with shells, as if they were fresh from the sea. They even retain their original nacre, as the French call the peculiar lustre of mother-of- pearl. [‘Conversation First. Theories of the Earth’, p. 1].

Edward is obviously a well taught young man. When his mother reassures him that the shells in the marble are the kind of real shells that you can find on the seashore, he presses her with the geologically apposite question of how the shells came into the marble. In fact, he presents her with a professionally couched deduction — namely, that the marble must have been ‘soft, like paste, or have been precipitated or deposited, as we say in chemistry, over the shells’. The phrase ‘as we say in chemistry’ with its self-election to a scientific community gives the game away. Penn cannot deliver his promise to ‘simplify’ matters for youth even though he does try to present geological matters as ‘romances’ as Kingsley will in Glaucus when he describes books which treat of natural history as having a ‘certain charm of romance’ and feeding ‘the play of fancy’ (p. 195). Mrs. R. also mentions ‘romance’ much to her daughter’s initial interest. Christina is impatient to know the history of sea-shells, but her mother rebukes her: ‘Impatience, my dear, I may tell you, will never make you a good Geologist’. The mother stresses the importance of patience, and her methodology is that of an inductive scientist: ‘we must go through a great many facts and conjectures, before we come to the history of the shells, besides some pretty romances, which are called Theories of the earth, and tell us how the world was made’ (my emphasis: p. 4). The aetiological import is clear as is the procedure of what Mrs. R. terms the ‘pretty romances’ as Mrs. R. calls them.

Of course, when Mrs. R, describes geological theories as ‘pretty romances’, her daughter Christina brightens. For her this means Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Tasso’s tale of Armida the Saracen sorceress, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. She finds the idea that romances exist in science incongruous, but her mother deflates her interest by telling her that ‘there should be none; but philosophers, if they have much imagination, are apt to let it loose as well as other people, and in such cases are sometimes led to mistake a fancy for a fact’. She applies this principle in particular to geologists who have ‘frequently amused themselves in this way’ and advises her daughter that we all of us have some reason to follow them ‘in their fancies and their waking dreams’, concluding that Geology may be called ‘romantic’ (p. 6) She may be using ‘romantic’ in a derogatory sense, which would confirm that she agrees with the thoroughly unimaginative Professor Ptthmllnsprts, who ‘held that no man was forced to believe anything to be true, but what he could see, hear, taste, or handle’ (84).

Frequently, Mrs R., as Penn’s persona, assumes a pedagogic role and produces an uneasy compromise in which the young people have to understand the text at their own linguistic level but have also to be familiar with the specialist language of geologists. Section 23 exemplifies the balancing act which he performs. With reference to clay slate, Mrs R. gives the young people licence to call it granite slate amongst themselves but to remember that geologists call it Gneiss. Failure to know such terms will disqualify them from reading books or conversing about the subject!

At this point she has invited them to browse through a collection of fossils and minerals. Edward quickly identifies some garnets and gold-coloured pyrites in a piece of slate. He wants to know whether it is ‘granite slate’. He is using his own terminology as already licensed by his mother, but she forgets what she has licensed and rebukes him by answering his question in the terms a geologist would use: ‘the granite slate should be called Mica Slate, and frequently Micacious Schistus, the word schistus being German for slate. It wants, as you perceive, the felspar of the gneiss, and has only the mica and the quartz. Garnets are very commonly found in it, and occasionally felspar, but mica always predominates’ (p. 7). Penn does compromise on nomenclature.

The ‘conversation’ turns to the homely topic of the slate used on house roofs. Mrs R. warms to her task but what she says can hardly rate as the diction appropriate to her child pupils. She tells Christina that builders use ‘Clay Slate, Argillaceous Schistic, and sometimes Ardesia, or, as the French say, Ardoise’. She then enumerates for Edward the various types of late: Flinty Slate, Chlorite Slate of a green colour, and Hornblende Slate. Christina now earns a stern rebuke. She has mistakenly thought that a piece of Hornblende Slate has black felspar in it. For this Mrs R. takes her to task telling her in no uncertain terms that what she thinks is black felspar is in fact hornblende, and she enumerates the characteristic features of hornblende: is usually a dark bottle-green colour; feldspar is usually reddish; hornblende comes in longer pieces which criss-cross; and the slate which her daughter has wrongly identified is mostly hornblende with the odd speck of mica and some reddish bits of feldspar (pp. 7-8). Mrs. R., who offers information without explanation, fails either to recognise her son’s surmises about the sea shells or answer her daughter’s questions. She avoids them in references to the need to know first the ‘romantic’ side of geological theories — which she leaves vague.

The ‘conversations’ are one-sided and resemble teacher-led lessons rather than an attempt to simplify difficult technical language and concepts. Penn aims for the target but misses. By contrast, Kingsley and a minor successor, Arabella Buckley, succeed remarkably, particularly in their emphasis on conveying knowledge of the ‘facts’ by involving romance, imagination and surmise.

Related material


Buckley, Arabella. The Fairy Land of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1879.

Penn, Granville. Conversations on Geology comprising a familiar exposition of the Huttonian and Wenerian System; The Mosaic Geology, as explained by Mr. Granville Penn; and the late discoveries of Professor Buckland, Humboldt. R. McCulloch, and others. London: Samuel Maunder, 1828.

Last modified 16 January 2019