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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / biography

The Lunar Men

Jenny Uglow

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To purchase The Lunar Men

Title: The Lunar Men
Author: Jenny Uglow
Genre: History
Written: 2002
Length: 501 pages
Availability: The Lunar Men - US
The Lunar Men - UK
The Lunar Men - Canada
  • US subtitle: Five Friends whose Curiosity Changed the World
  • UK subtitle: The Friends who Made the Future
  • Includes many colour plates and numerous illustrations
  • Includes a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating stories, but overwhelming

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A+ 14/9/2002 P. Hughes-Hallett
The Economist A+ 21/9/2002 .
The Guardian A 14/9/2002 James Buchan
The Independent A 14/9/2002 Roy Hattersley
The LA Times . 27/10/2002 Richard Hamblyn
London Rev. of Books . 17/4/2003 Simon Schaffer
New Statesman . 7/10/2002 Colin Tudge
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/12/2002 P.N.Furbank
The NY Times . 11/11/2002 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 27/10/2002 Paul S. Seaver
The Observer . 1/9/2002 Gaby Wood
The Spectator A+ 28/9/2002 Miranda Seymour
Sunday Telegraph A 15/9/2002 John Adamson
Sydney Morning Herald . 15/2/2003 Alan Saunders
Time . 11/11/2002 Lev Grossman
The Times . 11/9/2002 Peter Ackroyd
TLS . 4/10/2002 Brian Dolan
Wall St. Journal . 14/11/2002 Kenneth Silverman
The Washington Post A+ 3/11/2002 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Very, very impressed, with only the most minor exceptions

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jenny Uglow packs every page of her wonderful book with riveting information about this group of titans who together precipitated 18th-century Britain into the modern world. (…) Uglow recounts their story with tremendous narrative drive and gives a vividly realised impression of the times as backdrop to the main action." - Penelope Hughes-Hallett, Daily Telegraph

  • "Jenny Uglow has done that difficult thing of writing a group biography that gives equal attention to all the main players, yet still manages to be something more than a patchwork. With her sure grasp of the social and political passions driving the times, she is able to situate her clutch of subjects in a very particular intellectual tradition. (…) The result is an absolute wonder of a book, huge in its span and close in its detail, nothing less than a snapshot of what and who was best about Britain and its intellectual life in the middle of the 18th century." - The Economist

  • "Jenny Uglow's sumptuous new book might have been designed to examine Adam Smith's contention for the purposes of what used to be called the Industrial Revolution. (…) If there are one or two signs of strain, they are only be expected in a book of 600 pages." - James Buchan, The Guardian

  • "Combining their lives -- emotions as well as achievements -- in a single, coherent volume is a task that few writers could have accomplished with anything like success. Jenny Uglow manages the near impossible by writing with an ingenuity which the Lunar Men themselves would have admired. (…) Part of the strength of Jenny Uglow's narrative is the way in which it demonstrates that the Lunar Men were able to combine a thirst for knowledge with an enthusiasm to put their new discoveries to good commercial use." - Roy Hattersley, The Independent

  • "Uglow's story can be read as an extended family romance, with businessmen as its heroes and engines as heirlooms. (...) For an acute version of just what science owes to fallibility, read Uglow's book." - Simon Schaffer, London Review of Books

  • "Uglow is at her best, both as a historian and a biographer, in tracing the complex networks of ideas and alliances that conspired to put inventions and, more specifically, patents, into one pair of hands and not another. Friendship and rivalry stalk these pages like the figures of virtues from a tapestry, while questions of priority -- who was the first to discover or invent, whose name will go on to be remembered or forgotten ? -- fueled the anxieties over money and reputation that smoldered away in the backgrounds of these lives." - Richard Hamblyn, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Here is a fine read, and essential for all who would understand the modern world." - Colin Tudge, New Statesman

  • "'All the Lunar stories overlap,' writes Uglow; and her great achievement is to make a single story of them, with convincing naturalness and the strictest though unobtrusive control, almost never dipping into irrelevance, and always ready to expound technical theory where the reader needs it." - P.N.Furbank, The New York Review of Books

  • "Ms. Uglow has written a playful, exuberant book about figures to whom the new science was itself part play (.....) Sometimes her zeal to get us to pay attention inflames her style." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "What distinguishes The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow’s study, besides her evident skill as a writer, is her biographical approach, her focus on individuals and their quirks, social origins, intellectual worlds and politics. (…) Uglow has given us a remarkable story of remarkable men, richly detailed and brilliantly told. (…) It is an exemplary work." - Paul S. Seaver, The New York Times Book Review

  • "And in this spectacular, epic book, Jenny Uglow shows how childlike daydreams and Heath-Robinson contraptions gave way to some of the greatest inventions of mankind." - Gaby Wood, The Observer

  • "This is an irresistible book, rich as a Christmas pudding in its detail. Uglow is the perfect guide, lucid, intelligent, sympathetic and wise. A wonderful subject has found its perfect historian." - Miranda Seymour, The Spectator

  • "Moreover, while there are moments when the book's torrent of detail threatens to overwhelm the reader, there are also some major omissions. Most seriously, there is not a word about the Deism (…) This remains, however, a magnificently accomplished and enjoyable book." - John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The triumph of Jenny Uglow's engaging book about them is that it is a tightly organised collective biography which is also a contribution to that inadequately studied subject, the history of friendship." - Alan Saunders, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Uglow is very good at conveying the intellectual excitement of the period, when people genuinely believed that they were on the brink of a new and more enlightened age. The age of the machine was in a certain sense equivalent to the new age of internet communication. This is an exhilarating book, then, filled with wonders. Jenny Uglow is the most perfect historian imaginable, alive to detail and alert to general patterns." - Peter Ackroyd, The Times

  • "What is missing from Uglow’s account, however, is a sense of the men’s own relationship to the past. The world from which they emerged was as important to them as the future they hoped to create. (…) (A)n absorbing and rich account of the dreams and determination of the engineers of the first Industrial Revolution." - Brian Dolan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men gives us a compelling account of these extraordinary polymaths and of the world in which they lived. (...) The many strands of narrative make for a busy tapestry, often too busy." - Kenneth Silverman, Wall Street Journal

  • "The Lunar Men is a grand story -– imagine a kind of historical version of Atlas Shrugged set in 18th-century England (and minus Ayn Rand's tendentious economic didacticism) (...) Have I made clear that The Lunar Men is a book you can live in for a month or longer, especially in these dark times ? Start reading some evening when the moon is full." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jenny Uglow tells the stories of many men in The Lunar Society. The core is a group of five friends -- Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt -- who established a Lunar Society that met monthly (on or close to the full moon, to better find their way back home again afterwards). They (and other Lunar men) did remarkable things -- not so much together, but helped, inspired, and egged on by each other -- and Uglow sets out to recount .... what sometimes seems like absolutely all of it.
       The Lunar men lived in remarkable times, too -- most of the book focusses on the second half of the 18th century, a time of great innovation (scientific and otherwise), burgeoning industrialization, and increasing consumerism. Interestingly, too, this group was found not in the capital-hub that was London, but outside of it, in and around Birmingham.
       Uglow nicely sets the scene, of a changing England with many new opportunities. Trade on a rapidly growing scale, and new markets and new possibilities fuel both local and national growth, and affected also the Lunar men. From grand canal schemes -- to facilitate transport -- to the production of chinaware to the harnessing of steam power (for pumps and engines) to money-minting to Thomas Day's attempts at girl-raising, Uglow recounts the many plans, endeavours, and schemes these men were involved in. Part of the peculiar charm of the book is also that, despite some brilliant ideas, many of these resulted, more or less, in failure: modernisation, innovation, and some of these fancy ideas were (like the high-ways of the time) anything but a smooth road.
       Fascinating, also, is the breadth of intellectual curiosity of the group -- and the sometimes unlikely inspiration that they found in each other's ideas. And from various experiments with electricity and magnetism to Darwin's poetic rendition of Linnaeus plant-system to the chinaware fashions in the England of the day to balloon experiments and so much more, Uglow tells a ton of fascinating stories and anecdotes. In addition, the book certainly gains from the particular attention she pays to the characters, showing how very human they could be.
       Fascinating stuff, almost all of it. Really: fascinating. But there's a problem, too -- that there is so much of it. It's hard to do these men and their accomplishments justice, but Uglow does her damnedest, and one is certainly left with a good idea of these men's lives and accomplishments. One is also easily left dizzy, with this abundance of detail and overlapping biographies.
       It's difficult material to control, Uglow admitting:

The Lunar men talked, corresponded and collaborated constantly. But they were never a single unit, rolled into a ball surging forward towards a single goal. Each took their own separate paths.
       And those paths lead seemingly almost everywhere -- one of the neat things about this book, but also one of the difficulties with it. And, as if that were not enough, as Uglow reminds the reader:
All the Lunar stories overlap. But running beneath them all is the grand narrative of the nation.
       The paths of the central figures ultimately seem to tug in too many directions, and the Lunar Society itself isn't focussed on enough to lend the book the necessary cohesion.
       Still, it's hard not to like the book. It's filled with good, little-known stories and fascinating figures, and recounts both significant scientific and industrial advances and very personal travails. There's an overabundance of material here: the book is bursting with it, and that can make it difficult to get through occasionally. But generally it's worth the reader's while.

       Uglow does a reasonable job of presenting the material, but the narrative isn't as tight as one might wish. A bit better editing might also have helped things: in chapter 7, for example, attention returns to Erasmus Darwin, but the passage introduces him only as a "Darwin" -- which would be fine, were it not for the fact that there is then mention of "his sons -- Charles was four in 1762 and Erasmus a sturdy three year-old." Given the profusion and confusion of names throughout the book a bit more information is required here. (The reader who has lost track of which Erasmus might be which might choose to consult the index to see if there is mention of a junior Erasmus on this page (p.80) -- but pity the fool that relies on an index in a contemporary book: "Darwin, Erasmus (son, 1759-99)" is found there -- but according to the index the first mention of him in the text is on page 173. Turning the to page 173 one finds mention of "Charles and Erasmus Darwin junior" -- a helpful junior-tag that is inexplicably missing on page 80.) Similarly an early mention of Benjamin Franklin introduces him simply as "Franklin" -- as if there could be no other.

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The Lunar Men: Reviews: The Lunar Society: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jenny Uglow is the author of several biographies.

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© 2002-2022 the complete review

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