Melissa Bailes specializes in British literature of the long eighteenth century (1660-1830), the history of science, Enlightenment philosophy, transatlantic and transnational studies, and women's writing. She has published on these topics in journals such as ELH, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Studies in Romanticism, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Eighteenth-Century Life, and European Romantic Review.
Her first book, Questioning Nature: British Women's Scientific Writing and Literary Originality, 1750-1830 (University of Virginia Press, 2017), won the British Society for Literature and Science’s Book Prize, “awarded for the best book in the field of literature and science published that year.” It also was shortlisted for the 2017-19 First Book Prize by the British Association for Romantic Studies. Questioning Nature argues that major women writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Anna Barbauld, Maria Riddell, Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Shelley, and Felicia Hemans, reconfigured literary, social, and national orders and identities through the natural sciences, achieving intertextual modes of originality that competed with developing ideas of solitary genius. Her second book, Nature’s Clockwork, investigates concepts of time that dramatized this era’s tensions between mechanistic and organic ideas of nature and appeared in both scientific and imaginative texts in such forms as geohistorical vertigo, botanical clocks, and environmental nostalgia.
Bailes has been awarded long-term fellowships from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, as well as short-term fellowships from organizations such as Yale's Lewis Walpole Library, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, and the Chawton House Library in the UK.