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Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation

Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation

by James A. Secord

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Fiction or philosophy, profound knowledge or shocking heresy? When Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously in 1844, it sparked one of the greatest sensations of the Victorian era. More than a hundred thousand readers were spellbound by its startling vision—an account of the world that extended from the formation of the solar


Fiction or philosophy, profound knowledge or shocking heresy? When Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously in 1844, it sparked one of the greatest sensations of the Victorian era. More than a hundred thousand readers were spellbound by its startling vision—an account of the world that extended from the formation of the solar system to the spiritual destiny of humanity. As gripping as a popular novel, Vestiges combined all the current scientific theories in fields ranging from astronomy and geology to psychology and economics. The book was banned, it was damned, it was hailed as the gospel for a new age. This is where our own public controversies about evolution began.

In a pioneering cultural history, James A. Secord uses the story of Vestiges to create a panoramic portrait of life in the early industrial era from the perspective of its readers. We join apprentices in a factory town as they debate the consequences of an evolutionary ancestry. We listen as Prince Albert reads aloud to Queen Victoria from a book that preachers denounced as blasphemy vomited from the mouth of Satan. And we watch as Charles Darwin turns its pages in the flea-ridden British Museum library, fearful for the fate of his own unpublished theory of evolution. Using secret letters, Secord reveals how Vestiges was written and how the anonymity of its author was maintained for forty years. He also takes us behind the scenes to a bustling world of publishers, printers, and booksellers to show how the furor over the book reflected the emerging industrial economy of print.

Beautifully written and based on painstaking research, Victorian Sensation offers a new approach to literary history, the history of reading, and the history of science. Profusely illustrated and full of fascinating stories, it is the most comprehensive account of the making and reception of a book (other than the Bible) ever attempted.
  Winner of the 2002 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was one of the Victorian era's bestsellers. In England in the 1840s, everyone was reading it: aristocrats, students, barmaids, farmers. Those who couldn't read were having it read to them, and everyone was discussing it over tea or ale. Pre-Darwinian, the book shocked and titillated readers by suggesting that the planets and stars had their origin in a blazing fire-mist and that life on earth had evolved. University of Cambridge's Secord traces the history of science in Victorian times and translates the wacky theories in Vestiges into modern, accessible language; he also outlines a history of reading and publishing in 19th-century England. We learn, for example, that in the two decades before the publication of Vestiges, English bookmakers began experimenting with more identifiable bindings. Publishers were wary of new, untested novelists but churned out cheap volumes of nonfiction, many of them on scientific themes. Early in the century, working-class people read primarily religious works, radical political pamphlets and astrology guides, but in the 1830s they began devouring scientific treatises, boning up on phrenology and physiology. Secord also shows how a small army of writers and editors managed to profit from Vestiges--writers were paid top rates to review the book; scientific periodicals began flying off the stands after the book appeared. In addition, a plethora of outraged responses to the perceived sacrilege provide a printed microcosm of the West's longstanding battle between science and religion. Secord's book is an exemplar of nuanced, scholarly curiosity--i.e., he delivers a brief study of the phenomenon of sensation in the 19th century--and clear, understated prose. Anyone interested in English history or the histories of science or literature shouldn't miss it. Illus. throughout. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The publication in 1844 of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation caused a tremendous stir among the general educated public, organized religion, and the scientific community. Secord (history and philosophy of science, Cambridge Univ.; Controversy in Victorian Geology) details all aspects of its publication and reception, including the social history, role of reading, histories of evolution and printing, and interplay between religion and science. Vestiges is often regarded as a precursor to Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, but the author ably demonstrates that it has its own important place in history. Its publication really did create a sensation owing to its controversial subject matter, philosophy, and anonymous authorship (revealed to be Robert Chambers years after publication), and the book was widely read, debated, condemned, and praised. This account will satisfy bibliophiles and readers with interest in science, publishing, and Victorian society and is essential for library collections encompassing these subjects.--Joyce L. Ogburn, Univ. of Washington Libs., Seattle Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
was published anonymously in 1844, sparking one of the Victorian era's greatest controversies. Its account of the world, which extended from the formation of the solar system to the spiritual destiny of humanity, drew on current scientific theories in fields ranging from astronomy to psychology. Secord, (University of Cambridge) uses the story of to create a panoramic portrait of life in the early industrial era from the perspective of its readers. He reveals how was written and how the anonymity of its author was maintained for 40 years. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A remarkably thorough yet accessible look at the reception of an unlikely Victorian bestseller. In this ambitious study, Secord (History and Philosophy of Science/Cambridge) attempts to capture some of what Carlyle called the "inward condition of Life" of the Victorians through a meticulous scrutiny of all facets of a work largely unknown to us today, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Published anonymously in London in 1844, this seminal volume of popular science was the Harry Potter of its day: beyond going into 14 editions and selling more than 40,000 copies in Britain alone, the work crossed international borders (with multiple translations into German and Dutch, and a vast popularity in the US) and reached across class lines with dramatic effect. Secord's interest in the content of the book itself takes a backseat as he tackles both the production and reception of this precursor to Darwin with the roundabout acuity and patience of Miss Marple solving a village murder. He delves into the private correspondence of literati and commoner alike and unearths contemporary book reviews and political cartoons. What results is a surprisingly vivid picture of that most abstract phenomenon, culture formation. Conscientious research aside, the most pleasing aspect of this mammoth empirical undertaking is that the conclusions here are earned, not forced. The author's assertions stem from his research, and not, as is too often the case in literary study, the other way around. Secord powerfully reminds us that reading is a creative act and that history, quite literally, is only what we make of it. A path-breaking work for scholars of reader-response theory and culturalanthropology-anda riveting read for Victorian buffs and those interested in the history of popular science.

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Victorian Sensation

The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation

By James A. Secord

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-74410-8

Chapter One

A Great Sensation

And what a sensation some books created!-The Autobiography of Mary
Smith, Schoolmistress and Nonconformist, a Fragment of a Life

In mid-November 1844 Alfred Lord Tennyson opened the latest issue of the
Examiner, a weekly reform newspaper, and turned to the notices of books.
The lead review, devoted to a just-published work called Vestiges of the
Natural History of Creation
, immediately caught his eye:

In this small and unpretending
volume we have found so many great
results of knowledge and reflection,
that we cannot too earnestly
recommend it to the attention of
thoughtful men. It is the first attempt
that has been made to connect the
natural sciences into a history of
creation. An attempt which
presupposed learning, extensive and
various; but not the large and liberal
wisdom, the profound philosophical
suggestion, the lofty spirit of
beneficence, and the exquisite grace
of manner,which make up the charm
of this extraordinary book.

Intrigued, Tennyson asked his bookseller to send him a copy, noting that
the work "seems to contain many speculations with which I have been
familiar for years, and on which I have written more than one poem." In
return Tennyson received a small volume bound in bright red cloth.
Advertising bound inside showed that the publisher dealt in medical
textbooks and monographs on obscure diseases; otherwise the origins and
authorship were a mystery.

Tennyson was enthralled, "quite excited." As a contemporary remarked, "He
reads all sorts of things, swallows and digests them like a great poetical
boa-constrictor." The book ranged from astronomy and geology to moral
philosophy and the prospect of a future life, all drawn together in a
gripping cosmological narrative. The early pages described a nebular
hypothesis of the universe, showing how stars, planets, and moons had
evolved from a gaseous "Fire-mist." Tennyson then followed the book's
story of geological progress, from simple invertebrate animals up through
fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and man. These were ideas he knew
well. God worked through a law that brought forth new species just as it
did new worlds. Man's spiritual sense and reason were the products of
development, part of what the unknown author called "the universal
gestation of nature." There was, Tennyson later concluded, "nothing
degrading in the theory."

The Examiner had been one of the first to publish a review. Over five
columns, Tennyson read of "the simplicity of the author's manner, and the
beauty of his style"; this was one of the great works of the age. The
unknown author, someone who had "earnestly investigated nature," had
conducted his inquiry with "much modesty and so much knowledge." There
were no criticisms of mistakes or the wider philosophy. The evolution of
new species, and even of human beings, although "a remarkable hypothesis,"
was described as worthy of consideration. In time, the author might even
be able to throw off the mask of anonymity, for "there is now abroad in
the world a certain rare disposition" to hear the truths of nature in "a
beneficent spirit." The Examiner regretted only the author's failure to
recognize Greek foreshadowings of its doctrines. "What are these," the
reviewer asked, "but, in another and simpler shape, the noblest thoughts
and the loftiest aspirations that have consoled and elevated the hopes of
humanity in his world?" Other works need only be borrowed; Vestiges was a
book Tennyson wanted to buy.

Tennyson was fortunate to have ordered his copy. As his friend and fellow
author Edward Fitzgerald reported, the Examiner's eulogy sold out the
first edition in a few days. Extraordinary rumors began to circulate. A
huge number of copies-perhaps most of the impression-appeared to have been
given away. The book seemed to emanate from the very center of English
life: leading aristocrats, members of Parliament, and famous men of
science were suggested as the author. As the novelist and politician
Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his sister Sarah, Vestiges "is convulsing the
world, anonymous" and from a publisher he had never heard of. As his wife
Mary had told her: "Dizzy says it does & will cause the greatest sensation
& confusion."

* * *

Anonymous Power

For many readers, the most arresting feature of Vestiges was the lack of
an author on the title page (fig. 1.2). More than anything else, this
rendered it a sensation. Here was a work dealing with the most profound
questions of existence, apparently in command of a dozen different
sciences, but written by an unknown author. In a commercial society with
an expanding population, in which people passed on the street in large
cities without knowing one another, anonymity could raise anxieties about
who might be pointing public debate in a potentially dangerous direction.
The author's identity excited interest for months, in some quarters for
decades. Speculations included reformers and reactionaries, women and men,
aristocrats and working-class socialists, novelists, and celebrated
naturalists. All the guesses had limited success. As one geologist wrote
to an American friend, "A little volume of 390 pages, anonymous ... has
made a great sensation, chiefly I believe because the author cannot be

Nineteenth-century readers were, of course, far more familiar with
anonymity than modern ones are. Almost all periodical journalism was
anonymous, from the comic weekly Punch to the upmarket quarterlies, and
many celebrated novels did not announce their author. Vanity Fair, Mary
, and Yeast (to name a few) were all unsigned; and Jane Eyre, Adam
, and Wuthering Heights were issued under pseudonyms. Famous poems,
notably In Memoriam, also appeared anonymously. There were many reasons
for avoiding identification. Women, including genteel ladies, did not want
their literary reputations scrutinized too closely under the public eye;
clerics, lawyers, or other professional men did not want to damage their
prospects for advancement. An important class of political and theological
works were anonymous, often to protect their authors from charges of
heterodoxy. Anonymous periodical publication was widely defended as
guaranteeing independence and freedom from personal bias; and even those,
like the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who condemned the system
("anonymous power is irresponsible power"), did not extend their arguments
to separately published books.

Anonymity was so pervasive that most readers were little interested in
cracking it and had no way to do so even if they were. Yet deep anonymity
was unusual. Among those groups where knowing authors did matter-mainly
among social and literary elites-books or articles that received any
degree of celebrity were typically attributed within a few months. One
Scottish newspaper could scarcely believe that the universal praise for
Vestiges would not "drag the writer from his fancied obscurity into the
brightness of the fame he has so nobly achieved." To find so widely
canvassed an unknown authorship, contemporaries had to look back to the
early speculation about the identity of "the Author of Waverley," whose
novels had begun to issue mysteriously from the press in 1814. Many names
were proposed, although Sir Walter Scott quickly became the leading
suspect. In fact the only close parallel was a full half-century before in
the letters of "Junius," whose celebrated commentaries had rocked the
eighteenth-century political world. "Since the days of Junius," one
Vestiges reviewer noted, "few things have occurred to excite curiosity so
much as the authorship of this extraordinary book."

Anonymity was especially rare in history, biography, and science. The
chief point of publication in science was to secure authorship of the
facts of nature, so that anonymous scientific writings tended to be
periodical essays and run-of-the mill textbook surveys. The implication
was that unsigned works were unoriginal, part of the emerging genre of
"popular science" that aimed to diffuse known truths to the mass audience
in useful knowledge tracts and newspapers. Vestiges failed to fit
expectations. An anonymous book claiming conclusions at the highest
theoretical level was a curiosity, and demanded an exceptional degree of
trust from its readers. "Nothing," a reviewer wrote, "... can well be
more out of the ordinary course of events than to find a writer of very
extensive reading, high scientific attainments, and a perfect master of
the arts of writing and reasoning, anxious to shroud himself in the most
impenetrable mystery."

The only other category of scientific works that appeared anonymously by
convention were by the aristocracy, who might want knowledge of their
authorship circulated only among a select few. Two names dominated gossip
in fashionable society when the sensation was at its height: Ada, countess
of Lovelace and Byron's only legitimate daughter; and Sir Richard Vyvyan,
a leader of the opposition to the widening of the franchise in the 1832
Reform Bill. Both belonged to the hereditary aristocracy, which shows why
the book was often read as emanating from the centers of metropolitan
wealth and power. Both were strong possibilities, having written
anonymously on the sciences before. In almost every other way, however,
they could scarcely be more different, which shows the impossibility of
tying Vestiges down to a single meaning.

About the only point on which most readers seemed to agree was that the
book-despite its invocations of a deity-was too heterodox to have been
written by a clergyman. The quality of the writing might be taken to
indicate a journalist, novelist, or essayist. Some pointed to provincial
authors of theologically liberal works, such as the young Francis Newman
or Samuel Bailey of Sheffield, the author of Essays on the Formation and
Publication of Opinions and Other Subjects
(1821). The eccentric, prolific
Whig politician Henry Brougham was a common suspect. Others pointed to the
comic writer and journalist William Makepeace Thackeray, a
Cambridge-educated man who had lost his family fortune. The author and
political economist Harriet Martineau was certain that the phrenologist
and botanical geographer Hewett Watson was the author. As she explained to
a friend, Watson had just enough independent income not to depend on
public favor. He was "safe in the respect, & satisfied in the love of his
friends, & can brave (ie, disregard) the imputations of 'atheism' &c very

Martineau was herself a suspect, as was almost any other woman with
scientific interests. Accusations of female authorship were used to
undermine the work. For several months the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, a
leading geologist, suspected that Ada Lovelace had written the "beastly
book," which he condemned both in conversation on trips to London and in a
widely read critique in the July 1845 number of the Edinburgh Review.
Traces of feminine authorship could be found in the work's attractive
style, popular appeal, and "ready boundings over the fences of the tree of
knowledge." Most of all, it was "the sincerity of faith and love" with
which the author adopted her chosen system. It was on these grounds that
Martineau was often pegged as the author. Her formidable reputation as a
controversialist, mesmerist, and writer on political economy made her an
obvious choice. Another common suggestion was Catherine Crowe, novelist
and chronicler of the supernatural. Critics could attribute any weaknesses
to the innate qualities of the female mind in such women: strong reasoning
powers, but within a limited range. From this perspective, an impetuous
longing after certainty made Vestiges just the sort of synthesis a woman
might attempt.

Or perhaps Vestiges was written by a gentleman of science with
wide-ranging interests. What about Andrew Crosse, a wealthy country squire
famous for the insects that had emerged from his electrical experiments a
few years earlier? These experiments played an important part in the book.
Or how about Charles Babbage, the inventor of a calculating engine that
also figured there? Other names put forward included those of Edward
Forbes, the up-and-coming philosophical naturalist; Charles Lyell, author
of the Principles of Geology (1830-33); and Charles Darwin, the invalid
geologist and author of a round-the-world travel book.

Some people read Vestiges as the epitome of scientific expertise; others
dismissed it as the product of a dilettante: it all depended on what one
thought profound knowledge really was. Early in 1845, the most common
suggestion of a recognized man of science was the Unitarian physiologist
William Carpenter, who was known in aristocratic circles as tutor to Lord
and Lady Lovelace's children. As the spring wore on, traces of dialect in
the work began to be used to point to a Scottish voice, so that the moral
philosopher Alexander Bain, the novelist Catherine Crowe, the phrenologist
George Combe, and the astronomer John Pringle Nichol were sometimes
suspected-usually on the basis of gossip from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Only
after the first flush of interest in the book had subsided did suspicion
begin to fall upon the Scottish journalist and publisher Robert Chambers,
the cofounder of the largest mass-circulation publishing house in Britain.

* * *

An Avalanche of Print

Today we tend to measure the impact of books by counting the number of
editions and copies sold. However, the notion of a book as a "best-seller"
came into common currency only a century ago, as one of the changes in the
book trade at the start of the twentieth century. The best-seller emerged
as part of a "middlebrow" literary culture dominated by mass-marketing and
bourgeois consumption. Before that time, sales did of course matter to
publishers and authors, but outside the trade they were less important
than now. As one knowledgeable insider remarked, Vestiges "made a great
sensation on its appearance, and several large editions were sold-two
things which are not inseparable, for, as booksellers well know, a work
may be praised in every newspaper, and discussed at every dinner-table,
without having a great sale." Taste in clothes, furniture, art, and books
remained dominated by the aristocracy and urban gentry, so that in talking
about a book too much stress on figures could be seen as vulgar. In that
sense, no early Victorian books were best-sellers.

All the same, commerce did matter, and increasingly so. Multiple editions
were one sign of continuing appeal, so that if a title was not selling, a
publisher might issue it again (and again) with title pages announcing a
"new" edition.


Excerpted from Victorian Sensation
by James A. Secord
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James A. Secord is Reader in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He is author of, among others, Controversy in Victorian Geology, editor of the Chicago edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Other Evolutionary Writings, and coeditor of Cultures of Natural History.

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