Vestiges of the natural history of creation, by James R. Secord (Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 2000) 624 p. ISBN 0-226-74410-8. $US35.00.
In the early Nineteenth Century the word “sensation” acquired a new shade of meaning: “A strong emotion (e.g. of horror, hope, curiosity etc.) aroused by some particular occurrence or situation; the production of violent emotion as an aim in works of literature or art” (OED). It had been fed largely by fiction in the Gothic mode, such as Frankenstein, or The Castle of Otranto. Vestiges of the natural history of creation, published in 1844, would seem unlikely to come into this category: it was a sober, instructive attempt to synthesise current scientific knowledge and speculation into a coherent narrative supporting the idea of the evolutionary germination and growth of the universe and of life on earth (the “Development Hypothesis”), written by an unnamed author who had arranged for 750 copies to be published by a London firm specialising in medical subjects of limited general interest. In fact it became almost at once a sensation, partly through a few reviews in influential journals (some favourable, others, seeing a challenge to religious orthodoxy or political stability, decidedly hostile). The few people lucky enough to obtain early copies soon ensured that it became a popular talking-point and dinner-table topic. Benjamin Disraeli told his wife, “It will cause the greatest sensation and confusion”. Large reprints were soon under way.
A frenzied guessing game grew around the identity of the mysterious, audacious author. Readers of the period were familiar with writers’ anonymity in periodical journalism, and even in major fiction (e.g. Sir Walter Scott, author of Waverley); but an anonymous work of science was a rarity. One of the foremost candidates was Ada, Countess of Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), already known for her scientific interests; another was T. H. Huxley, who in fact became one of its most hostile attackers and accurately guessed its authorship before this was eventually revealed. But there were many other suspects, high and low, from Prince Albert to Henry Brougham, to Marion Evans (“George Eliot”), to W. M. Thackeray. The work was seen as too heretical for a clergyman to have written; while some who suggested female authorship tended to see in its perceived weaknesses the limitations of the female mind.
The name of the author, little known to the world at large, was Robert Chambers, the junior member of the firm of W. & R. Chambers, Booksellers and Publishers of Edinburgh. They were having some impact on the society of their time as pioneers in providing cheap reading matter for the huge readership resulting from the growth of literacy in the Middle and Working Classes after the Industrial Revolution. Among their publications was Chambers Edinburgh Journal, a weekly first published at three halfpence in 1832, and soon attaining a steady sale of eighty thousand copies. Much of the content was written by Robert, under the editorship of his elder brother William. He was also quite prolific in other literary work, from small educational books to more substantial studies such as Traditions of Edinburgh. The two volumes of Chambers Cyclopaedia of Literature came out in 1844, the same year as Vestiges. Robert was at this time recovering from a breakdown caused by overwork and his brother’s callous exploitation.
He would not have anticipated the surge of publicity his book caused: he had not been writing for the general public who seized upon his ideas so voraciously. As a non-evangelical Deist, he was careful to attribute the transmission of evolutionary development to natural laws ordained by God; but at the same time he was prescient enough to foresee a clash with religious orthodoxy. No doubt for this reason, as well as to protect his business interests, he took elaborate steps to ensure secrecy. Few even of his closest associates were in the know. His manuscripts were transcribed in another hand (probably his wife’s) and forwarded to his friend, Alexander Ireland, living in Manchester. Ireland put the copy in fresh covers and transmitted it to John Churchill, the publisher, who passed it on to the printer, Mr. Savill (thus neither the publisher nor the printer were aware of the work’s Scottish origin). Printer’s proofs were sent to Manchester, then posted on to Edinburgh. Corrected proofs went through the same process. Vestiges went through several editions over the next forty years, transformed by revisions and changes in format: the tenth edition of 1853 was well illustrated in accordance with its perceived status as a standard scientific work. The anonymity was maintained until 1884 when, Robert Chambers having died in 1871, the 12th edition came out with the author’s name on the title-page, and a preface by Alexander Ireland giving full details of the conspiracy of secrecy. By that time of course Vestiges had been overtaken by Darwin’s publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species, with its far more rigorous scientific content, supported by his theory of “natural selection” as the mechanism of species change. Chambers’ work however continued to be read for the rest of the nineteenth century for its easy and persuasive prose style.
Nowadays “sensational” is so overused as to imply triviality; but there is nothing trivial about James Secord’s study of Vestiges: “To my knowledge [the present book] offers the most comprehensive analysis of the reading of any book other than the Bible ever undertaken”, is his proud claim, which it would be hard to refute.
His encyclopaedic mind charts a wide-ranging and profound exploration into most aspects of early Victorian England, its social, scientific and intellectual life, its economy and technology, including the book and printing trades. For instance, Charles Babbage, famous for his calculating machines, in his book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures exposed trade secrets to show that a book’s price had been determined less by production costs than by taxes on knowledge and the restrictive practices of the book trade. Babbage found himself having to look for another publisher; nevertheless books were steadily becoming cheaper and more widely distributed. Secord has also researched the business relationships of the Chambers brothers, the curious science of Phrenology, John Churchill and his publishing principles, as well as the shifting strata of society. His book is a seemingly inexhaustible mine of instructive and entertaining detail, enhanced by numerous illustrations from contemporary sources.
One thing he seems to have overlooked is the strange circumstance which directed the individual development of Robert Chambers’ life and character. William Chambers relates in his classic Memoirs how both he, born in 1800, and Robert, born two years later, were afflicted with a superfluity of digits: six fingers on each hand, six toes on each foot. The brothers were operated on to remove the unwanted appendages, but in Robert’s case the operation on one foot was botched, with the result that he had difficulty walking, thus becoming the more sedentary, therefore more studious and intellectual member of the family. Both brothers were keen readers, but Robert must have been phenomenal: at the age of eleven, when he had much leisure due to sickness, he tackled the fourth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica which their father had bought in a fit of extravagance (it was, significantly, the first to cover the young science of geology) and which, as the family descended into poverty, he was soon forced to sell. The family’s misfortunes, due partly to the father’s fecklessness but initially due to the impact of mechanisation on his business as a prosperous employer in hand-weaving, meant that they had to scrape to afford Robert the continuance of his schooling, though eventually he was cheated of the University education he had coveted. There is no doubt, however, that Robert was well-equipped for the industrious and fruitful writing career with which he embellished William’s initiatives as a business organiser, after the dire struggles they both had in getting started in bookselling and moving into publishing.
He did not have sufficient scientific training to escape ridicule, as in his creative guess that a mammal might have derived from a bird via the intervening link of a platypus. In later life he was enabled to achieve greater mobility by having an operation to correct his damaged foot, so that he could pursue an interest in field geology. But it seems that without the unlucky chance of his lameness, it is unlikely that Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation would have emerged to inspire Arthur Russell Wallace in his travels to test the “Development Hypothesis”. Charles Darwin would have been without the useful predecessor whom he celebrated in the preface to The Origin of Species when it was published in 1859 (fifteen years after Vestiges): “The work, from its powerful and brilliant style … immediately had a very wide circulation. In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country, in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.”
The author of Victorian Sensation, James A. Secord, is Reader in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago and London) has served him well in the production of his book. Handsomely quarter bound in black cloth with green papered boards, printed on fine paper, the type-face, Minion, is admirably clear, though a shade light for my aging eye-sight (yearning back for the imprinted page). The author’s list of references is impressive; and the Index, compiled by Martin White, seems to me a masterpiece of its kind.