(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anyone familiar with the history of science knows that the appearance of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 was not the first study to challenge the literal truth of the biblical story of creation. The scandal caused by Darwin’s theory of natural selection was but the latest bombshell dropped on a reading public that was still reeling from the shock of previous revelations in geology and biology that undermined religious beliefs. If On the Origin of Species toppled the edifice of divine revelation for Victorian readers, however, it was because the foundations of received dogma had been weakened by a series of studies that began appearing in the eighteenth century, continuing with some regularity into the early decades of the nineteenth. With hindsight, it is easy to see also that no precursor to Darwin’s work had more impact on the British reading public than the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844.

That Vestiges caused a stir throughout Britain when it appeared is a historical commonplace. Any work positing that men may have been descended from apes, or that the world was millions of years old, would have been met with swift condemnation by both the general public and by the intellectual community as well. Readers’ reaction in 1835 to the appearance of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology had already demonstrated how sensational the publication of such theories could be. Despite the almost universally negative reaction to Vestiges, the book stayed in print for decades, was reissued in a series of editions that updated the author’s findings and conclusions for a public continually tantalized and tormented by the challenges of science to theological doctrine. By their own admission, such diverse figures as the politician William Gladstone, the novelist Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the humanitarian Florence Nightingale, and even Queen Victoria herself felt the impact of Vestiges.

In Victorian Sensation, James Secord, a distinguished scholar and recognized expert on the history of science, explores the reasons why Vestiges elicited such dynamic, and often diametrically opposite, reactions among the British reading public. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, Secord examines not only the history of this book’s reception, but ways that industrial advancements, changes in taste, attitudes toward religion, the practice of politics, and university life made possible the sensational impact Vestiges had in England and Scotland. In doing so, he unravels the complex reasons why the Scottish publisher and editor Robert Chambers chose to maintain his anonymity as the author of such a widely read and influential study. Secord’s aim, hinted at in the introductory chapters but expressed most succinctly near the end, is to explore “the introduction of an evolutionary account of nature into public debate in order to see what happens when a major historical episode is approached from the perspective of reading.” Victorian Sensation is nothing less, he asserts, than a prolegomenon to a new form of cultural study becoming prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, the history of communication. In this respect, Secord sets for himself a daunting task, but manages to handle it masterfully.

Among the interesting threads woven throughout his study, Secord’s analysis of the reasons for Chambers’s choosing to keep his authorship of Vestiges a secret from all but a very small circle of family and friends is particularly intriguing. To Secord’s readers, looking back from a world where notoriety through authorship is a much-sought-after commodity, Chambers’s decision might seem curious—unless one assumes that he was simply afraid of the negative personal attacks that might be launched at him. Secord admits that such fear was partially responsible for Chambers’s hesitancy in being openly associated with his controversial work, but he points out that the penchant for anonymity was more common among...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)