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

"James A. Secord's Victorian Sensation is one of those books that transforms the way we think about what it would have been like to be alive in the 19th century. Secord traces the genesis, production, distribution and reception of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an anonymous and popular precursor to Charles Darwin that had everyone from Cambridge dons to laundresses poring over its scandalous 400 pages. Secord…charts the passions, terrors and rages of a society tottering on the edge of an epistemological abyss."—Kathryn Hughes, New Statesman

"Whoever the writer, the impact of Vestiges was tremendous, and it's this phenomenon that James Secord explores in Victorian Sensation, a superbly researched, fluently composed and not at all sensationalist study."—Roy Porter, New Scientist

"A remarkably thorough yet accessible look at the reception of an unlikely Victorian bestseller.…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 cultural anthropology—and a riveting read for Victorian buffs and those interested in the history of popular science."—Kirkus Reviews, starred

"Victorian Sensation is a magnificent encyclopedic work which explores the whole cultural phenomenon of the Vestiges…. It is a work of academic scholarship but do not be put off by the Victorian density of footnotes and references, this is a great read and appropriate accolade for a largely unsung Scottish hero."—Douglas Palmer, Glasgow Herald

Winner of the Pfizer Award for a Distinguished Book in the History of Science from the History of Science Society

An excerpt from
Victorian Sensation
The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
James A. Secord

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 (1892)

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 detected."

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 Barton, and Yeast (to name a few) were all unsigned; and Jane Eyre, Adam Bede, 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 comfortably."

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. Big sales, such as Vestiges was rumored to have, were evidence of "sensation." When Disraeli wrote to his sister in January 1845, he noted that the second edition was already sold out. There were two more editions that year, a total of ten after a decade, and fourteen in all during the nineteenth century. The publisher's account books show that first English edition had been only 750 copies, the second was 1,000, the third was 1,500, and the fourth was 2,000. By the end of 1860, 23,750 copies had been published in Britain, and by the end of the century the figure was just under 40,000. These are large numbers. Publishers usually issued from 500 to 1,000 copies of new titles, and the great majority never went into a second edition. For other kinds of reading, however, they are not so striking. First editions of Dickens's novels regularly had print runs of ten thousand or more, as did Thomas Babington Macaulay's History of England. A book of advice or almanac might sell hundreds of thousands of copies but not qualify as a sensation.

Statistics, then, are not enough to explain why Vestiges was considered a sensation. We get a better picture when we recognize that knowing the number of editions of a book is only the starting point for understanding the spread of a work through advertisements, extracts, conversations, and notices in print. Then as now, if a book failed to make an impact in the first weeks after publication it was unlikely ever to do so. Even successful books were rarely fashionable for longer than a few months. And the pace of sensation was speeding up. During the 1830s and 1840s, quarterly periodicals such as the Edinburgh, Quarterly, and Westminster Reviews—dominant in setting the literary agenda from the early 1800s through the 1820s—were supplanted as the most significant sites of debate by the monthlies and weeklies. "Magazine day," the first Monday of each month, became a major event on the publishing, bookselling, and Post Office calendar (fig. 1.12).

What would readers have found in the periodicals pouring out of the Post Office window toward the end of 1844? The reforming Spectator stressed the "power of popular exposition" in Vestiges and the "ingenuity" of its argument. The imperial Atlas had already praised the author's "extraordinary ability," "clearness of reasoning," and "the grandeur of the subjects of which he treats." It recognized, however, that the book would meet much opposition for its "wild hypothesis" that new species derived from existing ones. The leading medical weekly, the Lancet, hailed "a very remarkable book, calculated to make men think," valuable for revealing the connection between the different sciences. By the third week of November, the Morning Chronicle—the country's leading middle-class radical daily—tried to stop the swelling tide of acclaim. Because "some critics have expressed a much higher opinion," it feared the book was receiving unmerited celebrity.

The excitement in the papers tied readings into the daily news. Take, for example, the debate about the repeal of the import tax on corn, probably the most vigorously fought political issue at the time the book appeared. A Morning Chronicle leading article—obviously written by someone more positively inclined toward Vestiges than its reviewer—brought out its relevance for the crisis of the industrial cities:

It is no popular prejudice, that roast beef was at the bottom of our superiority over the French. Good food, and plenty of it, gives not only beautiful forms, but stout hearts, strong arms, and vigorous heads. How long the boasted superiority of England may continue, or how soon it may be numbered amongst those dreams of other times, if the legislature persist in narrowing the space whence supplies of food can be obtained, and enhancing the evils of a dense population, is not for us to conjecture; but we can safely say, according to the natural history we have quoted, that no system can be contrived more certain to destroy the supremacy of our beloved country…than to maintain a law which circumscribes the supply of food, and huddles the people together in comparative darkness and in stagnant air.

These thoughts derived from a reading that made Vestiges relevant to ongoing parliamentary debates about whether nature's laws were opposed to import tariffs on corn. The book was not a political tract, the notice acknowledged, but had "a direct bearing on one at least of the most important legislative questions of the day." In appealing directly to nature the book was all the more powerful as a political resource.

Vestiges also offered opportunities for the theatrical tactics of freethinking plebeian radicals. Even casual observers could not ignore the way in which the public sensation was being hijacked to further the cause of unbelief. Only a few minutes' walk from fashionable Bloomsbury, the windows of a freethought bookshop had Vestiges prominently displayed. A few weeks after Bosanquet's pamphlet went on sale, London was placarded with announcements that an atheist agitator with a prison record for blasphemy would be speaking on Vestiges. A year later, announcements promised an entire series of lectures on the book by the country's most notorious woman atheist. The audience for such talks rarely exceeded one hundred, but handbills were plastered across the metropolis. Street advertising was, without question, vital to cementing the association of Vestiges with religious disbelief.

It was unprecedented for a book of science to attract so much attention. Most of the newspapers and periodicals that carried reviews sold in several thousand copies, each being read by several readers. The newspaper reviews that appeared in the first two months were gradually supplemented by those in the monthlies—especially the fast-growing religious press—in December and early January. There were discussions at public meetings in several of Britain's fast-growing industrial and commercial cities, and consternation among gentlemanly men of science, alarmed to see a heterodox work advocating species evolution taking the public by storm. By then some of the more adventurous monthlies and quarterlies had published reviews, including supportive ones from parties of "advanced thought" in religion and medicine.

The prestige quarterlies took longer. Two anonymous reviews in the summer of 1845, in the Edinburgh Review and the North British Review, attempted to puncture the sensation with a great show of authority. These reviews were widely hailed as the great refutations of Vestiges, but they also gave it more publicity and sales. There was an extensive correspondence in the Times, and further newspaper discussion. Only a handful of separately published pamphlets targeted the work, but dozens of scientific, theological, and literary works mentioned it in passing. As 1845 drew to a close, the still-unknown author replied to his critics in a small volume entitled Explanations: A Sequel. Although this had few of the literary attractions of the original, and sold only three thousand copies, it led to several dozen further reviews, which kept the sensation going. As a decade of debate drew to a close, virtually all the leading men of science had expressed an opinion, from the newspaperman and geologist Hugh Miller in his Footprints of the Creator (1849) to the master of Trinity College in Cambridge, William Whewell, in his Indications of a Creator (1845). Vestiges was dissected at public scientific meetings, condemned from pulpits and lecture platforms, borrowed from circulating libraries, and read.

Evolutionary theories became a common currency of conversation. Characters in fiction could be compared with Vestiges, as when one reader noted that the eponymous hero of Sam Slick, the Clock-maker was "reverting from any body he ever had into his primordial fire mist," a clear reference to the early history of creation in the evolutionary universe. In Frank Smedley's comic novel Harry Coverdale's Courtship a half-drunken group of aristocrats and military men dine at a popular restaurant at Blackwall, consuming dishes in a developmental sequence that recapitulates the history of life as recounted in Vestiges. Fish, first served, transmute "into higher forms of animal, into which the highest form of all—man—pitches cannibal-like, until the culinary cosmos is resolved into its pristine chaotic elements." Judging from their constant appearance in letters and memoirs, such Vestigian analogies must have been ubiquitous in contemporary table talk.

Most books ceased to excite public comment after their first year. The annual social calendar continued to provide the most stable and significant chronology for literary fashion, which meant that most books lasted a single season. Excitement over major deaths, battles, and discoveries typically lasted a few weeks or even days, and can best be traced in the newspapers. Sensations over books typically lasted longer, usually a few months; thus in this regard the decades-long Vestiges controversy proved an exception. Even in such a case, though, the most active phase of debate lasted for just twenty months, from October 1844 to June 1846. By the time Mary Smith had a chance to read Vestiges in Carlisle, it was no longer a sensation in London. Cheap editions had begun to appear from the English publisher in the spring of 1846, at a price that the middle classes could readily afford. These were rarely reviewed but were widely read on trains and in libraries. By this time Vestiges was no longer fashionable, but it was available to a far wider range of readers. The book had a substantial international impact too. It was translated twice into German and twice into Dutch, and went through some twenty editions in the United States, where it sold more copies and had more readers than in Britain. A young lawyer and freethinker in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, read the work straight through—something he rarely did—and "became a warm advocate of the doctrine."

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 9-10, 17-21, 34-38 of Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

James A. Secord
Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
©2001, 644 pages, 155 halftones
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 0-226-74410-8
Paper $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-74411-6

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