Cover image for 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
Secord, James A.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
xix, 624 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QH363 .S4 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Fiction or philosophy, profound knowledge or shocking heresy? When V estiges 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we watch as Charles Darwin turns its pages in the flea-ridden British Museum library, fearful for the fate of his own unpublished theory of evolution.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

Author Notes

James A. Secord is Reader in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 VestigesDwriters 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 curiosityDi.e., he delivers a brief study of the phenomenon of sensation in the 19th centuryDand clear, understated prose. Anyone interested in English history or the histories of science or literature shouldn't miss it. Illus. throughout. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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.DJoyce L. Ogburn, Univ. of Washington Libs., Seattle (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The anonymously published work of Robert Chambers (Scottish writer and amateur scientist), Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, is the "Victorian Sensation" and focus of this social history of early Victorian Britain. An important part of this discussion is how industrialization and the mass production of printed matter made books and periodicals more affordable. Scientific works became more accessible to ordinary people as well as the privileged; e.g., Laplace's nebular hypothesis, a theory explaining the origin of the universe, was an important influence on Chamber; Edinburgh lecturer John F. Fletcher presented science to a "broad audience," believing it was preferable to the "inflammatory political trash" of the radical press. Secord (Univ. of Cambridge) skillfully utilizes correspondence between Chambers and Alexander Ireland, a journalist and man of letters, one of the few who knew that Chambers was the author and helped him protect his anonymity. Although attention is given to the speculation of prominent Victorians about who wrote Vestiges, Chambers's earlier articles on evolution published in the periodical Chambers' Edinburgh Journal during the years 1836-37--which might have provided a clue--are not discussed. However, this outstanding work should appeal to scholars. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through professionals. J. S. Schwartz CUNY College of Staten Island

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Prologue: Devils or Angels
Part 1 Romances of Creation
1 A Great Sensation
2 Steam Reading
3 Evolution for the People
4 Marketing Speculation
Part 2 Geographies of Reading
5 Conversations on Creation
6 Science in the City
7 Church in Danger
8 The Holy War
Part 3 Spiritual Journeys
9 Sinners and Saints
10 Self-Development
11 Anonymity
Part 4 Futures of Science
12 The Paradoxes of Gentility
13 Grub Street Science
14 Mammon and the New Reformation
Epilogue: Lifting the Veil
Illustration Credits