Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of
the Victorian Age
Oxford University Press, 2014
John Withers, the mill owner, inventor, and self-made man of Geraldine Jewsbury’s novel Marian Withers (1851) hopes for the day
when machinery will be brought to such perfection that it will do all the drudgery of work that is not fit for human beings, and thus the workman will only need to give his intellect. The more a machine can be made to do, the more the character and position of the workman is raised; and every invention that goes to perfect machinery improves the condition of the working-classes at the same time.
Withers views education, increased mechanical efficiency, and personal happiness, as parts of a continuous cycle. The better educated the worker, the better he understands the machinery he operates, and the more likely it is that he will discover ways to make it more efficient. The satisfaction this brings, and the moral uplift of study in increased leisure time, satiates an appetite for political agitation. We see a real life Withers in the politician Henry Brougham who, in his Practical Observations Upon the Education of the People (1825), argued that scientific discoveries were likely to be made by men who both worked with machines and who had an understanding of the scientific principles by which those machines worked. Brougham founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826 with the aim of producing clear, affordable texts on a wide range of subjects, and was instrumental in establishing the Mechanics’ Institute movement in the early 1820s.
The social and political aims of Brougham and the SDUK serve as touchstones throughout James Secord’s Visions of Science. Secord argues that meaning in scientific texts is produced through the combined agency of writers, publishers, printers, and readers. Put simply, Visions of Science shows how scientific texts
can be understood through close reading and an understanding of their physical qualities as books, in light of the experiences of those who bought, borrowed, and discussed them […]
Secord’s chronology begins with the violence and agitation of Peterloo in 1819, and ends with Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. At the heart of this period sat the 1832 Reform Act, and the movements for social and educational, as well as political reform, that accompanied it. In Edinburgh Robert and William Chambers utilised the steam-powered printing press to produce unprecedentedly cheap instructional works. And in an attempt to consolidate metropolitan and provincial, national and international science, the British Association for the Advancement of Science was established and met for the first time in 1831. Secord brings the politics, press, and science of the period together, refining his scope by focusing on seven key texts published in the early 1830s. Each chapter explores a single work in detail, and in choosing to structure the book in this way Secord is able to include a vast amount of contextual information while retaining a clear focus. His selections derive from a wide range of publication sources: from cheap steam-printed editions, to expensive triple volume works, to serialised journal publications. It is through this diversity that Secord is able to highlight the discordant attitudes towards an apparently politically liberating scientific press. Was the power of knowledge seen as dangerous? Was the cheaper press really successful in distributing accessible scientific works to a wider audience? What were the advantages, for the sciences and scientists themselves, to publishing in a more expensive form?
Humphry Davy’s posthumous Consolations in Travel (1830) consisted of a series of dialogues on belief and scientific discovery, situating God at the root of all understanding of the natural world. Secord’s opening chapter explores the ways in which the dialogue form presents readers, simultaneously, with multiple possibilities for how the book might be read; might we equate Davy’s voice with one, all, or none of his characters? Which position might we ourselves adopt? One possible reading of Davy’s work, that Secord is right to point out, sees in the dialogue form the potential to “recreate the experience of participating in scientific conversation, debate, and discovery.” Reading itself can then be a surrogate for scientific practice.
From the contemplative excursion of Consolations Secord turns to Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), a book well known for its venomous attacks on older institutions of scientific knowledge. Babbage argued that such societies were prone to abuse and devalue science (he singled out the Royal Society for particular criticism). Wealthy individuals joined simply for the letters they could then use after their names, while practising scientists who were employed in government work abused their positions, and some even reported fraudulent results. The book sold badly; its bitter and, at times, personal attacks were a caustic assault on many of Babbage’s contemporaries. In its attempts to redefine decorum in science, Reflections occupies an important position in Visions of Science.
Such questions about the appropriate behaviour of scientific practitioners are at the heart of John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831). As Secord argues, this relatively cheap book sold well and was read partly as a conduct manual, “to encourage behaviour based on an understanding of reason as grounded in the practices of science.” This is the most interesting chapter the book has to offer, as it exhibits the most persistent analysis of the economic production of the book, and the uses to which it might be put by readers. An introductory treatise to the Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse could be advertised as part of the series or as a standalone work. Copies included several title pages so readers could choose how they were to read. Its glazed calico and card binding meant that the book was protected from wear and tear whether or not the reader chose to have her copy rebound in expensive leather. Preliminary Discourse existed, therefore, in multiple material states at once, and it was up to the reader to decide which version to use. In its nineteenth-century afterlife, Herschel’s book was often extracted from or quoted without attribution, a kind of scientific or philosophical commonplacing. This malleability allows for an active readerly agency; what readers might do with books becomes an extension of what they might do with the political powers gained through reading.
On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) by Mary Somerville seems, in contrast, to be a dense, almost impenetrable work. Henry Brougham had approached Somerville to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into an accessible form, to be printed under the auspices of the SDUK. It quickly became clear that this complex work was unsuited to non-specialist readers; besides, sales for SDUK publications were in steady decline and would never reach the numbers to which Brougham aspired. Connexion was a version of the preface Somerville had written to accompany her work on Laplace, expanded to include aspects of astronomy, physics, and chemistry. While no scientific expertise was required to digest even this book, it was not an easy read. Nevertheless, contemporary reviewers praised Connexion, in particular the mathematical genius of its female writer. Somerville, the first woman to have a research paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society but who, because she was a woman, could not become a member, was held up as the exception rather than the rule of female intelligence. This being the case, Somerville’s work occupies a crucial position in Visions of Science, in drawing together the relationship between gender and the authority to communicate science.
In his following two chapters Secord considers books which aimed to make two disciplines, each with their own religious controversies, into sciences. For Charles Lyell, that discipline was geology. In Principles of Geology (in three volumes, 1830-3), a hugely detailed and wide-ranging work, Lyell aimed to redefine rather than destroy the relationship between science and religion, supporting geologists’ dating of the earth while arguing that an incomplete geological record made it impossible to reconstruct a complete narrative of the earth’s history. George Combe’s Constitution of Man (reissued in 1836 as part of Chamber’s “People’s Editions”) sought to manoeuvre another controversial field into the position of a respectable science: phrenology. Originating around the year 1800 in the work of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, phrenology drew connections between the mind, and the physiology of the brain. Phrenologists claimed that they could study the external features of the skull in order to deduce a person’s character. Constitution popularized the practice; Chamber’s cheap edition had sold 85,000 copies by 1850. In his analysis of Combe’s book, Secord is again attuned to the afterlife of science texts, recognising that readers reuse and adapt texts even when the content has ceased to be considered scientific. As the status of phrenology declined from the mid-century onwards, the idea of reading the external in order to understand character lived on in social attitudes to race, gender, and crime.
Secord’s decision to dedicate his final chapter to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833), not a scientific text but a satire on scientific writing, greatly enriches the argument of the book as a whole. Serialized in the Tory Fraser’s Magazine, Sartor was a mock call by Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröck, for a “science of clothes”. Carlyle showed how the use of science to determine internal meanings could be brought to absurd conclusions and, in being published in a periodical that was already critical of the mass education promoted by Brougham, Sartor was a counter voice to such idealism. This chapter illustrates in greater detail what is particularly successful in Visions of Science as a whole: an attention to the contemporary scrutiny of scientific texts and the multi-vocal textual responses to them, in cartoons, satires, and literature.
Secord’s book weaves together strands from the history of science, literary criticism, and book history, in a work which is highly accessible but which does not compromise on academic rigour. By focusing on select but significant texts, Visions of Science achieves an expansive view of early nineteenth-century print culture through a series of acute and suggestive readings.
* Geraldine Jewsbury, Marian Withers 3 vols. (London: Colburn and Co., 1851), III, 46.
Sarah Hanks  is a D.Phil. candidate in English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.