A remarkably thorough yet accessible look at the reception of an unlikely Victorian bestseller.
In this ambitious study, Secord (History and Philosophy of Science/Cambridge) attempts to capture some of what Carlyle called the “inward condition of Life” of the Victorians through a meticulous scrutiny of all facets of a work largely unknown to us today, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Published anonymously in London in 1844, this seminal volume of popular science was the Harry Potter of its day: beyond going into 14 editions and selling more than 40,000 copies in Britain alone, the work crossed international borders (with multiple translations into German and Dutch, and a vast popularity in the US) and reached across class lines with dramatic effect. Secord’s interest in the content of the book itself takes a backseat as he tackles both the production and reception of this precursor to Darwin with the roundabout acuity and patience of Miss Marple solving a village murder. He delves into the private correspondence of literati and commoner alike and unearths contemporary book reviews and political cartoons. What results is a surprisingly vivid picture of that most abstract phenomenon, culture formation. Conscientious research aside, the most pleasing aspect of this mammoth empirical undertaking is that the conclusions here are earned, not forced. The author’s assertions stem from his research, and not, as is too often the case in literary study, the other way around. 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.