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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history

Victorian Sensation

James A. Secord

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To purchase Victorian Sensation

Title: Victorian Sensation
Author: James A. Secord
Genre: Literary history
Written: 2000
Length: 532 pages
Availability: Victorian Sensation - US
Victorian Sensation - UK
Victorian Sensation - Canada
  • The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation"

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Our Assessment:

A- : rich, fascinating account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
English Historical Rev. . 4/2002 Robert Fox
London Rev. of Books . 22/8/2002 Richard Fortey
Nature . 18/1/2001 David Oldroyd
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2005 Frank J. Sulloway
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 20/5/2001 Arianne Chernock
Science . 2/2/2001 David L. Hull
The Spectator A 10/3/2001 Jane Ridley
Sunday Telegraph . 25/2/2001 Kathryn Hughes
TLS A 13/7/2001 Janet Browne
Victorian Studies . Fall/2002 Simon J. Knell

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "His method is to investigate almost everything to do with Vestiges except its actual content." - Richard Fortey, London Review of Books

  • "Prodigiously researched, Secord's book also demands a great deal from its readers. (...) Secord allows our understanding of Vestiges to grow slowly, and piecemeal, as we see the book's contents through the diverse readings it received" - Frank J. Sulloway, The New York Review of Books

  • "His thesis is convincing, but he struggles to determine the precise role of Vestiges. (...) Unfortunately, another book on Vestiges itself rather than this intelligent analysis of its production and reception is needed to determine whether Secord's argument is well-founded." - Arianne Chernock, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Some of this is heavy going, but Secord uses his research to overturn accepted views in a thrilling piece of revisionism. (...) This is an impressive, timely and important book. Secord crosses disciplines with the effortless elegance of an intellectual athlete, using ideas pioneered by literary theory to build a new history of science." - Jane Ridley, The Spectator

  • "All this provides rich pickings for Secord, who has attempted nothing less than a study of the complete reading experience in early Victorian Britain. (...) The result is an extraordinarily sophisticated and accomplished book that will inevitably change (and complicate) the way in which academic cultural history is written in the years to come." - Kathryn Hughes, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Victorian Sensation is neither a biography of Robert Chambers nor a biography of a book (although it fills both these purposes admirably), but a powerful analysis of the making of cultural history that locates this anonymous radical tract in full historical context and vividly pictures the socially resonant process of reading." - Janet Browne, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation made quite a splash when it was first published (anonymously) in 1844. This unusual tome -- "a literary hybrid", Secord emphasizes, "whose status within accepted genres of fiction, science, and philosophy was indeterminate" -- was a precursor of sorts to Darwin's work, suggesting an evolutionary theory closer to Darwin's ideas than the prevalent ones of the times. It was also, as Secord shows, a true "Victorian Sensation". Much read and widely discussed it was among the most influential and notorious tomes of the day (though it has now largely been forgotten). The illustrious Robert Chambers was the author, though he was not truly unmasked as such for decades.
       James Secord is the editor of a modern edition of Vestiges (University of Chicago Press, 1994). In Victorian Sensation, however, he focusses less on the content of the book itself than on its history and reception. It is a book about the sensation, rather than about the book per se. And it is, very much, a book about reading and publishing. Secord himself suggests that, to his knowledge, Victorian Sensation "offers the most comprehensive analysis of the reading of any book other than the Bible ever undertaken."
       It is certainly an impressive and far-reaching effort. It touches on: history, reading, publishing, the practise of science, class, religion, politics, the status and role of women, anonymity, technological advancement and its implications, and much more.
       Secord begins with the idea of the book as a sensation, significant not simply for what it said but how it was received. Several aspects of the book helped make it a sensation, including the subject matter: it was a book making some bold, even heretical, claims about the origin of man, written for a general audience yet also a work of science. "More than anything else", however, Secord maintains, what made it a sensation was its anonymous presentation: there was no author on the title page, indeed none to be discovered behind the book. Authorship does much to determine the reception of a book, but here it was anonymity that helped shaped how the book was seen, read, and discussed.
       A prolific and well-known writer, Robert Chambers hid his identity as author of Vestiges remarkably well. Certainly, the book would have also aroused considerable interest had he identified himself as its author, but the anonymous presentation allowed the focus to be almost entirely on the work itself. For Chambers to be known as the author would have drawn attention away from the arguments of the book, focussing on Chambers' qualifications to write on this subject and his possible motives. Anonymity raised similar concerns but allowed for much more varied speculation. And trying to figure out who the author was remained a popular exercise for years.
       With his brother, William, Robert Chambers was a successful and very active editor and publisher, as well as the author of many books (including Scottish Jests and Anecdotes, which Secord describes as "a foolhardy attempt to prove the Scots a 'jocular race' "). Secord gives a good overview of how Chambers came to write this unusual book. He then also focusses on the actual production of the book: the selection of the publisher (and consequences and benefits thereof), the look and price of the book, the marketing. Secord focusses on every detail, including the manufacturing process, presenting a useful look at the changes the publishing industry was undergoing in the England in the 19th century. Secord seems to stray far afield on occasion, but it is all relevant: the publishing process and then particularly how the book was made available.
       The first edition was an expensive one, limiting the audience who could purchase the book outright. Chambers' interest was, however, not primarily in making a huge profit, and he actually gave a large number of copies away (150 out of the first run of 750) -- presumably getting the book into the hands of at least some of his target-audience. The rise of circulating libraries in this time also made this (and many other books) more accessible to a larger audience, and Secord dutifully follows the path of various copies of Vestiges where he can. Secord considers the various editions, including the later, cheaper, popular ones, as well as pirated American ones, tracing the changes in readership and the change in audience and interest in the book. The sensation did not simply pop like a balloon (as many do); it lingered.
       Secord shows how Vestiges was received on all levels, considering the various reviews (and tracing how, when, and often why they appeared) as well as numerous individual experiences with the book, from Queen Victoria ("Early in 1845 Prince Albert read Vestiges aloud to the young queen each afternoon") to Charles Darwin himself (occasionally named as possibly being the author of the tome, Darwin considered it a "strangely unphilosophical, but capitally-written book").
       Secord considers the radical shift in how books were received at that time. The very nature of conversation about books itself was transformed by the appearance of a large number of review journals, for example:

By 1844 periodicals had become organs of opinion, so that conversation about books meant conversation informed by readings of periodicals and newspapers.
       The often contentious reviews of Vestiges played a large role in its reception -- and also in the revisions incorporated in later editions. Secord gives longer accounts of several of the reviews and reviewers, including Reverend Adam Sedgwick (also a professor of geology) who penned an eighty-five page article on the book for the Edinburgh Review, and T.H.Huxley. Among the interesting reactions the book elicited was that of Reverend Abraham Hume, who (so Secord) suggested that: "Labeled as science the book was dangerous and misleading, but recast as romance, with obviously fictional material added, there would be nothing to fear."
       Secord also focusses on a number of individual readers, showing how reading (and particularly the reading of a book such as Vestiges) was changing in the 19th century.

       Secord's study is comprehensive, as he seems to consider every possible aspect of the publication and the reception of this unusual work. Few of Secord's facts are unduly dry; certainly he presents them well, showing where they fit on his enormous canvas.
       Well (though in part excessively) illustrated, Victorian Sensation is a pleasure to peruse. It is a good, often exciting story, and explains much of the transformations English life, society, religion, and science were undergoing in the 19th century. A fascinating if at times almost overwhelming read. Worthwhile.

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Victorian Sensation: Reviews: Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation:
  • Review by T.H.Huxley in The British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review (1854)
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

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

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