From Publishers Weekly
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 Vestiges--writers 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 curiosity--i.e., he delivers a brief study of the phenomenon of sensation in the 19th century--and clear, understated prose. Anyone interested in English history or the histories of science or literature shouldn't miss it. Illus. throughout.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From the Inside Flap
Fiction or philosophy, profound knowledge or shocking heresy? When Vestiges 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.