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Victorian Sensation : The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation Hardcover – February 1, 2001


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (February 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226744108
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226744100
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,054,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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.

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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
From the Sunday Times, 18 February 2001
Bigger than Darwin
VICTORIAN SENSATION: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A Secord Chicago U P pp624
MIRANDA SEYMOUR
Tennyson, with whom this accomplished work begins and ends, was an avid reader. In 1844, he spotted a review of an anonymously authored book which, according to the critic, convincingly linked the natural sciences to the history of creation. The poet, like many other readers of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, had already formed what we might consider advanced views on this subject. Man had resulted from a slow gestation beginning with simple invertebrates; man's ability to reason and distinguish between good and bad was part of his development. Tennyson had already completed much of In Memoriam, arguably the most powerful of Victorian poems. After reading Vestiges, he used its notion of an ever-ascending condition to celebrate the idea of a link "Betwixt us and the crowning race".
Tennyson's readers knew exactly what that reference meant. It is we who have lost it. Hailing Darwin as the great originator, we have forgotten that Vestiges, in the mid-19th century, had a greater impact, reaching far more readers and being discussed at all levels.
This is the central point of James A Secord's book. The idea he illustrates in a hundred entertaining ways is that we, as readers, like making narratives. We want things tidy, with beginnings and ends. It's reassuring to suppose that the concept of evolutionary culture began with Darwin's Origin of the Species in 1859.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By John C. Landon on January 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As Henry Drummond noted in 1883, "This is the age of the evolution of Evolution. All thoughts that the Evolutionist works with, all theories and generalizations, have themselves evolved and are now being evolved."
This remarkable work on the Vestiges of Robert Chambers is itself a history of the evolution of evolution, describing in wonderful detail the context of a book that perfectly fits Drummond's description. Springing from eighteenth century intimations, first theorized by Lamarck, the idea of evolution finally bursts into public consciousness with Chambers' Vestiges, whose sudden popularity, if not notoriety, made it one of the first modern bestsellers in an age of technological breakthroughs in communications, transport, and printing. Laying the groundwork for laters theories, it nonetheless is too often dismissed as pseudo-scientific when, in fact, the author was aware of certain aspects of the pre-Darwinian ideas of evolution that only now are resurfacing, after being shunted aside by the Darwin tide to come. The account in this work is an engaging hybrid of cultural history mixed into the biography of Chambers' book, and is useful for the student of evolution in its account of the social relations of science, from the gentleman scientist to the grub street popularizers, and indirectly brings to life the later relationship of Huxley to Darwin. The age of Darwin in which we live has made him the sole authority and source of a science of evolution and this distorts the facts, and has obscured the reputation of this and other books. Indeed part of the confusion over selectionist theories sprang from the need for Darwin to artificially separate himself from previous ideas of evolution, by a novelty of claims, since the idea of evolution had seen its foundations laid.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth A. Root on June 30, 2006
Format: Paperback
One usually looks at history either as a chronological account of a particular place or discipline, or as broad account of a specific time period. This is the sort of slightly eccentric look at a time period that does so much to make connections between what one learns in more customary histories.

Secord is not so much looking at what Vestiges proposed, nor critiquing it by current scientific information, nor creating a biography of the author. He does a little of all these, but his main purpose is look intensively at the work as a social phenomenon. He considers it as a book, published in different versions for different segments of society, he reports on the reactions of various social classes in various geographic areas, the reaction of scientists, clergy and laymen to its "atheistic" or "deist" point of view, gender perspectives, etc. For the most part, for all its detail, it is extremely readable.

In order to do this, he has done an incredible amount of research. Knowing that the social elites talked, rather than wrote about it, he has combed diaries for records of conversation. He has researched technical details and statistics of the book trade. Truly a daunting project.

Serious students of the time period, scientific and philosophical history should find it very worthy of their attention. It should also appeal to the general reader (like me) who has at least a moderate knowledge of the era and of scientific history. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as a beginning text in either field.

The book is filled with a variety of black-and-white illustrations: ledgers, title pages, portraits, caricatures and cartoons, probably at least one on every fourth page. There is an extensive bibiography and a detailed index.
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