James Secord, Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age

James Secord, Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 320 pp. £18.99 Hb. ISBN: 9780199675265.

James Secord’s Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age (Oxford University Press, 2014) takes as its focus seven key texts, including Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel (1830), Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33), George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828, although the focus is on the ‘People’s Edition’ of the 1830s) and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (Secord fruitfully explores both its serialization in Fraser’s Magazine between 1833-34, and its publication as a book in 1836). Each text forms the basis of a chapter, with Secord ably demonstrating the possibilities of this focus, which allows him to explore both the effect of these texts on the Victorian social and scientific landscape, and of this context on them. Secord presents Visions of Science as ‘the story of these books’ and aims to examine ‘works reflecting on the wider meaning of science [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’ (22).

The narrow window of time during which these focal texts were published, furnishes a mine of pre-Victorian historical context on which Secord draws. The reformist energies behind the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) in this period are juxtaposed with changes in publishing and in the literature of science. This context reveals the intersections of a ‘developing culture of print among working people’ and provides a fascinating means of exploring the ‘march of intellect’ (14), but Secord observes that the reach of these texts went beyond working class readers, many of whom were illiterate, to a middle class readership. Even the role of the enquirer into nature was ‘being transformed’ (6) from scholar to a new ideal of heroic discoverer, and this ‘novel role for the natural philosopher’ is also illuminated through what Secord neatly terms ‘literary experiments’ (20): ‘new images of scientific authorship and new forms of scientific prose, from articles in specialist scientific journals to books reflecting on the consequences of science for everyday life’ (6). Setting the scene for the early nineteenth-century tensions between science and society, in which a reading public ‘should be the basis for a reformed British polity’ (14), clarifies the radical potential of the chosen books.

The opening to the first chapter on Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel sets the tone for Secord’s measured analysis throughout. Skillfully locating the importance of scientific literature through its inclusion in fiction, giving as an example the appearance of Davy’s Consolations in Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), both reinforces Secord’s argument for the centrality of print culture to epistemological change, and delightfully reframes our understanding of Secord’s promise to tell the ‘story of these books’ (22). This clever exploration of story-telling is continued throughout Visions, serving to underscore the dialogue between literature and science, such as Secord’s choice to open the chapter on John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy with William Thackeray’s parody of prolific science writer Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Thackeray’s ‘Yellowplush Papers’, the satirical memoirs of a footman, mock this ‘“littherary wontherr of the wurrld”’ because it is ‘“cheap as durrt, bound in gleezed calico, six shillings a vollum”’ (80). Secord uses this appraisal of the book as an object to segue into a closer examination of the materiality of Herschel’s famous work, also an inexpensive book that would have been read by working class readers. This material focus simultaneously suggests a reconsideration of the genre of Herschel’s scientific treatise – ‘given its low price and large sales, readers of the Preliminary Discourse were far more likely to have used it as a conduct manual’ (81) – while the notion that ‘science was pervasively bound up with defining and maintaining canons of behaviour’ (81) becomes the touchstone for the respectability often sought by scientific texts.

Secord’s next two chapters also use ‘books and readers’ to consider how scientific literature established this vital element of respectability. Somerville’s Connexion of the Physical Sciences was praised by reviewers for avoiding dangerous French materialism, while Lyell’s Principles of Geology targeted a conservative and respectable readership by releasing the first edition through Tory publisher John Murray, who dressed it in the respectable clothes of ‘fine paper’ and charged two pounds and five shillings per copy. Not only the physicality of the book but also the physicality of the reader is considered in the final two chapters. The chapter on George Combe’s phrenological treatise, the Constitution of Man, draws a parallel between how phrenology was made palatable to working class and to wealthier conservative readers through cheaper editions and less radical text, and argues that respectability (or its opposite, criminality) could be ‘read’ by the phrenologist from the body through a similar material analysis. The chapter on Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, which promised a scientific analysis of clothes, also develops these intersections. Secord’s inclusion of ‘Toe-tology – versus - Phrenology’, an illustration which parodies how the ‘characters’ of various members of society can be determined by their footwear, creates a flexible connection between books on the science of phrenology and a satirical sartorial science. Secord reflects on how paper was made of rags, and thus how the respectability of books and periodicals came within the orbit of Carlyle’s work.

Secord’s promise of ‘close reading’ in his introduction does not feature heavily in the finished book, with his use of literature rarely focusing on the language employed therein. Some of the best analysis does, however, occur when Secord engages with language, revealing the use by writers like Mary Somerville of a larger literary frame: ‘accounts of “the rosy and golden hues of the Aurora” and “the cheerfulness of day” call up images that would have been familiar from contemporary paintings and descriptive verse’ but, as Secord notes, ‘they were also becoming staples of other emerging genres of science writing, as in Davy’s Consolations in Travel’ (126-127). This kind of analysis complements Secord’s focus on materiality, revealing a complex picture of the ways in which Somerville’s prose participates in contemporary artistic style, and its connection with other scientific texts examined in Visions, subtly evidencing the dialogue between literature and science. Secord’s superb perspective as a historian opens up and amply justifies the value of examining the publication, materiality and reception of scientific literature in an understudied period of change.

Verity Burke, University of Reading