Like Cooking a Dumpling

Mike Jay

  • Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age by James Secord
    Oxford, 306 pp, £18.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 967526 5

In 1802, the young Humphry Davy introduced his first full course of chemistry lectures at the Royal Institution by addressing the fear that science was a Trojan horse for social or political reform. In ‘a bright day, of which we already behold the dawn,’ he announced, ‘we may look forward with confidence to a state of society in which the different orders and classes of men will contribute more effectively to the support of each other than they have hitherto done.’ The essential structure of society, however, would remain unaltered: scientific progress would demonstrate more clearly than ever that ‘the unequal division of property and of labour, the difference of rank and condition among mankind, are the sources of power in civilised life, its moving causes, and even its very soul.’

Davy, with an eye for the main chance, knew that his ambitions – for science as well as for himself – depended on severing the association in the public mind between science and revolution. The great experimental chemist of the previous generation, Joseph Priestley, had believed it self-evident that the progress of reason and science would lead to a general reformation of religion and politics: ‘The English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble even at an air pump, or an electrical machine.’ After the French Revolution broke out, Priestley’s Birmingham laboratory was torn down by patriotic Church and King mobs and eventually he fled to exile in America. Davy’s previous employer, the chemist and physician Thomas Beddoes, had also been confined to the margins of his profession because of his support for the French Revolution. Davy’s address to the Royal Institution relaunched science for the new century with an assurance to the English hierarchy that, under his auspices at least, science would no longer be something to fear.

By the 1830s, however, the fears that Davy had damped down were rising up once more. The movement for political reform had built up a great head of steam: crowds were again marching behind the banner of Tom Paine and the rights of man, there were waves of strikes and rioting, and a second French revolution had showed the aristocracy what further escalation might look like. The Reform Act of 1832 resolved the immediate crisis but left a large and vocal majority outside its settlement. At the same time, Britain’s economy was being revolutionised by industry, and driven by a new class of workers who were organising themselves through a thriving network of scientific clubs, lending libraries and mechanics’ institutes. There was no guarantee that they would respect the modestly reformed political and religious hierarchy.

This is the backdrop to James Secord’s concise and engaging survey of the popular science literature that transformed the book trade during the 1830s. The era has been viewed as something of a literary hiatus, with Romanticism in decline after Byron and the Victorian serial yet to emerge with Dickens. Secord gallantly proposes some counter-examples, but the thrust of his argument is that these years witnessed a surge in the non-fiction market: a greatly expanded reading public educated itself as never before, and the publishing industry vigorously exploited new technologies to offer more, better and cheaper books. Beneath their plain and practical exteriors, Secord suggests, the new scientific bestsellers took on some of the roles of fiction and advice literature, creating a new class of self-fashioning consumers and orienting them in a rapidly changing world.

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