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.

Just as the Reform Act was regarded by some campaigners as a historic victory and by others as a shameful betrayal, some British advocates of science believed it was firmly on the march while others feared it was being strangled at birth. The champion for the former view was the Whig MP Henry Brougham. His Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded in 1826, aimed to connect the new self-education clubs and libraries to the network of genteel researchers whose homes and learned societies were still the nation’s main repository of scientific equipment and data. Brougham’s campaign had a utopian glow – he envisaged a fully literate nation from which ‘the evil spirits of tyranny and persecution’ would be banished – but in practice he was politically cautious, and built a moderate coalition around Davy’s promise that science, properly developed, would act as a social glue and deliver increased prosperity for all.

But even this benign version of progress was threatening to many. Science often risked being unprintable: as they had been in the 1790s, materialist theories were still equated with atheism, libertinism and violent revolution. Openly atheistic tracts by such agitators as Richard Carlile were sold under the counter and were often written from prison. As Secord observes, such works ‘had long been available to the wealthy and discreet, and were sold in much the same way (and sometimes through the same channels) as pornography’. But their public suppression came at a cost. The opinions they contained could be expressed openly in France, and Paris had become the undisputed scientific capital of the world. Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, which described the origins and motions of the solar system in five volumes without once mentioning God, could never have been published in Britain. Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834), which began as a summary translation of Laplace, concluded with a pious declaration that mathematics was the highest form of theology, but was nevertheless criticised in reviews for failing to include any mention of Christ’s crucifixion (in which Somerville privately did not believe).

For some, these strictures meant the nation was becoming a scientific backwater: just as the genius of Renaissance science had ebbed away from the Papal States to the Protestant republics after Galileo’s trial, Davy’s bright day was dawning over France and Germany but leaving Britain in darkness. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage argued that the problem was deep and systemic: a professional revolution was required to place science at the helm of the national economy. In France the sciences led to well-paid and prestigious careers; in Britain their practitioners were for the most part lowly artisans such as specimen-sellers and instrument-makers. Institutions such as the Royal Society remained aristocratic networks of patronage that monopolised specialist knowledge and mismanaged the nation’s intellectual resources. Babbage’s book became the focus of a ‘declinist’ movement that campaigned for an overhaul of the old networks by a new business-minded class, and an open exchange of knowledge. Science should be properly examined at the old universities; geologist, chemist and mathematician should be professions every bit as well-defined and rewarded as lawyer, physician or priest.

Each of the popular works surveyed in Visions of Science had to find a niche within this contested and vigilantly policed territory. Secord opens with Davy, whose final work, Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher, appeared in January 1830, shortly after his death. Through a sequence of dialogues with fantastical figures in exotic settings, from the Colosseum at night to the slopes of Vesuvius, it aimed to encapsulate his mature thoughts on science, progress and the fate of humanity. It was at once a travel narrative, an attempt to reanimate the Romantic spirit of his youth and a career retrospective from the vantage point of a far future, in which a race of demigods has mastery over space and time, thanks to science and the genius of ‘a few superior minds’.

Davy is, as Secord puts it, ‘at once everywhere and nowhere in the text’, adopting an omniscient perspective while playing Byronic games with his public persona and the reader’s expectations. The dialogue form allows him to introduce a spectrum of views, many recognisably drawn from different phases of his life, without attaching himself to any of them. Davy had retained an unequalled scientific celebrity, though his status within science had been tarnished by his autocratic and ineffective tenure as president of the Royal Society, where, in the eyes of Babbage’s ‘declinists’, he had been guilty of favouring rank and privilege over efficiency and reform. As a grandiose and self-serving elegy to genius, Consolations was out of step with its meritocratic times, but it was universally praised for its steadfast rejection of materialism, and particularly of the ‘absurd, vague, atheistical doctrine’ of evolution. As he had in 1802, Davy proclaimed a splendid future beyond the horizon, but his last testament was generally read as a valediction to a passing era. Later in the century it had a curious afterlife in both Britain and France as an illustrated travelogue, in which its sweeping imperial vision of European destiny eclipsed its outmoded scientific speculations.

The astronomer and mathematician John Herschel was more in tune with the spirit of the age: his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) was intended to complement Henry Brougham’s programme for scientific advancement. Its aim was to teach the scientific method – observation, classification, induction – to readers without any formal education. In Herschel’s scheme this did not require the genius of someone like Davy, but merely well-trained habits of mind that could be acquired by simple home experiments. Davy’s Consolations had appeared as a small octavo pocketbook, printed on hand presses and priced for the genteel reader. Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse was a product of the industrial age: it was printed using the new steam presses, on cheap paper, with mechanised stereotyping instead of hand-set blocks, and it was bound not in leather but in calico cloth and cardboard. Its message was clear: the cover price of six shillings bought membership of a new class, in Herschel’s words, ‘above the average of humanity’. Secord suggests that as well as being a scientific primer, it was also a ‘conduct manual’, which taught ‘good character and appropriate modes of thinking’ to the profession’s new recruits.

In this context Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33), often criticised as a timid capitulation to religious orthodoxy, can be seen as consummately judged entryism. Geology was the science that came most immediately into conflict with scripture, obliging Lyell’s teacher William Buckland to contain his visions of lost worlds and extinct monsters within the biblical framework of Creation, Fall and Deluge. Lyell, by birth a Tory squire but by conviction a metropolitan Whig, had a solid grasp of conservative anxieties: he abstained in the Reform Bill vote while his family canvassed against it, and part of the reason he turned to science was to avoid the internecine battles to which politics inevitably led him. In his private correspondence he was explicit about his strategy: to insult the religious beliefs of one’s readers ‘is not courage or manliness in the course of Truth, nor does it promote its progress’. Secord suggests that Lyell deliberately described his research as a ‘secular pilgrimage’, and his conversion to a model of ‘deep time’ far exceeding the biblical chronology as a Damascene epiphany that struck while he was gazing at perfectly preserved seashells embedded in the high limestone plateaux of Sicily.

The book’s title implied a middle ground in which geology could coexist with scripture: by apparently confining himself to its ‘principles’, Lyell sidestepped the question of a first cause. Like Davy, he was careful to distance himself from any idea of ‘transmutation’ or evolution that might threaten mankind’s divinely chosen status. The rebuttals of Lamarck in Lyell’s final revisions were so extensive that journals such as the Gentlemen’s Magazine and the Literary Gazette were not merely satisfied but complained about their length and thoroughness. Still, ‘the Principles was a Trojan Horse,’ Secord argues: though it bore ‘the imprint of conservative classicism’, it concealed ‘a secret army of reform’. More than any other work of the period, it ‘proved decisive in the boundary disputes between science and theology’. The price was as carefully chosen as the title: Lyell and his publisher John Murray made the first two editions reassuringly expensive, explicitly aimed at Davy’s market rather than Herschel’s. (‘The crime,’ Lyell observed in private of Rev. Henry Milman’s scandalously empirical 1830 History of the Jews, ‘is to have put it forth in a popular book.’) Only once it had satisfied public opinion and marginalised the religious ‘ultras’ was it issued in a series of six-shilling volumes, which held their place on Murray’s list for the next fifty years.

The other comparably dangerous scientific topic, psychology, generated an enormous bestseller in George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828). In its initial form it was a primer on phrenology that emerged from the vigorous literary semi-underground of tracts and self-training manuals, but it sold in tens of thousands once its cheap double-column edition was printed by William and Robert Chambers’s pioneering Edinburgh steam press. Phrenology, with its materialist reduction of mind to brain, collapsed the distinction between humanity and nature that Lyell and Davy had been so fastidious in maintaining. But in Combe’s hands it became a tool for human improvement: understanding the intellect and recognising mental habits would lead to rational schemes for social progress and general happiness. As the book grew more popular, Combe softened the phrenology, which was falling from favour; later editions were also more conventionally pious, though still ideologically toxic to the devout, since Combe’s optimistic vision of personal growth left no role for sin, atonement or salvation. The book’s mass appeal, Secord suggests, lay in the techniques it prescribed for discerning character: it was the ideal self-help text for people recently arrived in cities and obliged to negotiate a transient world of strangers, where true character could all too easily be concealed by façades of dress and manner. Above all it taught ‘tact’, in an obsolete sense that might be described today as ‘emotional intelligence’.

The last book Secord considers is a satirical riposte to the proselytisers of scientific progress quite unlike the satires of the previous generation. The anti-science lampoons and polemics of the 1790s, directed by George Canning and his colleagues at the Anti-Jacobin Magazine, ridiculed advocates of progress such as Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Beddoes, and dismissed the transformation of society through science as an age-old delusion, no different from the dreams of the alchemists. But Sartor Resartus, which appeared in the Tory Fraser’s Magazine in 1833 under the pseudonym Diogenes Teufelsdröckh and would not be connected to Thomas Carlyle until three years later, attacked the new science for the poverty and meanness of its vision. The Creation had become ‘little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling’, and in the process nature’s ‘sublime mysteries’ had been reduced to abstract ‘systems’ and the illuminations of Newton to prosaic dogma, through which ‘man’s mind becomes an Arithmetical Mill’. Carlyle, who had excelled in mathematics at Edinburgh and learned German to read geology, was not a revanchist but a disillusioned reformer. Sartor Resartus was a touchstone for the scientific heroes of the next generation such as Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, a reminder of the broad horizons too often obscured by the Gradgrindian pursuit of facts.

‘It is hard,’ Secord concludes, ‘to recapture the intense enthusiasm for the new literature of science in the early industrial age,’ and with the possible exception of Lyell, his book is unlikely to send many readers hurrying back to its sources. But these primers and textbooks, and Secord’s detailed account of their reception, describe the contours of a very British revolution: a slow turning and a correction of course, as little and as late as urgent circumstances permitted. Just as the Reform Act secured stability while frustrating many of the reformers’ demands, new institutions such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1831, fell far short of the transformative overhaul of society demanded by Brougham or Babbage. But as Secord concludes, ‘in the preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1802, the poet William Wordsworth had contemplated as a distant possibility the potential of science for shaping everyday life. A quarter of a century later that age of science appeared imminent.’

Among the emerging sciences this process found its metaphor in geology, and the vastly expanded panorama of deep time. As the Spectator review of Charles Lyell’s book put it, ‘the earth is an old reformer; her constitution has been subjected to innumerable changes; the signs of radical movement are to be detected everywhere,’ though to our eyes she appears the very definition of continuity and solidity. It is no surprise that this reassuring sentiment was captured in the image Lyell chose for the frontispiece of Principles of Geology’s popular edition: the Temple of Serapis at Pozzuoli, which was constructed on land, submerged under water for long enough to be pitted by molluscs, then raised once more above sea level, all within the span of written human history. Change is constant, but civilisation endures.