- Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, and: Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences
The year 2007 was a landmark both for Bernard Lightman and, accordingly, for the contemporary scholarship on the history of Victorian science. The year saw the publication of Lightman's magisterial, single-authored monograph Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences and the groundbreaking essay collection Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences that Lightman co-edited with Aileen Fyfe. Both are ambitious, provocative, and paradigm-shifting studies that will inevitably change the way we think about the status, reception, and circulation of science in nineteenth-century Britain. These works do not simply contribute to an existing body of scholarship on Victorian science; rather, they reconfigure it, deflating the often over-exaggerated importance of the academic elite in disseminating scientific knowledge to a supposedly passive audience and focusing instead on the non-practicing professional writers through whom and popular exhibition sites through which science became a topic for passionate public debate rather than obeisant consumption. In the breadth of their focus and the originality of their research, the studies also achieve a genuine and expert interdisciplinarity, one which renders them invaluable reading not only for historians of science but also for anyone interested in Victorian publishing and reading practices, class politics, gender studies, and popular culture.
In its formidable size and scope, Victorian Popularizers of Science will undoubtedly provoke critical comparisons to James Secord's Victorian Sensation (2000), a work which, like Lightman's , eschews a Great Man approach to Victorian scientific history in favour of a focus on the cultural dissemination and reception of emergent scientific ideas. Lightman focuses specifically on the discourses of popular science, although he is careful to problematize this term, pointing out that its application to the Victorian period, in which science had not yet been fully professionalized, might be considered anachronistic. Despite its limitations, he nonetheless preserves the term as an expedient means of referring to those science writers who were not university-trained practitioners. Lightman divides his popularizing writers into seven (sometimes overlapping) groups: Anglican parsons; women; visual demonstrators and public lecturers; writers of "evolutionary epics"; periodical contributors; professionals such as T.H. Huxley and Robert Ball, who also wrote for mass non-specialist audiences; and late-Victorian popularizers. The last category is the least coherent of them all, but nonetheless allows Lightman to include a number of understudied and difficult-to-classify figures who might not [End Page 133] otherwise have made it into the study, such as Agnes Mary Clerke, Henry Hutchinson, and Eliza Brightwen.
Lightman's rationale for focusing on popular writers of science is as lucidly stated as it is compelling. "Since they were influential, and since their interpretation of scientific ideas was often at odds with the agenda of elite scientists," he writes, "they cannot be ignored. Any attempt to investigate how the British understood science in the second half of the century must take them into account" (ix). This claim becomes all the more convincing at the end of the book, when we are presented with the impressive sales figures for Victorian popular science books: Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) may have been one of the most influential scientific works of the late century, but it was consistently outsold by popular science writer Ebenezer Brewer's (now virtually forgotten) Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar (1838).
No less significant than the insights of Victorian Popularizers of Science into the development of and audience for popular science writing throughout the Victorian period is its contribution to a feminist history of science through its recovery of contemporarily successful (but hitherto underacknowledged) female writers whose work played a crucial role in establishing the social, religious, and aesthetic contexts through which new...