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  • Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age by James A. Secord
  • David Paroissien
James A. Secord. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Xiii + 306. $30.00; £18.99.

Readers who see The Pickwick Papers as the gateway to Victorian England often overlook the interval between the deaths of Austen, Byron, and Scott and the publication of the first installment Dickens’s serial on 1 April 1836. Change places with the author of this engaging study and enjoy a different perspective. The period under consideration – narrowly confined to the six-years spanning the works he treats and more broadly to their extended historical context – proves a rich one for analysis. Between the death of George III in 1820 and the succession of Victoria in 1837 significant changes occurred. Among those shaping the contours of national life were the introduction of the Metropolitan Police (1829), [End Page 81] reform in the representation of the people (1832), new provisions for the treatment of the poor (1834), a decrease in the severity of England’s penal code, improvements in the working conditions of women and children (1833) and the beginning of government funding for public education. Understandably, therefore, six of the seven authors Secord examines looked out on what they considered as the dawn of a new era.

Belief in the benefits of promoting a scientific understanding of the world fuelled this outlook. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1833) Charles Babbage, the second of Secord’s seven, constructed a reasoned but aggressive case for the need to re-invigorate the pursuit of scientific study in England. Address the failure of leadership and organization of the Royal Society, he counselled. Abandon the current system of patronage with its aura of obligation and expose decisions to greater scrutiny. Organize new institutions to promote the study of light, magnetism and other physical properties. Look across the Channel to Paris, the capital of scientific research for medicine, geology and animals since the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. Emphasize expertise, require transparency in appointments and, above all, engage the public by facilitating the spread of knowledge.

The proposals Babbage advocated sound familiar today, but in their context they carried a radical message in the 1830s. Nelson and Wellington might have brought the wars against France to a victorious conclusion, but the demons unleashed in the English mind by the Revolution of 1789 were not buried in the field of Waterloo. France and particularly Paris posed a continuing threat, the fount of dangerous materialism and godlessness. Pierre-Simon Laplace’s five-volume Mécanique céleste (1798–1827), for example, proposed “a mathematical synthesis of […] celestial mechanics,” one that made no case for divine intervention in the system of motion described by Newton in his Principia Mathematica of 1687 (109–10). Equally upsetting were works by Comte de Volney and Pierre-Simon Laplace. First issued in Paris in 1791 and repeatedly republished in English in the following decades, de Volney’s Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires became “a classic of freethinking religion” (31). In it, de Volney forecast the eventual decay of the delusion of priestcraft and king craft, ultimately succeeded by a faith buttressed not by Scripture or by dogma, but by the laws of nature. The naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamark added to these fears by arguing in his Philosophie zoologique (1809) for the evolution of one species into another, or “transmutation” as it was called, “within the context of a broader philosophy of nature which emphasized the power of environmental circumstance” (165). Link these and other works to the ambitious plans hatched by Henry Brougham, a Whig politician and advocate of reform well versed in mathematics and science himself, and one can see how disconcerting Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful [End Page 82] Knowledge appeared to Tory upholders of the Church and the political status quo. Founded in 1827 by Brougham, the organization brought science to the people via inexpensive works, published in parts at sixpence each, “that summed up the findings of scientific and technological fields” (109).



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