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  • The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science by Ruth Barton
  • Susan H. Farnsworth (bio)
The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science by Ruth Barton; pp. 576. U of Chicago P, 2018. $72.69 cloth.

On 3 November 1864, eight men dined together at the Saint George's Hotel on Albemarle Street in London. Given the vibrancy of social life in the bustling city, such an occasion might not seem especially noteworthy. However, this evening marked the formal launch of the X Club, whose members were among the most prominent figures in the Victorian scientific community and whose activism, lobbying, and leadership significantly advanced the influence of men of science in Victorian society. The story of the X Club—its founding, the distinct personalities and talents of its members, and its diverse commitments and causes—is meticulously and precisely told by Ruth Barton in her comprehensive scholarly study The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science. A professor of history, mathematics, and social science methodology at universities in New Zealand and Australia, Ruth Barton has lived with the men of the X Club through decades of research. The eight who met on that fateful night in 1864 were George Busk, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Lubbock, Herbert Spencer, and John Tyndall; an additional invitation to membership was accepted by William Spottiswoode. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Victorian science immediately recognizes several of these names. Barton's ambition is to provide a full and balanced assessment of the parts played by all members of the group.

Thanks to Barton's notable expertise, grounded in her mastery of wide-ranging sources, we gain a new understanding of the X Club dynamics. Attention shifts somewhat away from the charismatic and combative Huxley, and more appreciation for the members who stayed behind the scenes, such as Busk and Hirst, develops; the outlier positions of Hooker and Spencer are also assessed. While Barton provides brief biographies of each member—and the volume includes photographic portrait plates of them along with other well-chosen illustrations—her chief interest lies in how the X men acted as a group in the prime of their careers. She examines the numerous issues that engaged the X network, evaluates its members' accomplishments, and adds new dimensions to our views of their collective record. She resists the heroic mode common in group biographies and situates her subjects within the culture and conventions of their time. As she asserts, "The power, representativeness, and close networking of the X Club members, combined with the density of their archives … enables this study of the X Club to move from microhistory to macrohistory and to become, also, a study of Victorian science and the place of science in Victorian culture" (7).

The book's first three chapters focus on the developing public roles of the X men. Barton places strong emphasis on their social backgrounds, contrasting the comparative ease in advancement of gentleman scientists such as [End Page 299] Lubbock and Hooker with the struggles of Tyndall, Huxley, Frankland, and Hirst, who did not have social connections on which to rely. She makes clear that awareness of social hierarchy was as pervasive in Victorian science as in Victorian society. Additionally, the book demonstrates that the links among the men were already established by the time Darwin published Origin in 1859, countering the familiar story that their main purpose was Darwin's defence. By 1859, they shared concerns about advancing public knowledge of science, as well as the social standing of scientific men, and promoting freedom of thought in public life. These priorities drew them into other debates, such as those sparked by the publication of Essays and Reviews, leading to their involvement in demanding and costly journalistic projects. Barton characterizes their publishing, lecturing, letter writing, and committee service from the late 1850s through the early 1860s as nearly unceasing activity that created intersecting networks among men who started as allies and conspirators and then, over time, became friends.

One of Barton's valuable contributions, about which many readers would welcome more elaboration, is her attention to the social dynamics that...