Victorian Irony and Satire

Visions of Science: Thomas Carlyle

Scottish doctor and chemist Andrew Ure (1778-1857), in his The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), proclaimed his era as “distinguished from every preceding age by an universal ardour of enterprise in arts and manufactures.” And of all the nations, “Great Britain may certainly continue to uphold her envied supremacy, sustained by her coal, iron, capital, and skill, if, acting on the Baconian axiom, ‘Knowledge is Power,’ she shall diligently promote moral and professional culture among all the ranks of her productive population.” He praised the “physico-mechanical” philosophy for all the blessings it has bestowed on society, “ameliorating the lot of mankind.” The manufacturer, through his factory of machines, and through the manipulation of nature, has produced “articles of necessity, convenience, or luxury, by the most economical and unerring means.” Ure compared the factory “to the muscular, the nervous, and the sanguiferous systems of an animal.” The machine has replaced the human. “Machinery, with little or no aid of the human hand,” he writes, “dispenses entirely with manual labour.”

Ure’s enthusiasm for the “Iron Man,” the great industrial and manufacturing revolution of the early decades of the nineteenth century, was shared by many. But there is another side to the story, of course. The factory was also the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s 1808 poem. Hell had risen, with fog, mud, nightmare, darkness, and squalor, and engulfed the earth. Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835), British Tory MP and evangelical Anglican, decried the sorry lot of the factory worker, especially children. He put together a committee to investigate the poor conditions of the factories. He was awarded with much resistance from Whig politicians, who put together their own committee to investigate the findings of Sadler’s committee! The plight of the poor was no match for ideas of progress.

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

In his last chapter, James Secord explores the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who, in his well-known Sartor Resartus, serialized in Fraser’s Magazine from 1833-34, and published in a single volume in 1838, satirized men of science and their ideas and hopes of progress. Carlyle appears to be an odd selection in a book that discusses the work of science popularizers such as Davy, Babbage, Herschel, Somerville, Lyell, and Combe. But it is a fitting end, for Carlyle’s writings influenced—perhaps unexpectedly—the next generation of the men of science, the scientific naturalists.

Sartor begins by asking why, in a “our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about,” why has “little or nothing of the fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes” (my emphasis). This was, of course, ironical. The author digresses into the great advances of science, declaring that “to many Royal Society, the Creation of a World is little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling.” Indeed, he goes on, “Man’s whole life and environment have been laid open and elucidated; scarcely a fragment or fibre of his Soul, Body, and Possessions, but has been probed, dissected, distilled, dessicated, and scientifically decomposed: our spiritual Faculties, of which it appears there are not a few, have their Stewarts, Cousins, Royer Collards: every cellular, vascular, muscular Tissue glories in its Lawrences, Majendies, Bichats.” All this deep and glorious scientific work, and yet no science of clothes!

But there is hope, for “Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid.” While the Philosophy of Clothes languishes among the English, there is a man in Germany, a Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“god-born devil-dung”) of Weissnichtwo (“know-not-where”), who has published a treatise expressly on the subject, Die Kleider, ihr Werden un Wirken (“Clothes, their Origin and Influence). Kindly, Teufelsdröckh has sent a copy of this work to the present editor and narrator of Sartor. The rest of Sartor discusses the “difficulties,” “reminiscences,” and “characteristics” of Die Kleider.

According to Secord, Sartor is a parody, an ironic “inversion of the reflective scientific treatises that flourished around 1830,” an ad absurdam extension of mechanical philosophy as another author puts it. Many commentators have pointed out the similarities between Carlyle’s Sartor and Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Tale of a Tub (1704) or Gulliver’s Travels (1726). But as Secord notes, although Carlyle indeed drew from these genres, he only did so “to undermine them, to demonstrate the impossibility of drawing sharp lines between different literary forms.” But of all literary forms, Carlyle unremittingly mocks the literature of scientific reflection. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, in the American edition of Sartor (Boston, 1837):  “the manifest design of the work…is, a Criticism upon the Spirit of the Age,—we had almost said, of the hour, in which we live; exhibiting, in the most just and novel light, the present aspects of Religion, Politics, Literature, Arts, and Social Life.” It is a work, he continues, which will find its “way to the heart of every lover of virtue.”

Most contemporary readers, however, were confused by the work. At times prolix, paradoxical, and personal, many readers were puzzled and even angered by Carlyle’s mockery of Whiggism, with its talk of “Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like.” Indeed, talk of the progress of science “finds small favour with Teufelsdröckh.”

In a chapter entitled “Natural Supernaturalism,” Carlyle calls for the “birth of a spiritually vital science that would release the human potential for action.” Here the “editor” discusses how Teufelsdröckh’s Philosophy of Clothes has attained “transcendentalism.” Teufelsdröckh asks whether a miracle is simply a violation of the Laws of Nature? But what, exactly, are the Laws of Nature? They are the fixed, unalterable rule of the Universe. But Sartor asks, “What those same unalterable rules, forming the complete Statute-Book of Nature, may be possibly be?

They stand written in our Works of Science, say you; in the accumulated records of Man’s Experience?—Was Man with his Experience present at the Creation, then, to see how it all went on? Have any deepest scientific individuals yet dived down to the foundations of the Universe, and gauged everything there? Did the Maker take them into His counsel; that they read His ground-plan of the incomprehensible All; and can say, This stands marked therein, and no more than this? Alas, not in anywise! These scientific individuals have been nowhere but where we also are; have seen some hand breadths deeper than we see into the Deep that is infinite, without bottom as without shore.

Laplace’s Book on the Stars, wherein he exhibits that certain Planets, with their Satellites, gyrate round our worthy Sun, at a rate and in a course, which, by greatest good fortune, he and the like of him have succeeded in detecting,—is to me as precious as to another. But is this what thou namest ‘Mechanism of the Heavens,’ and ‘System of the World’; this, wherein Sirius and the Pleiades, and all Herschel’s Fifteen thousand Suns per minute, being left out, some paltry handful of Moons, and inert Balls, had been—looked at, nick-named, and marked in the Zodiacal Way-bill; so that we can now prate of their Whereabout; their How, their Why, their What, being hid from us, as in the signless Inane?

System of Nature! To the wisest man, wide as is his vision, Nature remains of quite infinite depth, of quite infinite expansion; and all Experience thereof limits itself to some few computed centuries and measured square-miles. The course of Nature’s phases, on this our little fraction of a Planet, is partially known to us: but who knows what deeper courses these depend on; what infinitely larger Cycle (of causes) our little Epicycle revolves on? To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and Monsoons, and Moon’s Eclipses; by all which the condition of its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (unmiraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a minnow is Man; his Creek this Planet Earth; his Ocean the immeasurable All; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the mysterious Course of Providence through AEons of AEons.

We speak of the Volume of Nature: and truly a Volume it is,—whose Author and Writer is God. To read it! Dost thou, does man, so much as well know the Alphabet thereof? With its Words, Sentences, and grand descriptive Pages, poetical and philosophical, spread out through Solar Systems, and Thousands of Years, we shall not try thee. It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing; of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line. As for your Institutes, and Academies of Science, they strive bravely; and, from amid the thick-crowded, inextricably intertwisted hieroglyphic writing, pick out, by dexterous combination, some Letters in the vulgar Character, and therefrom put together this and the other economic Recipe, of high avail in Practice. That Nature is more than some boundless Volume of such Recipes, or huge, well-nigh inexhaustible Domestic-Cookery Book, of which the whole secret will in this manner one day evolve itself, the fewest dream.

There is an obvious and quite deliberate echo of God’s response to Job in the Hebrew Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38.4-7).

Lest we think Carlyle a Luddite or anti-scientific, we should recall, as Secord reminds us, that he excelled in mathematics while at the University of Edinburgh; indeed his first job was teaching mathematics at Annan Academy, a preparatory school for boys in Scotland. He was also a paid assistant of David Brewster (1781-1868), one of the founding members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Carlyle’s ability to mock the developing traditions of scientific writing,” Secord writes, “drew on long experience of teaching, translating, and reviewing.”

Carlyle had become disillusioned from with contemporary science at a young age. In an 1822 article he had written for Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia on the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, Carlyle ridiculed Pascal’s famous calculator as “a wonderful but useless proof of its author’s ingenuity.” When he began pursuing studies in mineralogy, Carlyle was introduced to the work of Goethe, Schelling, and other writers of German Romanticism. Against the utilitarian philosophies of British thinkers, Carlyle was enraptured dynamic Naturphilosophie.  He came to see mechanics as limited, “focused on applications, and based on experiment and observation; dynamics was primary, vital, and grounded in intuition.” Carlyle saw a need to reform natural philosophy once again, for contemporary philosophers and mathematicians were “turning so-called ‘useful knowledge’ into a Pascal-like engine for the mechanical transformation of every area of life.” This “mechanization” was the “Signs of the Times,” and it will drastically and poisonously alter every aspect of society.

Secord transitions from Sartor to the wider context to help us better grasp Carlyle’s denigration of the “Age of Machinery.” At the urging of Lord Brougham, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in 1826 with the concerted goal of communicating every piece of “useful” information available to the working classes. But according to Carlyle, the “world of bookselling and publishing was as completely corrupted by mechanism as the rest of British society.” He mocked the SDUK in an 1833 article in Fraser’s Magazine. Fraser’s was known its satirical bite, for railing “against the utopian impracticality of schemes for universal education.” According to Secord, every “issue had articles mocking radicals and the reforming Whigs, especially their support for utilitarian political economy.” The new learning would only distract the worker. Ultimately, these aspirations were impractical. Worse yet, the new learning would endanger traditional values, “the schoolmaster peddling reason could be succeeded by the demagogue preaching irreligion and democracy.” In short, a periodical like Fraser’s was an ideal place for Carlyle to publish his Sartor.

In his call to reform science, Carlyle’s Sartor “became a spiritual guide for thousands of readers in Europe and America, especially [Secord tells us] young men in search of a creed to replace traditional Christianity.” The high calling of the man of science appealed, for example, to readers like Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall. Both Huxley and Tyndall rejected materialism as a philosophy of life: “The evolution of matter and of life need not lead to a world devoid of spirit and governed solely by material processes.” As Sartor declares, the new men of science could “stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower,” a truly “spiritual observatory.”


The Cambridge Companion to the Victorians

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne Shattock, and The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O’Gorman is yet another useful collection of smart, lucid, and engaging essays by British Victorianists.

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon MeeKeymer and Mee’s volume covers, in two parts, the context and modes, the writers and their circles of correspondence, and other traditions of English literature from 1740-1830. In part one we are introduced to readers, writers, reviewers and the professionalization of literature (Barbara M. Benedict); to criticism, taste, and aesthetics (Simon Jarvis); to literature and politics (Michael Scrivener); to national identities and empire (Saree Makdisi); to sensibility (Susan Manning); to English theatrical culture (Gillian Russell); and to the Gothic (James Watt). Part two focuses on different writers and their works, such as Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Sarah Fielding (Pater Sabor); Johnson, Boswell, and their circle (Murray Pittcock); Sterne and Romantic autobiography (Thomas Keymer); Blake and the poetics of enthusiasm (Jon Mee); Barbauld, Robinson, and Smith (Judith Pascoe); Wordsworth and Coleridge (Paul Magnuson); the invention of the modern novel (Kathryn Sutherland); Keats, Shelley, Byron, and the Hunt circle (Greg Kucich) and John Clare and the traditions of labouring-class verse (John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan).

Shattock’s volume offers “fresh perspectives on a literary period bounded at one end by the Romantic movement and by Modernism at the other.” The volume begins with a consideration of the status of authorship and the gradual professionalization of writing from the 1830s (Josephine Guy), then turns to the reader and the consumption of literature (Mary Hammond). The following essay emphasizes the variety of “life writing” in the period 1830-1914 (Alison Booth). As Shattocks notes in her introduction, “biography as we know it was largely the creation of Victorian biographers.” The growth of nineteenth-century periodicals are linked with the “increased opportunities offered to women writers” (Susan Hamilton). Another essay reminds us that “‘the past as we know it was largely created by the Victorians,’ that historical terms and concepts and the idea of periodicity were invented in the nineteenth century” (Hilary Fraser). There follows an essay on “radical writing,” covering the literature against the Poor Laws of the 1830s, the impact of Chartism, and the emergence of the Socialist movement in the 1880s (Sally Ledger). An essay on “popular culture” looks at the ways artists, critics, and audiences responded to a “fractured and contentious” Victorian national culture (Katherine Newey).

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne ShattockIn another section, one author writes about the “new cultural and political importance which science acquired during the nineteenth century” (Gowan Dawon). Another focuses on the ways in which medical discourse “influenced the work of novelists and also poets, in their attempts to render legible the inner, emotional life” (Jenny Bourne Taylor). The growing acceptance of gradual evolutionary processes, moreover, led to an increasing fascination with the “other,” particularly in terms of religion, and is widely displayed in the religious diversity of nineteenth-century novels (Andrew Sanders). A final essay in this section focuses on Victorian “visual culture,” the “creative cross-over” between literature and painting, and the “desire to be able to picture, and consequently observe, every detail of the physical environment” (John Plunkett).

The remaining essays in Shattock’s volume traces the concepts of empire and nation in Romantic and Victorian writing (Patrick Brantlinger), the interchange of literary texts and cultural models on both sides of the Atlantic (Bridget Bennett), and the ‘European exchanges,” particularly France and Italy, that challenged the “Anglocentric disciplinary formations” of Victorian literature (Alison Chapman). “Readers of the Companion,” Shattock concludes in her introduction, “will find fresh interpretations and perspectives on well-known authors and texts, together with an introduction to less familiar authors and writing in a range of genres, reflecting the constant revision and reconfiguration of the canon which has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process in nineteenth-century literary studies, and one which signals its intellectual health and vigour.”

As another reviewer has noted, many of the essays in Shattock’s volume complement the collection of essays in Gorman’s. In his introduction, Gorman considers various arguments in favor of and against the label “Victorian,” as well as the limits of “culture.” “The facts of the past,” he says, “have a habit of confounding intellectual speculation.” “It is as well to test the grandest theory against the humblest of facts,” he goes on, “to make some space for the sudden and strange and unpredicted; to remember that grave argument and deep thought are hardly the only motivations of human behavior; and that intellectually coherent analyses of the past are not guaranteed merely because they are intellectually coherent.” Gorman offers good advice for any historian:

We must not claim to know too much; we must retain some scepticism and readiness to change; be doubtful of what look like accepted terms that have not been thought about for a long time; in particular be doubtful about metonymy, about making single events or instances stand without qualification for larger wholes; be doubtful of coherence that persuades only because it is coherent; be wary of plausibility that resides only in rhetoric and not in the concepts and the rhetoric is struggling to describe.

The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O'GormanTo this end, Gorman argues that his collection of essays assume that “‘Victorian’ is defined as a post hoc category, an idea that exists in the critical analysis of critics subsequent to its end.” It is a continually redefined label, by “critics examining different aspects of an exceptionally diverse set of possible knowledges.” The first essay aptly begins with the “age of scientific naturalists; the shift of authority in University education form the Anglican establishment to the men of science; the assertion of the experimental method; [and] the professionalization of science and its division into the disciplines and sub-disciplines that are still familiar today” (Bernard Lightman). There follows appropriately an essay technological innovations, particularly in the realm of communications technology (Nicholas Daly). Another essay discusses Victorian business and economics (Timothy Alborn). It is also worth remembering that “warfare…was an almost constant feature of Victorian life” (Edward S. Spiers). Just as prevalent was music, both public and private (Ruth A. Solie), and the theater (Katherine Newey). A related essay discusses how the notion of “popular culture” arose as a “realm of strategic contest through which the masses themselves were shaped in accord with middle-class interests and values.” But by the end of the century, “Victorians saw this edifying conception eroded not only by the acknowledged influences of the lower classes on English culture but also by the boom of consumerism” (Denis Denisoff).

Two essays on print culture focus on satire (John Strachan) and journalism (Mathew Rubery). Another considers the nature of Victorian painting (Elizabeth Prettejohn), and a subsequent essay examines the development of domestic crafts and arts, or, the “art of living” (Nicola Humble). An essay on “Victorian Literary Theory” concentrates on reviews and reviewers, and here we find such familiar names as Francis Jeffrey, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater appear in both, but also the less familiar John Woolford, John Morley, Walter Bagehot, and Anthony Trollope. Gorman’s own essay “considers the retreating authority of Christian ideas of eternal life and resurrection, and examines how they were re-imagined and re-created in literary and visual texts and in ideas about how literary texts were, literally, readable” (Francis O’Gorman). A final chapter describes “our multiple appropriations of Victorian themes, images, texts, characters and material remains” (Samantha Matthews). “In the Victorians we find what we seek, and fabricate or ‘discover’ what we need.”

All three Companion volumes further illuminates the “varieties of the Victorian.” How one understands the Victorian derives from sustained research, and, as Gorman points out, research means “not only the tracking down of facts or sources in archives or online: it means reading and thinking.” “It may be that the best thing for a reader to do,” he concludes, “is to set this volume [and others] aside at once and turn to a novel, a poem, a play, a diary, a volume of correspondence, a biography from the nineteenth century.”

Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability

Gowan Dawson - Darwin Literature and Victorian RespectibilityWhen Richard Owen (1804-1892) denounced T.H. Huxley’s (1825-1895) paleontological methods at the Geological Society of London in 1856, he did so on peculiarly moralistic grounds. But this should come as no surprise, for Owen “drew upon a long, well-worn tradition connecting materialism and unbelief with moral corruption and debauchery, including the entwinement of pornography and materialist philosophies in the Enlightenment.” So writes Gowan Dawson in a striking study on Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (2007). In this volume Dawson explores the curious relationship that Victorian reviewers and commentators drew between the ideas and advocates of scientific naturalism and the “Fleshly School of Poetry” of W. Morris(1834-1896), D.G. Rossettie (1828-1882), A.C. Swinburne (1837-1909), and their “coterie of licentious companions.” Darwin and other scientific writers were haunted by an anxiety that their ideas, theories, illustrative examples and subject matter in general, might be construed as violating the boundaries of Victorian sexual respectability. Indeed, Darwin, Huxley, Hooker, and others were at pains to protect evolutionary theory from attack by those who saw evolution as leading to dangerous political and social practices such as sexual immortality, birth control, and divorce. As Dawson points out, “those seeking to discredit the cultural authority of evolutionary science identified it with the alleged sensual indulgence of aestheticism, while those attempting to establish it as a respectable secular theodicy denied such as connection and instead emphasized links with more reputable literary writers.”

In his Introduction, Dawson notes that Darwin’s “particular conception of organic evolution…quickly became part of a wider political campaign” by the scientific naturalists to “wrest the last vestiges of intellectual and cultural authority away from the monopolistic Anglican Church establishment, as well as the gentlemanly amateurs who represented its interests in the scientific world.” Their goal was not the abolition of traditional religion, however; rather, the scientific naturalists sought to naturalize it, with “law and uniformity supplanting theology as the guarantors of order in both the natural world and human society.” To this end, scientific naturalism “had to be urgently sequestered from any hostile associations that might tarnish them in the eyes of the various audiences for science in Victorian Britain and consequently undermine the political aspirations of dissident secular intellectuals.” And more than any other vice, specific anxieties over sexual immortality emerged as the “most significant impediment to establishing a naturalistic worldview as a morally respectable alternative to earlier theological outlooks.”

Darwinian evolution was seen by many Victorians as unleashing a “torrent of immortality and corruption that would surpass the scandalous vices of even the pagan world.” Thus “in order to neutralize the charges of encouraging sexual immorality, the proponents of evolutionary theory, attempting to forge their own naturalistic social theodicy, had to shield Darwinism equally vigorously from any such invidious connections, in part by distinguishing a self-proclaimed ‘pure’ science—drawing on all senses of that overdetermined adjective—from the less reputable aspects of nineteenth-century general culture.”

Dawson also argues that while the scientific naturalists sought to publicly cultivate a reputation of unimpeachable respectability and character, in private correspondence, “sardonic and permissive attitude towards…profane topics…contravened conventional standards of middle-class respectability.” This was indeed a “masculine culture,” a “convivial fraternalist discourse” and “tolerant cosmopolitanism.” Of course, such “bawdy” anecdotes shared between scientific naturalists were not “generally divulged to wives or other female family members.”

The periodical of choice of scientific naturalists was John Morley’s (1838-1923) Fortnightly Review. Here Huxley, John Tyndall (1820-1893), and W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) and other leading exponents of evolution and scientific naturalism found a ready audience. And as Dawson points out, the magazine “encompassed both evolutionary science and aesthetic literature, and this shared mode of publication evidently emphasized the areas of potential similarity between them.”

Robert W. Buchanan (1841-1901) was one of the earliest to aver against the “fleshy” and materialistic poetry of Swinburne, Rossetti, Morris and others. Buchanan would also connect aesthetic poetry with the alleged materialism of contemporary science. In the 1876 issue of New Quarterly Magazine, for example, Buchanan contested the principles that Tyndall had advanced less than two years earlier in his Presidential Address to the BAAS at Belfast. For Buchanan, Tyndall’s materialistic science was “merely another version of the fleshy creed promulgated in the verse of Rossetti, Swinburne and their coterie of licentious companions.”

The scientific naturalists responded to such raucous accusations in two ways. First, they simply reiterated the “scrupulous standards of personal morality exhibited by scientific practitioners, as well as the strict discipline and moral propriety instilled—and indeed required—by empirical methods of experimentation and observation.” Another response, particularly and effectively employed by Tyndall, emphasized “the already existing connection between the leading advocates of scientific naturalism and older and more reputable literary writers, most notably the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson and the conservative Sage of Chelsea Thomas Carlyle.” But as Dawson suggests, Huxley, Tyndall, and other scientific naturalists might have deliberately misinterpreted the work of these literary figures for their own particular purposes.

In the remaining chapters of Dawson’s remarkable book, he examines and analyzes “sexualized responses to evolution,” “nineteenth-century revival of paganism,” “Victorian freethought and the Obscene Publications Act,” “the refashioning of William Kingdon Clifford’s posthumous reputation,” and “the pathologization of aestheticism” by Huxley and Henry Maudsley (1835-1913). Judiciously integrating “contextualist approaches to the history of science with recent work in nineteenth-century literary and cultural history,” Dawson exemplifies what research in both archival and manuscript sources should look like. He draws from a broad ranges of sources, including journalism, scientific books and lectures, sermons, radical pamphlets, aesthetic and comic verse, novels, law reports, illustrations and satirical cartoons, and private letters. Dawson provides a fascinating account of the reception of scientific ideas and further evidence that science is never neutral.

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Victorian Science in Context

Lightman - Victorian Science in Context“Victorians of every rank, at many sites, in many ways, defined knowledge, ordered nature, and practiced science.” This introductory remark, in Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Science in Context (1997), unveils the aim of the volume as a whole. Presented as a series of connected vignettes, it focuses on the local and the contingent. Situating a range of natural knowledge in their cultural milieu, Victorian Science in Context is a fascinating jaunt through nineteenth-century British science.

Lightman’s introduction is brief, lucid, and pertinent. According to Lightman, science was central to Victorian culture. And whether sensational, ceremonial, or mundane, Victorian science was always political. This is evident in the strong interest in science by literary figures, such as Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), George Eliot (1819-1880), Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and John Ruskin (1819-1900), to name only a few. The political nature of Victorian science is also evident among British scientists themselves, who “were deeply involved with general culture.” The realization that Victorian science was inextricably linked to powerful social and cultural forces drove historians away from intellectual history to contextualism, which sees the local, the context, the situated, or the particularities of historical events and figures as crucially important. Whose “truth,” “rationality,” “science,” “religion,” “ethics,” and so on, are the principle questions asked by contextualist historians. Lightman goes on to chart the development of the contextualist approach, tracing a detailed genealogy beginning with early attempts by Susan Faye (Walter) Cannon, John Greene, and the more recent work of Frank Turner, Robert Young, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, Martin Rudwick, Adrien Desmond, James Moore, Nick Jardine, James Secord, Emma Spary, Robert Stafford, Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Cynthia Russett, Evellen Richards, Gillian Beer, and George Levine.

The contributors of Victorian Science in Context “examine the varied contexts of Victorian “biological thought, astronomy, field theory in physics, probability theory in mathematics, political economy, scientific nomenclature, instruments, laboratories, measurement, fieldwork, and the popularization of science,” including their “imperial, industrial, political, gendered, ideological, racist, literary, and religious nature.” Lightman provides an apt précis of their contents in his Introduction, tying a tremendously diverse collection of essays into a seamless argument—namely, that in defining knowledge, in ordering nature, and in practicing science “we not only find nature but also encounter ourselves as inquisitive, social, and political beings.”

Fittingly, the essays are grouped into three sections: Part 1 deals with “Defining Nature”; Part 2 with “Ordering Nature”; and Part 3 “Practicing Science.” This overview of Victorian Science in Context reflects my particular research interests.

Alison Winter’s essay on “The Construction of Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in the Early Victorian Life Sciences” undermines the traditional image of early Victorian science. Science in the Victorian age was not made up of a homogeneous community; it was indeed “volatile” and “underdetermined,” indeed a “more fluid chaotic state of affairs” than traditionally reckoned. “We now know,” she writes, “that the practices, practitioners, contexts, and audiences that existed for early Victorian science were extremely diverse,” and that by the “late 1830s and 1840s there was a far wider range of specialist journals and societies, and a dizzying variety of other arenas in which science was practiced  and communicated.” This diversity is indicative of the multifarious definitions of “science” proposed during the era.

As already mentioned, recent research has overwhelmingly demonstrated the political significance attached to claims about nature. Winter notes, for example, how “radical artisans adapted evolutionary thought to give a blueprint in natural law for their socialist and cooperative projects.” Indeed, the “life science supplied pedigrees for the conservative, liberal, and radical” alike. What is more, “issues of place, practice, and audience have been central to the construction of scientific authority and orthodoxy.” In the second half of her essay, Winter concentrates on the case of William Benjamin Carpenter (181-1885), who personally sought “to demarcate the legitimate from the illegitimate experiments and phenomena.” His 1839 Principles of General and Comparative Physiology claimed that physiology should become as lawlike as the physical sciences, thus reducing “physiology to a set of naturalist laws.” This claim was just as controversial as what the radical artisans had advocated in their evolutionary project; but unlike the radicals, Winter argues, Carpenter solicited the support of specific elite scientists who were also religiously orthodox. And when his Principles did come under attack, he “took immediate and vigorous action to vindicate himself,” publishing an appendix “to one of the moderate progressive medical periodicals a personal defense of the spiritual respectability of his work.” In this defense Carpenter described a world “run by laws that had themselves been ushered into existence by a single divine act.” But more important than his own defense, Winter  explains, were the “letters of reference” from individuals who embodied orthodoxy in science and religion, defending Carpenter’s work as “theologically sound.” Carpenter’s act of “juxtaposing the names and statement of individually eminent personages” constructed them “as an authoritative and definitive community.” Thus the “specific work that was necessary to secure the status of orthodoxy for himself was the assertion of what counted as an authoritative community for him.” That is, by successfully soliciting the support of respected scientists of orthodox standing, Carpenter constructed his own definitions of what counted as heterodox or orthodox in his scientific work.

Martin Fichman’s “Biology and Politics: Defining the Boundaries” examines the rich interplay between biological and political speculation. Because “evolutionary biology was at an interface between the natural and social science, it was notoriously susceptible to sociopolitical influences and deductions.” T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall’s strategy for advancing the professional status of biologists, by isolating biology from politics and by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science, failed. Evolutionary science become, unsurprisingly, “hostage to pervasive ideological manipulation by the scientific naturalists themselves.”  In this essay Fichman focuses on the work of Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, Huxley, and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Spencer, although one of the “grandest systematizers of evolutionary thought,” never fully embraced Darwinism, his perspective being more principally aligned with Lamarckian views. Spencer’s evolutionary synthesis “lent itself to the most diverse political readings,” mainly because his philosophy was not so much materialistic as it was socially progressive. Galton, Darwin’s cousin, “simply subsumed politics under biology.” Coining the term “eugenics” in 1883, he advocated “societal programs to foster talent, health, and other ‘fit’ traits (positive eugenics) and to suppress feeblemindedness and other ‘unfit’ traits (negative eugenics). In Galton’s mind, eugenics was a scientific “repudiation of conservative, aristocratic privilege; politically, he reflected the middle-class outlook of much of the liberal intelligentsia.” According to Fichman, Galton’s eugenics was “an evolutionary science constructed upon a political infrastructure.”

By the 1870s, science had increasingly gained ascendancy and cultural autonomy, largely at the hands of an influential coterie made up of Huxley, Tyndall, Galton, J.D. Hooker, John Lubbock, and other members of the X-Club. “With a combination of research achievements, polemic wit, and literary eloquence…” this group “helped create a largely secular climate of opinion in which the theories and metaphors of modern science penetrated the institutions of education, industry, and government.” Their “metascientific strategy,” as Fichman phrases it, was the promotion of ideological neutrality. But as Fichman demonstrates, the scientific naturalists, “rather than limiting and depoliticizing the authority of evolutionary science, subtly invoked it to support [their] own political views.” In short, “scientific naturalism had never been ideologically neutral.”

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) attacked any pretext to ideological neutrality. Indeed, for Wallace, evolutionary biology necessitated an ideological context. In his “Human Selection” (1890) and “Human Progress: Past and Future” (1892), Wallace unabashedly declared his socialist convictions, particularly towards sexual selection. “Socialism, by removing inequalities of wealth and rank, would free females from the obligation to marry solely on the grounds of financial necessity.” And as Fichman points out, “Wallace’s social progressionism informed his biological progressionism and reinforced his position that science did not function as a neutral blueprint for political philosophy.” That is, Wallace’s scientific views merged seamlessly with his advocacy of socialism and feminism.

The thought provoking “Satire and Science in Victorian Culture” by James Paradis examines the formation of attitudes towards claims of science and scientists themselves by focusing on the ways in which irony and its “militant” form, satire, was mobilized as a strategy for making sense of new claims about the world. Drawing from Punch (1841-1992), Figaro in London (1831-38), the Comic Almanack (1835-53), as well as Victorian literary pieces such as Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Huxley’s Lay Sermons, Adresses and Reviews (1870), Paradis argues that “literature became an important conduit for conveying scientific ideas of the day to the broad public.” What is more, the scientific elite themselves used cartoons, doodles, caricatures, and humor as “instruments of scientific infighting to contrast reform platforms with orthodox resistance.” This, of course, was stunningly reductive, to the point of irresponsible, incorrectly presenting figures and facts, often reinforcing crude prejudices, falsifying categories, and distorting significant truths. But as Huxley discovered, “irony and satire…could be used to privilege the emergent institutions of science.”

Perhaps more ominous, recent research suggests that at the same time as young adults are abandoning traditional news media, they are more likely to identify with late-night comedy programs, particularly Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, or with humor websites such as and and others, as a destination for learning about current events. This trend towards news as entertainment was pointed out long ago by Neil Postman. According to Fichman, “one who laughs not only directs criticism at the object of his laughter, but also invites his companions to share his sentiments. Irony and satire from the 1840s to the 1860s had increasingly become tools in the scientific community for shaping a minority cultural vision.” Huxley, with his mordant witticism, used his gift “to turn the direction of the irony against received tradition and to seize the moral high ground for a progressive intellectual culture associated with the sciences.”

Bernard Lightman’s “‘The Voices of Nature’: Popularizing Victorian Science” is similar to his more recent essay in Wrestling with Nature (2011). According to Lightman, Huxley and Tyndall “account only for a small portion of the works of Victorian popularizers of science.” Indeed, the popularizers of science played a far greater role in “shaping the understanding of science in the minds of a reading public composed of children, teenagers, women, and nonscientific males” than any of the scientific naturalists. Yet their comparative neglect by historians until most recently is the result of the successful campaign forged by the scientific naturalists, who convinced “future generations that scientists were the authoritative guides to deciphering the meaning of natural things—that they alone gave voice to mute nature.”

It is the contextualist approach that offers a necessary antidote. Recent work by contextualist historians, Lightman notes, reveals the “rich interaction between Victorian science and culture.” The contextualist approach also shows how Victorian popularizers of science experimented with the narrative form and the implicit “storytelling quality of all science.” “Both popularizers and professionals,” writes Lightman, “have continued to tell stories about the ultimate meaning of things as revealed by science, though this characteristic of science has been concealed in the scientific reports and papers of professional scientists.” Lightman then offers an account of Margart Gatty’s (1809-73) The Parables of Nature (1855), which was a series of fictional short stories for children designed to teach them about the natural world; Eliza Brightwen’s (1830-1906) Wild Nature Won by Kindness (1890) and other stories sought to “foster ‘the love of animated nature’ in her audience, especially ‘in the minds of the young'”; and Arabella Buckley’s (1840-1929) The Fairyland of Science (1879), likewise aimed to “awaken ‘a love of nature and of the study of science’ in ‘young people’ who more than likely ‘look upon science as a bundle of dray facts.'” Interestingly, Buckely does not shy away from introducing the story of evolution in The Fairyland of Science. Rather, she “reinterprets the story of evolution in way that emphasizes the moral dimensions of the process. The purpose of evolution was not, as Darwin had argued, merely the preservation of life, it encompassed the development of mutuality as well.” And like Gatty and Brightwen, Buckley “believed that science offered the means for ascertaining the true meaning of God’s works.” According to Lightman, all three authors are “part of the natural theology tradition.”

In the late nineteenth-century, “thousands of members of the public were introduced to astronomy” by the writings of Anthony Proctor (1837-88). His most popular work, Other Worlds Than Ours (1870), cast science into a “teleological framework” and encouraged the reading public to become amateur astronomers—for the astronomer, “imbued with the sense of beauty and perfection which each fresh hour of world-study instills more deeply into his soul, reads a nobler lesson in the skies.” Astronomy, according to Proctor, leads to God. Similar sentiments were shared by the Reverend John George Wood (1827-89) and Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) in their many writings, who both declared that the natural world testified “to the existence and wisdom of God.”  We may draw two important conclusions from the popularization of science during the Victorian era. The first is that “science continued to be contested territory in the latter half of the nineteenth century.” Second, the stories told about nature were also contested. Should stories about nature be told from a teleological, aesthetic, moral, or evolutionary perspective? The scientific naturalists fought for the hearts and minds of the reading public. But so did popularizers of science. Thus we may say that the professional scientist competed against the professional writer. Who won is still an open question, however.