[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “T” for Vanity Fair— Katherine Miller Weber]

Illuminated initial T

he time has not yet come," remarked poet and critic Ernest Dowden in 1877, "when it is possible to perceive in complete outline the significance of science for the imagination and the emotions of men, but that the significance is large and deep we cannot doubt" (1:181). If this remarkable eight-volume set of nineteenth-century writings on science and literature can be said to have a rallying cry, this is it; the completion of the series, published in two parts, brings Dowden's sought-after realization much closer. Over the last two decades, the surge in Victorian science and literature studies has been fuelled by the pioneering work of many of the scholars here enlisted as volume editors--Roger Luckhurst, David Amigoni, and Ralph O'Connor, to name just a few. A number of anthologies, such as A.S. Weber's Nineteenth-Century Science (2000) and Laura Otis's Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2002), have already appeared to cater to this burgeoning interdisciplinary field, but this new collection clearly stands apart from its predecessors. Distinguished most immediately by its sheer size, this set of volumes is likely to be neither portable nor affordable for undergraduate syllabi, but this limitation will be more than compensated by the wealth of monographs and Ph.D theses that its eclectic material will inevitably inspire. For the aim of the series is not to codify a canon of nineteenth-century science and literature writings, but to open up new and hitherto underexplored veins of inquiry by collecting a rarer, more genre-spanning and diverse group of texts than has ever before been anthologized under this rubric. The result is a giddying embarrassment of riches for Victorianist and science and literature scholars alike. It is a testament to the strength of editorial choice here that none of the selections seem extraneous or unnecessary; never has such an immense collection seemed so lean and select in its compilation.

The series consists of eight sub-themed volumes focused on particular science and literature genres, audiences, or areas of cultural contest: "Negotiating Boundaries," "Science as Cultural Authority," "Science, Religion, and Natural Theology," "The Evolutionary Epic," "New Audiences for Science: Women, Children, Labourers," "Science, Race, and Imperialism," "Science as Romance," and "Marginal and Occult Sciences." In eschewing discipline-based or chronological foci in favor of loose conceptual categories, the editors signal their resistance to hierarchical or rigidly taxonomic understandings of the field. Yet far from being a contemporary imposition, this resistance to strict or discrete categorization is a feature already embedded within the primary texts themselves. For example, Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait's The Unseen Universe; or, Physical Speculations on a Future State (1878), a fascinating work of quasi-spiritualist physics featured in the volume on Science as Cultural Authority (Volume 2), might just as easily have been placed in the one dedicated to Marginal and Occult Sciences (Volume 8). Indeed, a great number of the set's excerpts could have found a home there, capturing as they do a time when religious, occult, and empirically exoteric ways of knowing and describing the natural world were still in constant, unruly commerce. The frequent inseparability of the different registers of official and esoteric knowledge within the excerpts will no doubt help to further demolish "the cartoonish opposition between science and religion" once held to dominate the period's zeitgeist (8: x).

Taming the potential chaos of the set's inclusive composition is a tight editorial apparatus that includes a general introduction for each volume and a brief foreword for every excerpt. Here the editors furnish the contextual information about audience, authorship, and circulation necessary for an appreciation of the excerpt's contemporary significance. These editorial paratexts are often the result of impressive historical detective work, particularly on the more marginal texts and minor authors; for many readers, the forward will be as valuable as the excerpt it prefaces--if not more so. To say this is not to detract from the impact of the set's varied primary texts, which range in genre from learned talks for professional scientific bodies and popular lectures for working men's associations through to polemic pieces of popular science journalism, book reviews, occult treatises and autobiographies, rare political and public health pamphlets, poetry, drama, fiction, cartoons, and comic songs.

Readers will find rousing calls for intellectual self-discipline and scientific authority from the some of the period's leading scientists, such as T. H. Huxley's declaration that "the improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority" (2: 57). Juxtaposed with this polemical claim of 1866 are excerpts from minor popular novels and unhinged pieces of Ruskiniana, such as the great Victorian sage's 1872 lecture on "The Relation of Art to the Sciences of Organic Form" (1: 169-78), which counsels art students to avoid learning the structure of human anatomy lest it damage their craft. After bemoaning the popular practice of having pupils draw the Elgin marbles, Ruskin stipulates, "it is still worse for young persons to be . . . made familiar with the conditions of actual bodily form, in a climate where the restraints of dress must for ever prevent the body from being perfect in contour, or regarded with entirely simple feeling" (1: 176). No less fascinating than these prose inclusions are the verse selections which the editors have tracked down from some very unlikely sources. The physiologist George Romanes, for example, is not usually remembered for his poetry, but he wrote a series of surprisingly accomplished and moving meditative works on evolution, extinction, and his great mentor Charles Darwin: works that should receive new critical attention as a result of their inclusion in Volume 3.

Though I can hardly do justice to all of these volumes in a single review, one in particular deserves attention for its unprecedented cross-cultural reach. Marwa Elshakry and Sujit Sivasundaram's Volume 6--on Science, Race, and Imperialism--tackles a well-established subfield in Victorian literature and science studies, but re-orientates it through a focus on the colonial and global reception and syncretic appropriation of--rather than subjugation to--Western scientific discourse. Thus, in addition to seminal pieces of travel writing and exploration literature by white British authors, they include accounts of British technology and scientific theory penned by Parsi naval engineers, Brahmin administrators, Arab scientific popularizers, Indian nationalists, and the Shah of Persia; they even translate and incorporate a rare Ceylonese devotional poem, originally inscribed on a palm leaf, which praises the sacred aspects of a new road works project linking Colombo and Kandy.

Building upon the enfranchising momentum of Volume 5 (on women, children, and laborers), this editorial approach radically and dramatically expands the constituency of Victorian science, showing how non-Europeans within and beyond Britain's empire entered into dialogue with scientific naturalism, evolutionary theory, and technological development. Exhibiting fascinating early attempts to breach the hardening and doubly bifurcated two-culture divide from the imperial margins, the volume includes items such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak's 1906 speech on the synthesis of Western science and Hinduism. "Recently it has been our great pleasure," Tilak declared to his audience at Benares, "to see that Sir Oliver Lodge and Mayor and others have declared that the soul does not die with the body; so much now they are convinced of. Modern science accepts the doctrine of karma if not reincarnation" (6: 355). Another potential candidate for Volume 8, Tilak's vision of a karmic natural science demonstrates the remarkable flexibility of nineteenth-century science in its travels across continents and competing ontological zones.

The focus on new and original voices both in this volume and the others largely compensates for the absence of canonical texts throughout the series. Clearly the editors sought to stake out a territory different from that covered in previous anthologies, and thus sensibly left out, for example, the most oft-quoted passages from Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Nonetheless, these exclusions sometimes seem jarring. Although Francis Galton's writing is excerpted briefly in Volumes 2 and 6, nowhere do we find his monumental Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), which first named the new science of eugenics that would have such far-reaching and devastating consequences for subsequent social and scientific thought. Given the presence of eugenics-themed fiction in the set--Grant Allan's "The Child of the Phalanstery" (1884), for instance--this exclusion seems peculiar. Also, Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) is curiously left out of Volume 4, which is dedicated to evolutionary epic, the very genre that Chambers's book is said to have "created . . . in its modern form" (Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science [2007] 221).

Two other exclusions are likewise puzzling. In an odd reversal of its contemporary reception, only the more marginal tributaries of Alfred Russel Wallace's diverse polymathic oeuvre warrant a place in the series, and the editors make no place at all for poor Edward Burnett Tylor, who may well have been the founding father of Anthropology as an academic discipline. The suppression of these writers and texts struck me as hard to justify in light of the editors' willingness to include elsewhere veritable chestnuts of the Victorian Science and Literature canon such as Gerald Manley Hopkins's "God's Grandeur" (1877). In short, the criteria for selection do not always seem consistent across the collection. Yet the decision to prioritize lesser at the expense of greater-known works is mostly a gamble that pays off. After all, the very likelihood that readers will know some more high-profile texts well enough to regret their absence confirms the fact of their availability elsewhere.

Furthermore, though I sometimes felt the need for additional texts in these volumes, I never wished for cuts. A final testimony to the success of this behemothian series is that it leaves one with a lingering sense of wanting more. Among many critical avenues, the set promises to open up new investigations into colonial science, the relationship between Victorian science-as-romance and romanticism as a cultural movement, occult biology, cosmology and physics, and cross-class, gender, genre, and age reception studies. The innovative research directions initiated by the set will likely influence science and literature studies for years to come, helping scholars to better track the course of science's "wonderful lamp" as it crossed elite, plebian, domestic, imperial, and otherworldly spheres throughout the nineteenth century.

Related Material


Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman, eds. Victorian Science and Literature: Part 1 (Vols. 1-4). Pickering & Chatto, 2011. 1504 pp.

Last modified 5 July 2014