Victorian Sensation by James A. Secord

Victorian Sensation by James A. Secord

Author:James A. Secord [Secord, James A.]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Published: 2000-01-01T05:00:00+00:00

11.4 The phrenological organ of Secretiveness, marked here with a “7.” Combe 1843, 1:295.

Chambers shared the view, common among the early Victorian bourgeoisie, of the need to maintain the appearance of absolute integrity. The ideal derived from traditional codes in which the gentleman embodied truth in his person. Contemporary moralists argued, against Scott, that the secrets of authorship were no exception to the rule that one must not lie. Whewell, in his Elements of Morality (1845), took a particularly strong view on this: authors might “baffle curiosity” by evasion or turning the question, but allowing any impression contrary to the truth to develop was bad faith and would leave a “moral stain.” The use of language implied certain mutual understandings that should never be violated.22 Chambers, who by this standard was a moral reprobate, was simply concerned to avoid a direct lie in circumstances where it might be openly contradicted. He could insinuate, equivocate, mislead, tell half-truths; but a public falsehood would have destroyed his character as a man of honor. This, then, was the one role that underpinned all the other parts played by Chambers.

Anonymity in print gave an aura of mysterious power, but in letters and conversations it was a source of fun. Throughout the coming years, Chambers effectively acted the part of an ordinary reader engaged in the game of detecting the author. His secret correspondence is punctuated by miniature dramas, complete with dialogue, that illustrated how he played his role. One remarkable trial in the week of publication had Chambers speaking his anonymous text to close friends to gauge the reaction: he took a copy to Catherine Crowe and read her “the main chapter”—presumably the pivotal discussion of organic development—without admitting that he was the author. Chambers was delighted with her response, but was even more pleased by Combe’s praise for this “great new dig into the sides of superstition” and his plan to write to the Vestiges author through the publisher. “You cannot imagine how amusing all this was to Ignotus,” Chambers confided to Ireland, also asking for any news about the effect of Vestiges on “highly endowed minds.”23

Chambers waited eagerly for word from London. After a few weeks without much news, the scale of the sensation became clear, and it looked as though the veil of anonymity might be withdrawn. A friend from London mentioned that scientific men were full of praise: “‘A wonderful work’ is the remark of all, while most agree with the author’s hypothesis.” As Chambers told Ireland in mid-November:

Your two last communications have given immense pleasure to the author of the opus. Having kept his hopes down at the lowest mark—like a prudent cool Scotchman as he is—he unavoidably feels much elevated by tokens of success so unequivocal, and which have in a manner burst upon him. He capers in thought at the idea of Lockhart’s note, considering how that serpent would speak of him at this moment as the author of all he has written besides the opus. This


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