decorated initial 'A'ileen Fyfe's study of how the evangelical Religious Tract Society produced books about science with a proper "Christian tone" (100) for the working classes stands as a model of the way skillful scholarly investigation of an apparently specialized subject of little general interest can illuminate a wide range of apparently unrelated major topics. Like Ruskin, Carlyle, and the other Victorian sages, Fyfe shows that, properly understood, a phenomenon of seemingly minor importance can provide a window into the mind and soul of an entire age. In the course of explaining how an organization originally founded to produce and distribute those tracts so often mocked in Victorian novels came to play an important role in creating works of mass readership, Fyfe manages to challenge conventional approaches to the history of science as well as telling us much about the rise of a mass reading audience and key developments in Victorian publishing, advertising, book distribution, and the very meanings of "popular" and "popularize."

Much work on the reception of science in the nineteenth century has focused on the destructive effects that specific scientific theories had upon the faith of individual believers. For those evangelicals, like Ruskin, who were raised to believe in the literal truth of the biblical narrative, geology's demonstration that world had existed for millions (and not thousands) of years had a devastating effect because it made them question everything they'd been taught. Nonetheless, Fyfe makes the interesting point that "evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century were not usually concerned about the specific scientific discoveries themselves; rather, they were worried about what they regarded as the distorting manner in which those discoveries were represented to a wider reading public" (4). The key point here, perhaps, is the phrase "mid-nineteenth century," for the Evangelicals who wished to provide the working classes with books that popularized science with a proper Christian tone founded this series well before the appearance of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

By concentrating on both the broad mass readership of texts that popularized science and those who wrote them, Fyfe challenges usual academic studies of the history of scientific ideas and their reception. As she herself emphasizes, she approaches "the science-religion debates from a fresh angle, by examining the public understanding of science as opposed to that articulated by experts through their published papers. Science and Salvation is not concerned with eminent men of science, nor even with particularly well-known clergymen. I seek a wider scope by attempting to gauge attitudes to the sciences and faith as held by laypeople" (4). In essence, Fyfe has done much to redefine the "Victorian" in Victorian Science, reminding us what we often remind undergraduates — that the descriptive term "Victorian" is more a question than an answer. Fyfe's valuable answer to the question what Victorian means in relation to Victorian science is that we cannot understand ideas and attitudes towards science in the age of Victoria by concentrating solely upon elite scientists and authors.

In order to understand the goals of those who worked so hard and successfully to create works that popularized science in a proper way, one must recognize the identity of what the Religious Tract Society conceived as their opposition — the kind of authors, work, and publishers from which they wished to protect the working and lower middle classes. Upper- and middle-class evangelicals found themselves deeply troubled by the flood of inexpensive reading material available to the working classes, for

by the 1840s and 1850s, it had become clear that cheap literature was not necessarily educational or wholesome, but might as easily be erroneous, immoral, or downright corrupting. For evangelicals, this was not good news. They regarded the printing press as a divine gift for spreading the word of God. It was due to the press that "the word of the Lord has had free course and been glorified. The darkness, superstition, and despotism of the middle ages can never return." The apparent multitudes of secular, immoral, and corrupting publications were a prostitution of that gift. During the 1840s and 1850s, therefore, evangelicals had to decide how to respond to these changes and to rethink their own publishing programmes in response to the new competition.

Although Fyfe does not point it out, evangelicals were not the only religious group who worried about the flood of newly affordable books addressed to the working classes. Writing as a Roman Catholic, John Henry Newman, so often cited as an exponent of liberal education, fiercely attacked the abundance of cheap books with the kind of language we associate today with jeremiads about the pernicious effects of television, video games, and the internet.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most dangerous threats, according to evangelicals, were not, as one might think, atheistic writers, such as Tom Paine, who were often the targets of religious tracts. They were instead, not authors and texts that used science to attack the credibility of scripture and otherwise use science to oppose religious but rather those who never mentioned religion at all — those, in other words, who took a secular approach, one that assumed science and religion existed in separate spheres. As Fyfe points out, "Works that omitted all mention of God were almost as dangerous as the atheistic ones that openly attacked belief in God and gloried in religious infidelity. Secular works were less overtly shocking to believers, but they had the insidious potential to convince their readers that the sciences could be adequately and completely understood without reference to religion" (4).

The Religious Tract Society's solution required providing the working classes with books possessed had what Thomas Arnold had called a "Christian tone" (100), which "did not mean that only religious subjects should be addressed. Arnold himself particularly recommended history and biography as subjects that would do more good than 'any direct comments on scripture, or essays on Evidences'" (102). The proper Christian tone required in popularizing science produced works very different from the evangelical tracts so mocked by Thackeray, Dickens and Rossetti. In other words, here readers encountered no tales of young boys and girls who disobeyed their parents or failed to observe the sabbath and therefore found themselves amid the flames of hell. Although Religious Tract Society books obviously did not emphasize disparities between contemporary science and the Bible, they also rarely brought in the scriptures at all, and when they did so it was generally to point out that a topic under discussion — say, a particular animal — appeared in the biblical narrative. Nonetheless, to have that necessary Christian tone a Religious Tract Society volume, Fyfe explains, "had to include a statement of the Atonement, which almost always appeared at the end of the book, where it did not obstruct the flow of the narrative" (117). It would of course require an entirely different study, but one would like to know how these works in fact influenced their intended audience. We have some anecdotes from the "saved," but one would like to know how many skeptics closely read the discussions of science but scoffed at the usual religious coda or simply skipped over it.

The Growth of a Working-Class Audience: Political, Economic, and Technological Factors

Fyfe's chapter entitled "The Techniques of Evangelical Publishing" skillfully explains the complex factors that permitted the rather sudden development of a mass readership. According to her, "The existence of a 'mass audience' was just beginning to be recognised in the 1840s, and it was frequently perceived as a crowd of different sorts of people rather than as the homogeneous mass that we tend to think of today" (6). During the first decades of the nineteenth century publishers, such as Murray and Constable, were uncertain about "both the size of the potential market and the price tag that the market could take. A few years later the success of the penny weekly magazines demonstrated to the entire book trade that an enormous reading audience definitely did exist — if the price was pennies rather than shillings" (48). An old adage relating British money to the Victorian class system held that items for the upper classes cost pounds and guineas, those for the middling classes shillings, and those for the lowest classes . . . pennies. If they hoped to reach a mass audience, publishers had to find a way to produce books that they could then sell for pennies.

Before books could be sold for pennies, a series of economic, political, and technological changes had to take place. First, publishers had to demonstrate to themselves that lowering book prices produced larger audiences, though at first these audiences did not include the working-class readers.

The book series of the 1840s were successful in a way that their predecessors in the 1820s simply had not been. By using reprints, it was possible to break even at a price of five or six shillings, and publishers like Chambers, Knight, and Routledge showed that it could be done at even lower prices. There are several reasons why this had become possible. One was that the "taxes on knowledge" had begun to be repealed in 1833, although the process was not complete until 1861. Attitudes toward cheap publishing were also changing. Particularly after 1848, there was much less fear of working-class unrest and potential revolt than there had been in the years before the 1832 Reform Act. Despite being the year of European revolutions, the British Parliament's rejection (for the third time) of the People's Charter, a petition demanding extensive electoral reforms, had passed off quietly in April 1848. [53]

These political developments convinced the Religious Tract Society that educating the lower classes by providing them with adequate cheap books was not only not safe but necessary.

"Important as the political changes were," Fyfe points out, "the most obvious cause of the transformation in cheap publishing was the introduction of mechanisation and steam power" (53). The crucial technologies appeared early in the century, but book publishers, who did not yet have a mass audience, saw no reason to take advantage of them. Newspapers and periodicals, which had to produce large numbers of copies as quickly and cheaply as possible, did, The Times being the pioneer when it purchased German-invented steam printing presses in 1814. By the time the Religious Tract Society and commercial publishers decided that a potentially large audience existed in the poorer classes, printers had accumulated a lot of experience with the newer printing technologies, which included the practice of stereotyping — casting a metal plate based on an impression from hand-set type — which permitted both quick reuse of the type for other pages and multiple copies of the metal plates for even faster printing of multiple copies (162).

Literary Accessibility, Advertising, and Distribution

Creating the new large audience that could and would purchase this flood of new books obviously involved more than just producing book in numbers larger than ever before. First, one had to rethink what one meant by "popular" and "popularize." Unlike today, the word popular "was not a description the reception of a work (for example, a book was popular because everyone read it and liked it), but a statement about the intended audience envisaged by writers and publishers. . . . A 'popular' work was one that was intended for 'the people,' which by the middle of the nineteenth century increasingly included the working classes" (56). By the 1840s publishers realized that reducing the purchase price of books was not enough:

Publishers who were committed to reaching the working classes were also focusing on literary accessibility, making sure that the language used was as clear and simple as possible. These changes are reflected in the changing meanings of the verb "to popularize," which came to mean "to make abstruse and technical subjects generally accessible" rather than simply "to make available to the populace." [56]

In addition to lowering the pieces of books and making them more stylistically accessible, publishers also had to develop new ways of advertising and distributing them. Advertising as we know it today came into being. "In the 1840s, the style of advertising was beginning to change. Advertisements ceased to be simple announcements of new titles and began to try to sell their products, using display fonts, pictures, and enticing slogans and promises" (166). In other words, the Religious Tract Society and other publishers who competed for the quickly increasing mass audience played a part in creating the kind of modern advertising that Thomas Carlyle so mocked in Past and Present. Publishers also had find a way to get their books into the hands of working-class readers, who rarely entered bookstores, and one way involved various alternative outlets, including itinerant hawkers, who "sought out working-class readers directly, at their homes or meeting places, and made their living on the difference between the trade and retail prices of their publications. . . . Five hawkers employed by the Town Missionary and Scripture Readers Society . . . [in 1849] had sold no fewer than sixty thousand RTS publications and twenty-four thousand Bibles" (172). Furthermore,

Although it was generally asserted that the working classes did not frequent bookshops, the reports of city missionaries and investigative journalists were revealing the existence of alternative bookselling outlets. New, remaindered, and secondhand books were sold from barrows and stalls, and even from small shops in the working-class districts. Henry Mayhew reported that there were around a thousand individuals employed in sale of stationery and literature on the streets of London. Of these, he found forty selling tracts and pamphlets, twenty with book stalls, and fifty running book barrows. [174]

Minor Quibbles and Qualifications

A reviewer I read decades ago (probably in the TLS) held that since no book is perfect, reviewers can only give two out of three hurrahs. Indeed, even this book so marked by carefully stated claims, clear argument, and abundant credit to its predecessors, occasionally stumbles, as in the following paragraph in which a little toying with fashionability leads to a bit of uncharacteristic silliness:

For organisations such as the Religious Tract Society, a major problem with the flood of cheap publications lay in disciplining readers. When works were read in the middle-class home, in the parish library, or in the Sunday school, there were systems of authority to ensure that readers interpreted the works "correctly" — as well as the censorship that would have kept out many of the potentially corrupting works in the first place. Such systems of authority could control only a small proportion of the mass audience, and beyond them, different methods of disciplining readers were needed. This was why it was necessary to develop a Christian variant of the new genre of popular science publishing, in which the "Christian tone" of the narration could attempt to control readers' interpretations. [264; emphasis added]

There's a world of difference, I'd say, between disciplining readers and making an attempt to control readers' interpretations. Ever since Michel Foucault's book, the English title of which is Discipline and Punish, academics have overused and misused this idea of discipline. Foucault argued that as Western civilization became supposedly more civilized, it stopping using for social control obvious displays of physical force, such as hideous public torture (which incidentally fascinated Foucault a great deal) and found other means of internalizing the power of state and society. Of course, Foucault was simply repackaging ideas found in histories of western thought for the past century or more. Ever since E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational, students of literature, philosophy, and culture have pointed out the way civilizations, beginning with classical Greece, moved from shame to guilt cultures, thus internalizing political and moral ideologies. Foucault's contribution, if it was that, was to imply that the change, particularly in the early modern era, was in some way inevitably bad and oppressive. Foucault, who has had an enormous influence on cultural studies, made many important points about the ways our social constructions of authorship work. Following Derrida and Sartre, he brilliantly showed how power never consists solely of a simple binary opposition between the powerful and the powerless. But a lot of this talk about disciplining members of society, here readers, is simply silly, and in the context of Fyfe's argument absurdly overstated.

As it turns out, while I was writing this review I was also reading Stephen Brook's Vanished Empire, which tells of his travels to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There he encountered real discipline: he learned of clergymen, writers, and other dissidents from the Stalin years who'd suffered torture, imprisonment, and death for the most minor (or imagined) disagreements with authority; during the late 1980s, a period of much less violent oppression, he met people who had lost their positions as clergymen, academics, and civil servants (and most of their incomes) and survived by working as window washers and furnace stokers. One can legitimately talk about social control and discipline in their cases, but in relation to the readers of Religious Tract Society books. . . ? However much the evangelical leaders and authors of the Religious Tract Society would have liked to take a headmaster's cane and thump all those who read in ways with which they disagreed, the closest they could ever come to "discipline" involved a few specific rhetorical strategies. As Fyfe herself admits, although the Religious Tract Society approach "could not function as effectively as a teacher's supervision, it limited the range of interpretations open to the reader, by making it more difficult to read an infidel message against the Christian tone" [264]. As much as culture concerns power, the entire cultural enterprise on which Religious Tract Society expended so much hope, faith, and devotion involved, if anything, a hopeful gesture, not an act of discipline.

I admit it — I'm being more than a little grumpy here, disappointed as I am that a fine scholar like Fyfe finds it necessary to make such a silly gesture at fashionablity. I wouldn't write like such a curmudgeon, I suppose, had she not otherwise written such a fine book.


Fyfe, Aileen. Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Brook, Stephen. Vanished Empire. Vienna, Budapest, Prague: Three Capital Cities of the Habsburg Empire as Seen Today. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Last modified 25 May 2005