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Geoscientist Online

The X Club: Power & Authority in Victorian Science

Barton X ClubIt is amusing to ponder whether the X Club, a dining society of nine influential men of science, would have commanded so much interest and contemporary suspicion if they had gone with Thomas Huxley’s suggested name of the ‘Blastodermic Club’.

However, George Busk, Joseph Hooker, Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall, Thomas Huxley, William Spottiswoode, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer and John Lubbock were ‘blastodermic’ in that they were the germ of change, seeking to introduce scientific habits of mind into Victorian society, riddled with theologians and blind respect, and to claim for science its proper cultural authority.

Barton shows us a group that came together somewhat randomly, and cooperated in different combinations on different subjects, according to personal interests. She is also keen to consider the X men’s ‘better halves’. Her analysis is detailed, convincing and long awaited.

Beware, though—this is not a book written to sell. It is more like a long PhD thesis, aimed at historians, and libraries. Although strong on the Club’s group dynamic and the influence of their ‘Y-vs’, one learns little about the X men as men that one didn’t already know. Huxley, Tyndall, and Hooker remain prominent; shadowy members, like Busk, emerge from the thick London fog—into a slightly less thick mist.

Although the book provides portraits of all members, they are scattered. Knowing what people looked like might seem irrelevant to ideas and deeds, but it matters to the reader, if only to keep the lesser characters apart in the mind. Everything reads like an academic paper. The book itself has prologue and epilogue. Each chapter has abstract and conclusion and envoi to the next. While well copy-edited, editing went no further. But, this is university publishing. Readers are irrelevant.

The donnish habit of purging human interest from material is especially handicapping to a work of group biography. We hear that X-Club satellite Dr Carpenter (registrar of London University) suffered a ‘sudden death’. In fact, he managed to immolate himself in a bath—when camphor fumes (he was suffering from a cold) were ignited by the heater underneath. Barton mentions that Tyndall took various Victorian uppers and downers, but not that he died at the hands of his wife, who got mixed up and administered chloral in a dose appropriate for milk of magnesia. Tyndall tossed it off, remarked on its sweet taste, and, as he watched her realise her terrible error, said: “Yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John.” Strange that, given Barton’s enthusiasm for documenting the influences of females on the men of the X, this extreme example should have been missed out.

But, don’t let this put you off—you can supply your own colour where it is wanting in this valuable and long-awaited group portrait.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

THE X CLUB: POWER & AUTHORITY IN VICTORIAN SCIENCE by Ruth Barton 2018, Published by: Chicago University Press 604pp. ISBN: 978-0-226-55161 (hbk) 978-0-226-55175-3 (ebook). List Price: £33.99 W: https://press.uchicago.edu

(The full original version of this review appears below. Editor.)

The X Club: Power & Authority in Victorian Science


It is amusing to ponder whether the X Club, a dining society of nine (not 10) influential men of science, would have commanded so much interest and contemporary suspicion if they had gone with Thomas Huxley’s suggested name of the ‘Blastodermic Club’.

However, George Busk, Joseph Hooker, Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall, Thomas Huxley, William Spottiswoode, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer and John Lubbock were ‘blastodermic’ in that they were the germ of change, seeking to introduce scientific habits of mind into Victorian society, riddled with theologians and blind respect, and to claim for science its proper cultural authority. Their influence was wide-ranging, from popular books and lectures to advising Government, and holding Presidential positions in all the great scientific societies, including ours. They managed to make a hole or two in the holy prison, to promote scientific merit over societal rank when appointing Presidents; to introduce science into the curriculum (less successfully in higher education than secondary and further). They were about so much more than just ‘professionalization’, defending Darwin, and religion-bashing. In fact, religion was never their problem. Priests and theology were.

Barton shows us a group that came together somewhat randomly, and cooperated in different combinations on different subjects, according to personal interests. They owed their initiation not to Huxley so much as to Hooker; but their successes were often the result of solid admin by less glamorous people, like George Busk, who were often left to turn handles after the great campaigners moved on. Barton is also keen to consider the X men’s ‘better halves’. Her analysis is detailed, convincing and long awaited (she has been working on this for decades).

Beware, though—this is not a book written to sell. It is more like a long PhD thesis by a particularly earnest student, aimed at historians, and libraries. Although strong on the Club’s group dynamic and the influence of their ‘Y-vs’, one learns little about the X men as men that one didn’t already know. Huxley, Tyndall, and Hooker remain prominent; shadowy members, like Busk, emerge from the thick London fog—into a slightly less thick mist.

Although the book provides portraits of all members, they are scattered—except on the dust-cover, which alas has no proper caption. Knowing what people looked like might seem irrelevant to ideas and deeds, but it matters to the reader, if only to keep the lesser characters apart in the mind. Everything reads like an academic paper. The book itself has prologue and epilogue. Each chapter has abstract and conclusion and envoi to the next (largely repeated in the next’s introduction). While well copy-edited, editing went no further. But, this is university publishing. Readers are irrelevant.

The donnish habit of purging human interest from material is especially handicapping to a work of group biography. We hear that X-Club satellite Dr Carpenter (registrar of London University) suffered a ‘sudden death’. In fact, he managed to immolate himself in a bath—when camphor fumes (he was suffering from a cold) were ignited by the heater underneath. Barton mentions that Tyndall took various Victorian uppers and downers, but not that he died at the hands of his wife, who got mixed up and administered chloral in a dose appropriate for milk of magnesia. Tyndall tossed it off, remarked on its sweet taste, and, as he watched her realise her terrible error, said: “Yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John.” Strange that, given Barton’s enthusiasm for documenting the influences of females on the men of the X, this extreme example should have been missed out.

But, if, like me, reading about Victorian society seems like coming home to the age in which you once lived, don’t let this put you off—you can supply your own colour where it is wanting in this valuable and long-awaited group portrait.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

THE X CLUB: POWER & AUTHORITY IN VICTORIAN SCIENCE
by RUTH BARTON 2018 Published by: Chicago University Press 604pp ISBN: 978-0-226-55161 (hbk) 978-0-226-55175-3 (ebook). List Price: £33.99 W: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/X/bo28082465.html