The Great Unknown

Written by Peg Kingman
Review by K. M. Sandrick

When published in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was an instant success; its first edition sold out within days. It was the talk of the middle and upper classes. Prince Albert read passages aloud to Queen Victoria. Abraham Lincoln and Tennyson embraced its message of a universal natural law. But it also shook the foundations of science and faith. As Disraeli remarked, the book convulsed the Victorian world.

The Great Unknown recreates the book’s sensation in the Edinburgh household of the Chambers family. Father Robert, his wife and their ten children, friend Lady Janet, and frequent dinner guests are captivated by speculation about the identity of the anonymous work’s author and its conclusions about the formation of the solar system, history of Earth, and origins of plant, animal, and human life. The story is told from the viewpoint of the Chambers’ wet nurse Constantia MacAdam, whose own origins are vague—who was her father? Who and where is her husband?—and the quarryman Stevenson who hides excavation of a chasm in a limestone cliff on a small island off the Northumberland shore.

Author Kingman’s narrative is well grounded in science and history and cleverly captures ruminations about Vestiges’ conclusions in parlor games. If only humans can measure time, then shouldn’t the species be called Homo mensor? What about the solely human ability to calculate? Should the species be Homo mathematicus?

This is a splendid introduction to the scientific classic Vestiges that preceded and set the stage for Darwin’s Origin of Species. Its matter-of-fact approach forsakes showing for telling, however, yielding a strong, bony structure but overlooking opportunities to add layers of flesh by letting readers experience as well as read. A link missing.