Peter Campbell

  • Joseph Banks: A Life by Patrick O’Brian
    Collins Harvill, 328 pp, £15.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 00 217350 6

That Patrick O’Brian would write a good book about the early life of Joseph Banks was to be expected. Banks combined the enthusiasm and practical competence of one of O’Brian’s fictional heroes, Jack Aubrey, with the passion for natural history of another, Stephen Maturin. Moreover O’Brian’s accounts in his novels of 18th-century seamanship are, like Tolstoy’s battle pieces, better historical description than most historians manage: it was clear that the variety of incident in Banks’s voyage to the Great South Sea with Cook, which matches that of any fictional adventure, was a subject made for him. What was not so obvious was that Sir Joseph’s long years of official business, as President of the Royal Society and member of various boards and committees, would be made, if anything, more interesting than the excitements of young Banks’s few years of active exploration. The book, like Reynolds’s picture of Banks in his twenties, which O’Brian much admires, is an attractive portrait. It is continuously interesting and coloured by the cheerfulness of a lucky subject.

O’Brian makes ample acknowledgement to the scholars who have edited the mass of material relating to Banks and his work. Sometimes, infected perhaps by the amiable manner of the correspondence, he makes little bows towards them which suggest the literary address of another age: ‘... studied by Mr H. B. Carter over a period of years: they form the basis ... of his closely detailed and percipient book His Majesty’s Spanish Flock ... a work of the most devoted scholarship running to some five hundred pages that I have often consulted, never without profit.’ His tongue may be edging towards his cheek, for his own achievement in creating from the archives a being convincingly of his period, and consistent with the accounts of his friends and enemies, has been largely achieved by removing the apparatus which might muffle the voice of Banks himself. The generous extracts from journals and letters allow us to imagine we are overhearing the headlong flow of the fifty-letter-a-day man who is quicker to find his meaning than its most correct expression.

Banks came from a Lincolnshire landowning family who had risen in a few generations from obscurity to wealth. He was sent to Harrow at nine years of age. He learned little and was transferred to Eton at 13. Liveliness, energy and good spirits were always more evident than scholarship, but it was at Eton that he discovered the interest in botany to which he was to owe adventure, advancement and delight. At Oxford he carried on the study, importing a tutor, Israel Lyons, the son of a Cambridge silversmith. Lyons’s lectures were attended by ‘as many as sixty voluntary paying pupils in a university that probably did not possess a thousand solvent undergraduates, and this at a time when science, apart from mathematics and astronomy, had little standing’ – one of the examples O’Brian uses to temper Gibbon’s description of his ‘idle unprofitable’ Oxford months.

Young Banks has the virtues of a hero in an old-fashioned school story. Frank, sometimes impulsive, not bearing grudges, a good friend (but too long-suffering to be a good judge of character), physically strong, unsnobbish and cheerful. To such a man natural history, in its robust adolescence, had much to offer. Rarity did not then immediately suggest extinction, and a good ornithologist needed to know how to shoot; filling cabinets with eggs and skins and herbarium sheets with roots and flowers was science, not rape. And there was much to be done: a European crag might still deliver a new variety, ‘nondescript’ meant unrecorded, not uninteresting, and a Pacific landfall promised half a dozen opportunities to attach the name of a friend, colleague or patron to an animal, plant or bug.

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