Dephlogisticated

John Barrell

  • The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius by Mike Jay
    Yale, 294 pp, £20.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12439 2

In 1794 Robert Watt, an Edinburgh wine merchant, together with a few associates, was arrested for allegedly framing a plot to seize the Edinburgh post office, the banks and the castle, and to issue a demand that George III dismiss the government of William Pitt and make peace with the French Republic. Just before the arrests, an English medical student studying in Edinburgh, John Edmonds Stock, had been sent down to London by Watt with a letter to the London Corresponding Society inviting them to mount a similar insurrection. Hearing just in time that he was a wanted man, he disappeared, to resurface later in Philadelphia, where he continued his medical studies. When he thought it safe Stock returned to Britain, probably about 1803, and was taken on by the radical Dr Thomas Beddoes as an assistant at his Medical Institution for the Benefit of the Sick and Drooping Poor at the Hotwells, Bristol; and when Beddoes died a few years later, his widow, Anna, commissioned Stock to write up his life and works. He responded by producing what is probably the most boring biography ever written, and I should know, because I am probably the only person ever to have read it twice – once because I wanted to know about Stock, and once in preparation for writing this review.

It is boring on a heroic scale: excluding the appendices (which, being extracts from Beddoes’s writings, are not boring), it is 413 pages long, without chapter breaks, without even a line space to vary the monotony of solid print. In Coleridge’s term, it is a biographia literaria, a history of Beddoes’s thought and writings more than of the events of his life, and the main literary device, if it can be called that, by which it binds the narrative together, is the frequent repetition of the word ‘next’. ‘The next chapter discusses’; ‘Dr Beddoes next turns to’; ‘he next considers’: paragraph after paragraph starts like this; it really is that relentless. To Beddoes’s friends, it seemed that Stock was burying him all over again. Dr John King, the other, more popular assistant at the Hotwells institution, described Stock as a ‘literary undertaker’; Robert Southey told Coleridge, who told Beddoes’s protégé Humphry Davy, that ‘the proper vignette for the work would be a funeral lamp beside an urn and Dr Stock in the act of placing an extinguisher on it’ (Coleridge had wanted the commission himself, but would probably never have completed it).

Mike Jay’s new book on Beddoes is fascinating, exciting, entertaining, where Stock’s is dull, dull, dull. And yet the more I enjoyed it, the more I began to revise my opinion of what Stock achieved, though perhaps not to the point where I will feel obliged to read him for a third time. Anna Beddoes had given him an impossible task. Her marriage had not been entirely successful, and though she had always been true to Beddoes in her fashion, she had been no more constant than he had been attentive. She had had affairs of a sort – they probably went no further than sighs, holding hands, occasional kisses – with the 20-year-old Davy, with Davy’s eventual successor as president of the Royal Society (and Beddoes’s closest friend and adviser), Davies Giddy, and with other men. Her husband, who was passionate about everything but sex, had been relieved rather than annoyed, but that probably made her sense of guilt, after his premature death, no easier to bear, especially as she may have been half hoping he would die, believing that after a shortish interval she and Giddy would be married. But Giddy married someone else, and Anna was left with the duty and the penance of keeping her husband’s flame alive by ensuring that his achievements were properly memorialised.

But what were his achievements? Beddoes was certainly a remarkable man, a man of extraordinary learning and range, of astonishing energy, with a capacity for intellectual enthusiasm and industry almost beyond belief. As an undergraduate he had written (though not published) a complete Flora Britannica; he had an MA and a medical degree from Oxford, though he had studied mainly in the advanced School of Medicine at Edinburgh. As a geologist he was in the vanguard of research, concentrating on granites and basalts, and helping confirm that the earth was far, far older than orthodox religion could allow itself to acknowledge. In his late twenties he became a reader in chemistry at Oxford, regularly drawing immense numbers to lectures at which he expounded the latest discoveries and controversies in what was at that moment the most exciting of the natural sciences. Had it not been for his support for the French Revolution, in his early thirties he would have been offered the Regius Chair of Chemistry created specifically for him. His interest in the iron industry, then centred on his home county of Shropshire, led him to write important papers on the chemical processes involved in the conversion of cast into malleable iron. He was the author of some of the most incisive political pamphlets of the 1790s. His much reprinted short story ‘The History of Isaac Jenkins’, offering advice in simple language to the families of the labouring poor, anticipated Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts and, unlike More, managed to address the poor respectfully, and without enjoining on them obedience to the Church of England and deference to their superiors. He was a good enough poet to win the friendship, though not on that account only, of Southey and Coleridge during their most innovative period. He translated medical works from German, Italian and Spanish, and had a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek and French. These modern languages he had taught himself as a teenager. It had taken him two months to master French, a little less for Italian, for German a little more. He was fully informed about advances in contemporary European chemistry and medicine, and about German literature, philosophy and biblical criticism. His photographic memory made him invincible at whist. He was capable, surely, of achieving great things. But what had he achieved? What was there for Stock to memorialise?

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