Did Lady Brewster faint?

Eric Korn

  • Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest by Adrian Desmond
    Joseph, 372 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 7181 3882 1

In 1883, a Mr Wendell Phillips Garrison of New York published a travel narrative called What Mr Darwin Saw on his Voyage around the World, a narrative that follows pretty closely Darwin’s own line and Darwin’s own words, or at least the less intellectually taxing of Darwin’s own words. In a remarkable preface Garrison suggests that the text contains all a child needs at every stage of its education: a well-conducted parent could match the level of difficulty with the child’s evolving ability, telling the story in simple numbers for the babe in arms or on the knee, in greater detail for the toddler and schoolchild, until the grown student gets the undiluted works. Darwin’s text would teach not only reading, but mathematics, science, geography, history and physiography. Darwin in nursery rhymes to Darwin in Alcaics.

In his own lifetime there was a sense of Darwin as a tutelary presence, of his life following an exemplary parabola: careless youth, picaro’s travels, epiphany on road from Galapagos, meditations in the garden, sermons on barnacles, revelations, beatitudes, fame and the glorious humility of the return to earthworms: as children we knew his story as we knew the life of Nelson or St George.

There was no such moving image for Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog (or Rottweiler) as there is not for Nelson’s Hardy or St George’s horse; the acts of the chief apostle are not celebrated. We know Huxley as a photograph or a cartoon: heavy-jawed and self-confident, or already fixed in marble. Or better, like one of those nodding-doll holograms that ceaselessly repeats a greeting. ‘Hallo. I’m Thomas Henry. I’d rather be an ape than a bishop. Hallo, I’m Thomas Henry. I’d rather be an ape than a bishop. Hallo ... ’

We don’t know exactly what happened at the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860. We think we know who the good guys were and who the bad hat, or mitre. We do not know exactly what the Bishop of Oxford said or what THH replied. Desmond favours a version of ‘was your grandmother a monkey?’, and gives it a plausible class twist. The Bishop was a gentleman, and confident in the identity and ladylike character of his own grandmother, and the grandmothers of the kind of people he sparred with. But Huxley never knew his granny, coming from a stratum where the existence of ancestors cannot be assumed, and consequently took offence where none – perhaps – was offered. But there was no one present with shorthand, a camera or an eidetic memory: contemporary accounts are thin and inconsistent. Henry Sidgwick’s sister wrote her memories of the battle in friends’ albums – I have seen two – but not until twenty years later. Did Lady Brewster faint? Did Fitzroy wave his Bible like a flail? Did Hooker save the day for progress when Huxley couldn’t speak for temper? (Hooker thought so.) Did Huxley murmur: ‘the Lord hath delivered him into my hand?’ (Huxley thought so.) And Samuel Wilberforce straightened his lawn sleeves and reckoned he’d seen off the hosts of Midian. But the victors get to write, or rewrite, history, at least when there’s some agreement about who they might be, and Huxley did it, memorably, definitively, in ‘The Coming of Age of the Origin’ (1880). The Concise DNB of 1930, summarising the Bishop’s achievements in two hundred words, doesn’t mention the 1860 battle (nor sub Huxley or Darwin or Hooker).

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