This long pursuit, p.4
This Long Pursuit, p.4Richard Holmes
It was the young botanist Joseph Banks who provided my unifying figure, in both a scientific and a literary sense. His story runs through the whole relay race of the book. After his great voyage with Captain Cook he was elected President of the Royal Society in 1778, when he was thirty-five, remaining in that office until his death in 1820, when he was in his late seventies. His career provided intellectual continuity, as well as a narrative gravity.
Banks’s adventures begin the book and take it through to its last decade. Each chapter starts with him inaugurating a new project. Each of my subjects walks in – either literally or metaphorically – to one of Banks’s famous planning breakfasts in Soho Square, London. Banks also grows old with the book; his views of the function of science, and its connection with empire and religious belief, change. So he became my presiding genius, or Virgilian guide.
The central scientific story emerged as that of William and Caroline Herschel. Born in 1738, William Herschel was a German émigré from Hanover who trained as a musician, and settled in Bath in 1766, where he became fascinated by the study of stars and planets, initially as an amateur hobby. In 1772 he brought his much younger sister Caroline (born in 1750) to join him, thereby releasing her from domestic bondage. Together they began the construction of home-made reflector telescopes, and their observations quickly opened a new chapter in astronomy.
William’s discovery of Uranus, the seventh planet in the solar system, on 13 March 1781, doubled the size of the observable solar system, and subsequently led to a whole new conception of the structure of the universe. Caroline was not present on the actual night of the first sighting of Uranus, but she helped with all of William’s subsequent observations over the next thirty years, and herself became one of the most renowned comet-hunters in Europe. She was also the first woman in British science to be granted an official salary, a £50 annuity from the Crown, which was enough to live on independently at that date. This was itself a notable watershed.
From 1782 the two Herschels continued their work at a new observatory outside Slough, close to the King’s country residence at Windsor Castle. Here they built a series of telescopes, ranging up from ten to twenty feet in length, and finally produced a forty-foot giant, with a metal speculum mirror weighing over a ton. This last became a local landmark and tourist attraction, even being recorded on one of the new Ordnance Survey maps.
Their observation established the idea of ‘deep space’, but also of ‘deep time’, and first identified the discus shape of our Milky Way. Herschel also proposed, in a series of revolutionary papers to the Royal Society, the existence of galaxies outside the Milky Way – such as Andromeda – and at previously unimagined distances. He called such galaxies ‘the laboratories of the universe’, in which new stars were constantly being formed, and described them not as static creations, in the Biblical sense, but as dynamic structures with identifiable patterns of stellar formation, growth and decay, not unlike plants. These new ‘organic’ theories of what was in effect an ‘evolving’ universe transformed contemporary notions of the cosmos.
Besides tracing the scientific relationship between William and Caroline Herschel, I also wanted to show the extraordinary imaginative impact of their work in several other fields. To do this I looked particularly at the reactions of the poets Shelley and Keats to the new discoveries, and also of the musician Joseph Haydn. One of the most remarkable things was the very different kinds of conclusions they each drew from it.
Shelley had been inspired to buy his own (extremely expensive) telescope while an undergraduate at Oxford University. He made astronomy, and an imaginary journey through the stars, a central theme of his first major poem, Queen Mab, published in 1813 (still within both Herschels’ lifetimes). Attached to it were a series of deliberately provoking prose notes on a variety of scientific and political subjects, including free love, vegetarianism and climate change. Inspired by William Herschel’s ‘deep space’ theories, he wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ – that is, the existence of extra-terrestrial life on what we would now call ‘exoplanets’. He drew from this an atheist conclusion which would have delighted Professor Richard Dawkins:
The indefinite immensity of the universe is the most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur is in no danger of seduction from the falsehoods of religious systems, or of deifying the principle of the universe. It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman … All that miserable tale of the Devil and Eve and an Intercessor, is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars. The works of His fingers have borne witness against him … Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity.
Three years later, the reaction of the equally young John Keats was utterly different. Keats was twenty years old, and attending a full-time medical course at Guy’s Hospital in London. He wrote his sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ very early one autumn morning in October 1816. It celebrates a deeply Romantic idea of exploration and discovery. Without actually naming Herschel, it picks out the finding of Uranus, thirty-five years before, as one of the defining moments of the age. Although combining many sources of inspiration (it is possible that Keats may have attended Charles Babbage’s 1815 ‘Lectures on Astronomy’ at the Royal Institution), the poem itself was written in less than four hours. It ends:
… Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with wond’ring eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Keats’s vivid idea of the ‘eureka moment’ of instant, astonished recognition celebrates the Romantic notion of scientific discovery. But the efforts of other European astronomers, like Charles Messier (1730–1817) and Anders Johan Lexell (1740–84), in fact took weeks, if not months, to confirm the true planetary identification of Herschel’s ‘comet’ in 1781. Yet it is also true that Herschel too, despite the evidence of his own observation journal, gradually convinced himself that precisely such a moment of instant, sublime discovery had occurred in his garden at New King Street in Bath. So the paradox emerges that the scientist Herschel in the end may have remembered that night exactly as the poet Keats imagined it.
A third and much older artist who responded creatively to the Herschels’ work was the great composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). Once again his reaction was revealingly, even astonishingly, different. It has long been accepted that Haydn’s famous and beautiful oratorio The Creation was the religious work that crowned his career. Completed in 1798, when Haydn was sixty-six, it was based on a pious libretto obtained by the London-based musical impresario Johann Peter Salomon.
This libretto was inspired by the traditional scriptural words from the King James Bible, the opening of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and the Darkness was on the face of the Deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the Waters. And God said, Let there be Light: and there was Light.’ Some additional elements were taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. So the oratorio is fundamentally a religious work, as Haydn himself later movingly testified: ‘Never was I so pious,’ he wrote, ‘as when composing “The Creation”. I felt myself so penetrated with religious feeling that before I sat down to the pianoforte I prayed to God with earnestness that He would enable me to praise Him worthily.’
It is often said that in the lives of the great eighteenth-century composers there is only one parallel to this frame of mind – the religious fervour in which Handel composed Messiah. And that Haydn had set out to rival him in piety, as well as in musical brilliance.
Haydn’s eighteen-month visit to London in 1791–92, the first of two he made to the English capital, was the first time he had voyaged outside Austria in his life. Although he was already in his late fifties when he arrived in England, he engaged with this new world with immense intellectual excitement. Among many adventures and expeditions recorded in his London diary, one high point was his visit to the Herschels’ famous astronomical observatory at Slough in June 1792.
By now, the brother-and-sister astronomical team were renowned throughout Europe. Their enormous forty-foot reflector telescope, the biggest in the world, was one of the wonders of the age. Both the Herschels were also musicians. William was an accomplished composer and one-time organist and Kapellmeister of the Octagon Chapel, Bath. Caroline had trained as an opera singer, and had successfully performed in Handel oratorios. Moreover, as the Herschels originally came from Hanover, they and Haydn had German as a common language.
William’s diary shows that he himself was absent from the Slough observatory during much of this month. But Caroline’s journal records Haydn’s visit as one of the highlights of their summer. One of the things they had to discuss was the generosity of their English patrons in the financing of both telescopes and symphonies – finances and accounting being Caroline’s special department. But above all, Caroline was able to describe their astronomical work in detail to Haydn, while explaining her brother’s discoveries with the utmost enthusiasm and pride.
Haydn was an immensely hard worker – he would produce no fewer than twelve symphonies while in England – and he was evidently impressed by the punishing (not to say Teutonic) routine of the Herschels, who, as Caroline explained, worked all day on astronomical calculations, and then could spend ‘six hours at a time on freezing winter nights’ carrying out their observations. But as this was high summer, Haydn had plenty of leisure to look through all the telescopes – ten-, twenty-, and forty-foot – and discuss with Caroline her brother’s theories of stars, planets and musical composition.
As I have indicated, Herschel’s theories explored new and radical ideas about the formation of our own solar system and the galaxies beyond it. They had been published in a number of scientific papers in the journal of the Royal Society, the Philosophical Transactions, and had also been popularised in the work of the poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), a leading member of the Lunar Society. They spread widely, and were taken up in France by the atheist astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), who developed them as ‘the nebular hypothesis’ and published them in his own massive study of astronomy in 1796, Exposition du Système du Monde.
Laplace argued that there were millions of other solar systems besides our own. Other suns had spun out clusters of individual planets which circled around them, again through the force of universal gravity. There must be innumerable such ‘solar systems’ even in our own Milky Way. So the whole universe was a laboratory. Clearly, these ideas of Herschel and Laplace moved away from the traditional six-day Creation ‘myth’ of Genesis, and came much closer to modern ideas of evolutionary cosmology. They were also supported by the ‘deep time’ ideas of the British geologist James Hutton (1726–97).
It seems likely that the early sections of Haydn’s oratorio reflect something of such revolutionary speculations. This was emphasised by his giving such unusual and inventive attention to the idea of ‘chaos’ at the opening of the work. Nothing that he – or indeed Handel – had ever previously written is remotely like these extraordinary passages. Haydn’s use of unresolved musical phrases, unsettling shifts from major to minor chords, sudden bursts of melody broken off by unexpected dissonance, all seem to suggest the vision of a highly active, explosive, cosmological chaos: the whirling, colliding and condensing of truly vast nebulae. It does not seem anything like the passive ‘brooding’ darkness of the Book of Genesis. What it so vividly summons up are the luminous celestial ‘laboratories’ of Herschel and Laplace.
There are many other subjects that I attempted to explore in The Age of Wonder – for example, the speculative impact of Davy’s chemical lectures on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the idea of flight launched by the early ballooning experiments of Blanchard and the American John Jeffries; or the heroic concept of geographical exploration pioneered by the expeditions of Mungo Park. All of them seemed to offer a fascinating new way of looking at the dynamic interface between the arts and the sciences in the Romantic period, and radically to call in question the old, tired idea of the ‘Two Cultures’ division.
Essentially, I wanted to experiment: to take risks and break conventions. First, by exploring the possibilities of ‘group biography’, especially as it can explain and illuminate the particular nature of teamwork in science. Next, to use literary narrative, accurate and vivid storytelling, to demonstrate the step-by-step (and often step-by-misstep) of the actual process of scientific discovery. In doing this, I wanted to discover the human face of science, the hearts and minds behind the ‘white coats’. My real subject was always scientific passion in all its manifestations. It was not only the poets, I found, who have the passion. Beyond all this, I wanted to prove that late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century European history is still important for understanding the twenty-first century, and not only in the West. One of my proudest reflections is that The Age of Wonder has recently been translated into popular Arabic, Russian and Chinese editions. Now that really is an experiment, and I do not yet know the result.
As he set out to wreak havoc on his four Eminent Victorians in 1918, Lytton Strachey tenderly suggested that English biography might eventually rediscover its true calling as ‘the most delicate and most humane of all the branches of the art of writing’. Some three generations later, the form has certainly expanded out of all recognition, gained a broad new readership, and achieved considerable (though not unchallenged) intellectual authority. At its best, I think, biography can indeed now call itself a true ‘art of writing’, and also perhaps a humanist discipline. It is ‘the proper study of mankind’ – and womankind too. But is it an art and a discipline that can also be taught? Is it a proper subject for an academic course?
It has always seemed to me that the essential spirit of biography – of English biography at least – has been a maverick and unacademic one. (The French, German and American traditions are different, for interesting historical and institutional reasons.) For some three hundred years, from John Aubrey and James Boswell onwards, much of its most exciting and innovative work – among which I would now include certain books by Michael Holroyd, Claire Tomalin, Peter Ackroyd, Hilary Spurling, Frances Wilson and Alexander Masters – has been done outside the established institutes of learning, and beyond the groves of academe. It has retained an uncloistered and anarchic spirit. As Somerset Maugham once remarked: ‘There are three rules for writing biography, but fortunately no one knows what they are.’
In a letter of June 1680, Aubrey mischievously teased the Oxford historian Anthony à Wood with the essentially improper and extracurricular nature of his biographical researches for Brief Lives: ‘I here lay downe to you (out of the conjunct friendship between us) the Trueth, the naked and plain trueth … which is here exposed so bare, that the very pudenda are not covered.’ Wood donnishly retaliated by calling Aubrey ‘a shiftless person, roving and maggotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crazed’.
Yet even Aubrey regretted not being able to continue his studies at Oxford. This is one of the themes of his own perceptive, third-person e
So I began to ask whether the moment had come for biography formally to return to ‘that pleasant spot’, the Academy? And if so, on what terms? For me, this question took on a peculiar autobiographical twist. If I were writing my own Brief Life, I would record that for thirty-five years I worked outside academia. I had been freelance and footloose, and revelled in it. But in autumn 2000, out of the blue, I was unexpectedly invited to pioneer and teach a postgraduate university course in ‘Biographical Studies’. Should I accept the invitation?
Frankly, for a long time I really did not know. Could my beloved biography, which I thought of as a vocation rather than a profession, really be turned into a university subject, based on an organised series of book lists, seminars, lectures, and of course a body of theory? What would be its content, what would be its aims, what would be its benefits to the student? Was I being asked to do something quite humble, like teaching the basic methods of sound biographical research – working with archives, public records, letter collections – and carefully constructing life chronologies, character portraits and social contexts? Or something more ambitious, as in the now fashionable Creative Writing courses, to launch a new generation of young biographical practitioners who were really committed to biography as a profession, as well as an ‘art of writing’?
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