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"An attractive popular introduction to Wallace as a person, set in the context of his life and times."—Sarah Watkinson, Times Literary Supplement
"A well-researched and graceful biography."—New York Times Book Review
The Evolution of a Naturalist
Alfred Russel Wallace was born on 8 January 1823, in a cottage on the banks of the river Usk, half a mile or so from the town of Usk, in Monmouthshire, on a road that led to the village of Llanbadoc. Eleven days later, according to the family prayerbook, he was `half-baptized', and the full baptism took place at Llanbadoc church on 16 February. He had two older brothers, William and John, and two older sisters, Eliza and Frances, or Fanny. John, four and a half years the elder, was his closest sibling, and after Alfred came the Wallaces' last child, a fourth boy, Herbert Edward. Perhaps the half-baptism was a precaution, because Alfred was a frail baby. Three other girls did not survive childhood, two of them dying at the cottage at Usk.
Alfred's parents, Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell, illustrate in many respects the changes in British society that followed the Napoleonic wars, as the solid certainties of the eighteenth century began to fade or disintegrate. Their miniature portraits have a Georgian assurance. Thomas's white neck-cloth and frilled shirtfront, his blue coat and slightly ruddy complexion, suggest both elegance and well-being: a pleasant, confident man about to marry a sweet-faced, much younger wife, from a prosperous-enough Hertford family. Before his marriage Thomas Wallace had lived the leisured life of an independent gentleman. Although he was articled to a firm of solicitors, and sworn in as an attorney-at-law in 1792, a private income of £500 had freed him from the need to practise, andinstead he enjoyed himself in London or Bath, gently pursuing his literary and artistic interests: `He appears', wrote his son, `to have lived quite idly.' When marriage and a growing family started to eat into his income, he put some capital into a new illustrated magazine. It folded almost immediately. This was just the first of a series of financially disastrous decisions, a pattern of ill-advised speculation that continued into the next generation; and there were few other family members to help them out. Wallace's opening comment in his autobiography is: `Our family had but few relations.' He never saw a grandparent.
The move to Usk from London was made for economy. Later, the family flitted from one house to another, and Thomas Wallace from one ill-paid job to another, in a bewildering and restless succession. But Alfred, resilient and optimistic by nature, remembered with gratitude the many good things in his childhood. However difficult the practical circumstances might have been, he found plenty of affection and security within his immediate family.
One of his earliest memories is of sitting on his mother's lap, or on a footstool, listening to fairy-tales, or being read to from The History of Sandford and Merton. Thomas Day's Utopian perspective, with its reflection of Jean Jacques Rousseau and vision of a natural upbringing, burned into his consciousness. John, taking on the role of Sandford, led Alfred and his sisters up the steep bank behind the cottage, where they made a fire, and roasted potatoes on the embers. They played in the garden, or beside the river that flowed in front of the cottage—no flood banks then—where they watched men fishing for salmon and trout from coracles; a little further downstream, where a rock fall provided standing places in the water, they scooped up young lampreys with an old saucepan, which were fried for supper. It was the actual place, and above all the outdoor surroundings, that Wallace would later recall so sharply, whereas his father and mother, even his brothers and sisters, existed in his memory only as blurred images:
The form and colour of the house, the road, the river close below it, the bridge with the cottage near its foot, the narrow fields between us and the bridge, the steep wooded bank at the back, the stone quarry and the very shape and position of the flat slabs on which we stood fishing, the cottages a little further on the road, the little church of Llanbadock and the stone stile into the churchyard, the fishermen and their coracles, the ruined castle, its winding stair and the delightful walk round its top—all come before me as I recall these earlier days with a distinctness strangely contrasted with the vague shadowy figures of the human beings who were my constant associates in all these scenes.
Alfred, in recollection at least, spent most of his days out of doors, so that his memories were of the free-flowing river, the fields and woods along its bank, and the view of the Abergavenny mountains to the north-west. To the Welsh-speaking neighbours, he was, with his long, flaxen hair, `the little Saxon'.
The Welsh idyll ended. Mrs Greenell, Mary Wallace's stepmother, died in 1826, and, with the prospect of a small legacy, the Wallaces decided to move their family to Hertford, Mary's home town. There was the slightly alarming experience of crossing the Severn estuary in a sailing ferry, and a few days in aunt Wilson's impressive house at Dulwich, meeting a large batch of cousins. Then, after a short spell at a little school in Essex, Alfred joined the rest of his family in the first of a succession of homes, in St Andrew Street in the heart of the town.
Hertford, a compact country town, was built in the broad valley of the river Lea. There were six working watermills, including the old town mill which was owned by a cousin of Mary Wallace. There were the more gentle waters of the river Beane, with sandy shallows and deeper holes where you could swim—and where Alfred was rescued from drowning by his brother soon after he arrived. There was an expansive public space called Hartham, and a fir-covered slope called the Warren beside a footpath which led to the village of Bengeo. But for all this appearance of being on the edge of the country, Hertford was also an unpleasantly crowded urban environment. Britain was moving towards the Reform Act, but Hertford was an open borough, and each male householder whose hearth was of the right size had a vote. The great political families who owned most of the property in the town—the Cecils, the Barclays, the Dimsdales—competed fiercely with each other, building small dwellings in the side yards of the larger town houses in order to increase the number of tenants, and so influence the voting for the two Hertford Members of Parliament. The yards were overcrowded, the sanitation inadequate, and disease spread rapidly; typhoid, tuberculosis, scarlet fever were common, cholera a constant threat. Alfred caught scarlet fever, and was `within a few hours of death', according to his family. (Characteristically, he chose to minimise the fever and the horrid dreams he experienced, and to recount the few weeks of luxury that followed, lying in bed with tea and toast and grapes.) The Wallaces' first houses were not so cramped—later they were to shrink in size with the family's fortunes—though the St Andrew Street one was crowded enough with the half-dozen pupils that his father took in to provide a little income. Among Alfred's early memories was the open-air free dinner in Hertford, to celebrate the passing of the Reform Act of 1832; and Thomas Slingsby Duncombe being chaired through the streets after his election to Parliament.
Besides his father's young scholars there were, for the first time, neighbours to play with. A small boy looked over the garden wall: `Hallo! Who are you?' It was George Silk, who became a life-long friend. When the Wallaces moved to a house at Old Cross, a few hundred yards away, by which time the four-year gap between Alfred and John seemed less significant, there was a good-sized garden and, best of all, a stable with a loft, which John made their base and playroom. Alfred looked on this as the happiest part of his childhood in Hertford. Even school did not intrude unpleasantly, because John was a pupil there too. Their father seemed content, with an allotment where he grew fruit and vegetables, and a brewhouse where he made wine. In the `delightful privacy' of the loft, after school, John instructed his younger brother, making elaborate fireworks, or putting together toys and gadgets from The Boy's Own Book.
This was a short, intense period of rare content, and the last time Alfred was to experience a settled family life for another thirty years. First, his sister Eliza died in 1832, aged twenty-two, and though he says he was not old enough at nine to feel it very deeply, being closer to John and Fanny, he was aware of the grief his parents suffered. Next, financial problems began to bite. This happened, as often with Wallace family affairs, in an indirect, complex and frustrating way. Mary Wallace—and her children—had inherited some money from her father's family, and the controlling trustee was her sister's husband, Thomas Wilson, a lawyer. He was declared bankrupt in 1834, and the funds of the legacy were somehow dragged into the proceedings. The Wallaces' income was drastically reduced. As the children became old enough, each left home to earn a living. William, the senior, was already a long way into his career. He had been apprenticed to a firm of surveyors when the family was still at Usk, and then, after a spell with a Hertford architect, worked for a large building firm, Martin, on a major construction project at King's College, London. John went to London, too, apprenticed to another master-builder, Webster. Fanny, intelligent and artistic, was dispatched to Lille, to learn French with a view to teaching. When the Wallaces moved temporarily to a much smaller cottage, Alfred went for a while to Hertford Grammar School as a boarder, leaving only the youngest child, Herbert, at home. Mary Wallace wrote anguished letters to her brother-in-law, asking pertinent questions, and urging her children's needs. John's employer Mr Webster was looking for half a year's board that was due. William was afraid to show himself in London—an apothecary had threatened to arrest him for a debt of £20. What about the interest? What about Alfred's £100, which he would not be able to touch until he was twenty-one? She trusted to Wilson's honour. She had no satisfactory reply at the time, though eventually most of the money was disentangled before the Wilsons emigrated to a new life in South Australia. Meanwhile, the Wallaces moved house, and improvised.
In 1831 Alfred had followed John to Hertford School, where the headmaster was a `rather irascible little man' called Clement Cruttwell—a good master, commented Wallace, `inasmuch as he kept order in the school, and carried on the work of teaching about eighty boys by four masters, all in one room, with great regularity and with no marked inconvenience'. He makes it quite clear that, for all `Old Cruttle's' classical scholarship, the system was perfectly hopeless, at least as far as his own learning was concerned. He gained a better idea of Virgil from Cruttwell's readings aloud of a verse translation `than from the fragmentary translations we scrambled through'. Latin grammar was painfully difficult, and he never even embarked on Greek. Geography, which he would later find so absorbing, was only slightly less agonising, and consisted of memorising the chief towns in each English county. Mathematics, too, was largely an exercise of memory, while history was learning names and dates by rote and reading `the very baldest account of the doings of kings and queens, of wars, rebellions, and conquests'. A standard English education, in fact, but with very few compensations. He gained more, he claimed, from Shakespeare's plays and Scott's novels.
Wallace learned at an early age to read and write fluently, and the family resources, fragile and erratic in many respects, were comparatively rich in books. First, there were the `good old standard' works in the house: Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Vicar of Wakefield, which he read again and again. Each year, too, they bought Thomas Hood's Comic Annual, and Alfred associated Hood's poem 'Number One' with their first Hertford house, Number One, St Andrew Street, learning it by heart at the age of seven. The puns and conundrums of the Comic Annual, and the irreverent wit, pathos and social commentary of Hood's poetry, struck a sympathetic chord with him. Did Hood's `Ode to Mr Malthus' lodge in his memory, particularly since Malthus himself was a Hertfordshire resident?
Oh, Mr Malthus, I agree In everything I read with thee! The world's too full, there is no doubt, And wants a deal of thinning out — ... Why should we let precautions so absorb us, Or trouble shipping with a quarantine — When if I understand the thing you mean, We ought to import the Cholera Morbus!
In 1832, cholera duly broke out in Hertford, a very specific memory for Wallace to salt away in illustration of Malthus's theories about the control of excess populations.
Alfred's father belonged to a book club, and would read aloud in the evenings from Mungo Park's travels, or Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Later, he took a modest job at the town's proprietary library, and Alfred would join him there for an hour after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, `four o'clock days'. He spent every wet Saturday afternoon squatting on the floor in a corner and making his way through the fiction: Fennimore Cooper, Harrison Ainsworth, Captain Marryat, Bulwer Lytton, as well as classics such as Don Quixote, Roderick Random and Tom Jones. These alone would be enough to give him the idea that life was a journey, and a series of adventures. Besides, he read—'partially or completely'—The Faerie Queen, Paradise Lost, Dante's Inferno, Pope's Iliad, and `a good deal of Byron and Scott': all this before he was fourteen. In fact, he recalled, he read almost any book that he heard spoken of as `celebrated or interesting'. He never lost his love of romantic fiction, or for poetry: in his library were volumes of Browning, Cowper, Dryden, Thomas Moore, Pope, Shelley and Tennyson.
His religious upbringing was relatively conventional. He described his parents as `old-fashioned religious people belonging to the Church of England'. This meant normally attending church twice each Sunday, after learning the collect of the day; or, if it was too wet to walk to church, there would be a chapter from the Bible and a sermon from a book instead. For variation, the family might go to the Friends' Meeting House, which Alfred found dull when there was silence, and even duller when someone was moved to speak. At the Dissenters' Chapel, the third possibility, there was more vitality: extempore prayers, fervent preaching, impassioned hymn-singing. This was the only period of his life, he commented later, when he felt `something of religious fervour'; but, he added, as `there was no sufficient basis of intelligible fact or connected reasoning to satisfy my intellect, the feeling soon left me, and has never returned'. When he later raised the question of the origin of evil with his father, he `merely remarked that such problems were mysteries which the wisest cannot understand, and seemed disinclined to any discussion of the subject'. There was no rigidly imposed set of beliefs to rebel against, no deep-rooted investment in orthodox Christianity of the kind that troubled Charles Darwin or tormented Samuel Butler.
Alfred's formal education began to draw to a close as the purse strings became more and more tightly drawn. In his last year, part of his school fees was remitted, and in exchange he took the younger boys for the `three Rs'. What embarrassed him was not the task itself, but the fact that it made him different from the other boys. There were twenty boys in the school older than he was, and yet they were simply `scholars'. Even worse was a humiliation inflicted on him by his mother. She made him black calico over-sleeves for his jacket, to protect the cuffs and elbows from being worn bare by leaning on the desks, or ruined by cleaning slates. In spite of his protests, he was ordered to put them on just before he arrived at school. He could not bring himself to do it, brought them home, and dutifully told his mother. Then one morning the `thunderbolt' fell on him:
On entering school I was called up to the master's desk, he produced the dreaded calico sleeves, and told me that my mother wished me to wear them to save my jacket, and told me to put them on. Of course I had to do so. They fitted very well, and felt quite comfortable, and I dare say did not look so very strange. I have no doubt also that most of the boys had a fellow feeling for me, and thought it a shame to thus make me an exception to all the school. But to me it seemed a cruel disgrace, and I was miserable so long as I wore them. How long that was I cannot remember, but while it lasted it was, perhaps, the severest punishment I ever endured.
Recalling that awful humiliation, years later, Wallace linked it to the idea of `saving face', and `the fundamental right of every individual to be treated with personal respect'. His own boyhood embarrassment helped him to appreciate `the agony of shame endured by the more civilised Eastern peoples, whose feelings are so often outraged by the total absence of all respect shown them by their European masters or conquerors'. Wallace felt intensely about the sanctity of self-respect, calling it `the deepest of human feelings'. He noted that it was much more apparent in non-European societies, where a man would refuse to enter an empty house in the owner's absence, or hesitate to wake, or even touch, someone who was asleep. Wallace remained acutely sensitive to slights, to invasions of privacy, all his life.
His ordeal as pupil-teacher did not last long. His parents were getting ready to move to a small cottage at Hoddesdon. He was fourteen: time to learn a trade. In Mrs Cruttwell's account book, for 18 March 1837, along with `Hot x Buns—2s' and `Hair cutting (27)—6(s) 9(d)', is the entry: `Alfred Wallace left'; and in the shillings column: 10, either his final reward, or a return of fees. Alfred was sent off to London, to lodge with his favourite brother John, now nineteen, at Mr Webster's house in Robert Street, off Hampstead Road, between Regent's Park and the future site of Euston station. It was an area of London he would return to later in his life, with the attraction of the Zoological Society's gardens a short walk away.
These next few months in London were Alfred's first taste of the adult world, and the tougher environment of an expanding city. Without any fixed occupation, he could make himself useful doing odd jobs in the workshop, and listen to the talk and the jokes. There wasn't too much to shock a shy fourteen year old—not nearly as much swearing as he met with later; and when one of the workmen, `a very loose character', went too far in describing his exploits, the foreman would `gently call him to order'. (At home, he had never heard `a rude word or an offensive expression'. There may be a touch of New Lanark idealism in these memories, but Webster's was a well-run business, and John, a skilled carpenter, would later marry a Webster daughter. The building industry was still in the pre-factory era, and almost everything that went into the houses the firm built was made in the yard: floorboards, windows and doors, cupboards and staircases. The carpenters and joiners worked a ten-hour day, six days a week, and earned thirty shillings a week at sixpence an hour. Even a married man with children could save a little, wrote John fifty years later, a little optimistically—so long as he was frugal, and of steady habits, and so long as he kept in good health, and continued to find employment. If your job was on site, as a bricklayer, there was less margin, for there was no payment if bad weather stopped work. The labourers and the hod-carriers received just three shillings a day, and their wives had to work `out' at washing, or whatever else they could find—so the children might be neglected as a consequence. Alfred watched, and listened, and never forgot the struggle that most people were forced to endure simply to survive, let alone prosper.
In the evenings, John might take his young brother off to look at the West End shops, and admire the window displays. But more often they would go to the `Hall of Science' a few blocks away, off Tottenham Court Road, a kind of mechanics' club. They read books and magazines, played draughts and dominoes, drank coffee, and attended lectures on the teachings of Robert Owen: secularist, socialist, agnostic, idealist. Alfred read Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason: he might have taken Paine's statement, `It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself, as part of his private gospel. On one memorable occasion he heard Owen himself, with his `tall spare figure, very lofty head, and highly benevolent countenance and mode of speaking'. As Wallace observed, Owen influenced his character more than he then realised. But his young mind was grappling with issues that some of his contemporaries would engage with only as adults. He struggled with the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the concept of a benevolent, omnipotent God; and he was struck, too, by a tract on `Consistency' by Owen's son, Robert Dale Owen, condemning the `horrible' doctrine of eternal punishment. He accepted Owen's conclusions, that orthodox religion was degrading, and that `the only beneficial religion was that which inculcated the service of humanity, and whose only dogma was the brotherhood of man'. The foundations of Wallace's religious scepticism were complete.
In the summer of 1837, Alfred began his apprenticeship as a surveyor, a pupil to his brother William. This phase of his life would last for six and a half years, during which he not only trained in the practical details of his job, but, crucially, began to prepare himself for his future career, a preparation that was at first more instinctive than systematic. Although the survey work was quite demanding, there were also long evenings, and Sundays, to fill. The brothers lived in inns and lodgings, moving from district to district and job to job. There were few distractions, or temptations—and, in any event, no money to spare. Alfred spent long periods on his own.
Excerpted from Alfred Russel Wallace by Peter Raby. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Raby. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.
|Foreword and Acknowledgements||x|
|2||The Evolution of a Naturalist||6|
|3||Apprenticeship on the Amazon||34|
|4||Hunting the White Umbrella Bird||59|
|5||Planning the Next Expedition||83|
|6||The Land of the Orang-utan||100|
|8||In Search of Paradise Birds||135|
|9||The Return of the Wanderer||163|
|11||Man and Mind||200|
|12||The Big Trees||227|
|13||The Future of the Race||250|
|14||The Last Orchard||270|
|15||The Old Hero||285|
|Sources and Selected Bibliography||320|