Biographies & Memoirs


Sorcerer and Apprentice


Sir Joseph Banks had been getting older and more infirm, and he hated it. After one particularly bad episode of gout in summer 1816, when he was seventy-three, he grumbled from his retreat at Spring Grove: ‘I fear its probable that I shall be obliged to spend the greater part of my Future Life in a Prostrate Posture…For these 12 or 14 years past my legs have Swelled towards evening…I am so effectually confined to my bed that I am not even allowed to be carried downstairs & placed on a Coach.’ Later he added with grim humour: ‘The name of Nestor seems likely to adhere to me.’1 Nevertheless, Lady Banks could rarely keep him away from his scientific breakfasts at Soho Square for more than a week at a time.2

His friends too were scattered, ailing or dead. John Jeffries the balloonist had settled back to earth in America. Mungo Park now existed only as a two-volume Memoir, published in 1815, although the Africa Association continued to send military explorers along the Niger on his trail. Sir Humphry Davy seemed to be more and more frequently abroad. In January 1820 Banks had received a long, rambling missive from him in Naples. Banks summarised its contents to Charles Blagden: ‘Vesuvius has been in Eruption ever since he arrived & has given him opportunity of trying many chemical experiments on the Liquid Lava.’ This could have been a sly reference to Lady Davy, though Banks added with all due gravity that Davy’s theories on the causes of volcanic fire ‘appear to favour the Plutonists’.3

Banks hardly ever saw William Herschel now, finding that the old astronomer preferred to stay close to his great forty-foot telescope at Slough, and lived there, thought Banks regretfully, ‘so much like an Hermit’.4 But there was good news of young John Herschel, winning all the prizes at Cambridge, and becoming Senior Wrangler (that is, the top mathematician in his year) in 1813. John had published a first paper ‘on analytical formulae’ in Nicholson’s Journal for October 1812-like young Davy, just before his twenty-first birthday. Banks accordingly exercised his patronage, and had young Herschel elected to the Royal Society the following year.5 He promised great things for the future.

To other protégés, like the thirty-seven-year-old zoologist Charles Waterton, about to depart on yet another expedition to South America, Banks was more solicitous than of yore. ‘I cannot say that I felt the Satisfaction I used to do in hearing that you intend embarking for the Ninth time to encounter the dangers and privations of the Trackless forests of Guiana. You are not so young as you used to be…the old Saw tells us that the pitcher that goes often to the well is cracked at last. May heaven defend you from all Evil results is the sincere Prayer of your Old Friend!’6 This was not the way he used to cajole Mungo Park.

Banks urged Waterton to come home safely, settle down and write a book about his ‘numerous journeys’. Such a book would ‘extend materially’ the bounds of natural science, and ‘put the Public in possession of your discoveries’. More and more Banks saw this as one of the prime duties of the man of science: to collect and explain his findings, to publish them, and put them in the public domain. It is exactly what he himself had failed to do with his own Endeavour Journal, nearly fifty years before.7 In Waterton’s case Banks’s kindly advice would result in a popular masterpiece, Wanderings in South America (1825).

With the arrival of peace in Europe in 1815, international communications had improved, and scientific reports were now pouring in on Soho Square. There was a new emphasis on technology and applied science. Coal-gas pipes now snaked (above ground) through the London streets, so that Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament were illuminated with the new gaslights, ‘most Brilliant’, Banks noted approvingly.8 There were paddle ships powered by steam engines, which could ply the Thames against the tide, and make all-weather crossings to France.

These began to appear in Turner’s pictures, and even in one of Coleridge’s late poems, plangently entitled ‘Youth and Age’, expressing sentiments that Banks would certainly have recognised:

This breathing house not built with hands,

This body that does me grievous wrong,

O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands

How lightly then it flashed along:-

Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,

On winding lakes and rivers wide,

That ask no aid of sail or oar

That fear no spite of wind or tide!

Nought cared this body for wind or weather

When Youth and I lived in it together.9

From further afield, there came reports of climate change: huge sheets of thawing pack ice were sighted off Greenland, melting snowcaps seen in Alpine mountains, and unprecedented river spates and flooding were recorded throughout Europe. Banks was not disposed to panic at these strange phenomena. ‘Some of us flatter ourselves that our Climate will be improved & may be restored to its ancient state, when grapes ripened in Vineyards here.’10

In fact much of this was the spreading global consequence of the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in April 1815. By releasing a mass of ash into the circulation of the upper atmosphere, it brought the ‘sunless summer’ of 1816 throughout Europe, with a sinister red haze in the sky at midday, and blood-red apocalyptic sunsets. This delighted the Plutonists, but also brought a renewed awareness of nature’s power and mystery, just as had happened after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, when Caroline Herschel remembered being so frightened in Germany.

Pink snow fell in Italy, and the harvest failed in France, Germany and England. Byron, exiled from Britain and passing this summer on Lac Leman with Shelley, wrote his poem ‘Darkness’, reflecting on the possibilities of a future cosmological catastrophe, as hinted at by Herschel’s late papers.

I had a dream which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…11

Banks continued to send out his regular, encyclopaedic scientific correspondence throughout the globe. His letters might concern planting crops in South Australia, collecting antiquities in Egypt, surveying the ice pack towards the North Pole, breeding dogs in Newfoundland, or even capturing giant sea snakes off Scandinavia (later to appear in Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kraken’). But he also found time for some delicate gestures, such as sending packets of strawberry seedlings by the night coach to Paris for the former Madame Lavoisier, in her new incarnation as the ex-Countess Rumford. ‘They are Roseberry Strawberries, the kind I most approve of for Quantity of produce & for Flavour.’ On another occasion Madame Lavoisier-a great favourite-got a beautifully scented ‘climbing Ayrshire rose’ which Banks had ‘well-rooted in a basket’.12

Banks had always admired clever women. He had been instrumental in obtaining the royal salary for Caroline Herschel. He adored his own unconventional sister Sophia (with her collections of coins, cards and balloon memorabilia), and was devastated when she died after a coach accident, aged seventy-four, in 1818. Even now the old Tahitian libertine occasionally resurfaced, as when he upbraided the elegant socialite the Duchess of Somerset for mocking a woman friend who was carrying on an affair. Banks-then a respectable seventy-year-old-exploded in a private letter. ‘Tremendous is the punishment inflicted by the Class of Virtuous Women on those who err & stray from the paths of Propriety…It is surely a more severe destiny than that of immediate death.’13 Perhaps he was remembering the free-spirited Sarah Wells, who had given such lively dinner parties in the old days.

Yet, perhaps inevitably, his own views had become increasingly conservative. He would never consider having women elected to the Royal Society. He now tended to growl at all bluestockings (including Lady Davy). His attitude to young Lord Byron and his amorous adventures was indicative. Banks naturally admired Byron, as an aristocrat and an independent spirit. He had been much struck when Byron once attended an open meeting of the Royal Society and listened to a physiological paper based on extensive use of vivisection.

It was a horrific paper-‘the suffering of the animals on which [Dr Wilson] operated produced a most marked disgust’-and many listeners walked out. But Byron stayed to the end, listening calmly to the evidence, and saying nothing. Only then did he make his objections known, confronting Banks directly in person. ‘Some people left the room. Lord Byron who was admitted that evening, came to me to say: “Surely, Sir Joseph, this is too much.”’14 Banks liked this style, gentlemanly but undaunted. When Byron went into exile in 1816, Banks was careful to have the Parisian publisher Galignani post over all his latest poetry.15

However, on receiving an early copy of the first canto of Byron’s Don Juan in 1819, Banks was outraged. ‘I never read so Lascivious a performance. No woman here will Confess that she has read it. We hitherto considered his Lordship only as an Atheist without morals. We now must add to his respectable Qualifications that of being a Profligate.’16 Yet had Banks lived to read the tenth canto (1821), he might well have been amused by His Lordship’s nimble mockery of Newton and the story of the falling apple, which of course Byron associates with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found

In that slight startle from his contemplation-

‘T is said (for I’ll not answer above ground

For any sage’s creed or calculation)-

A mode of proving that the earth turn’d round

In a most natural whirl, called ‘gravitation;’

And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,

Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Byron went on to praise the achievements of post-Newtonian science in his own elegant and bantering way.

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,

If this be true; for we must deem the mode

In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose

Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,

A thing to counterbalance human woes:

For ever since immortal man hath glow’d

With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon

Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.

Most remarkable of all, in the next stanza Byron light-heartedly connected the discovery and daring of contemporary science with that of contemporary poetry. Both should be dauntless, and ‘sail in the wind’s eye’.

And wherefore this exordium?-Why, just now,

In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,

My bosom underwent a glorious glow,

And my internal spirit cut a caper:

And though so much inferior, as I know,

To those who, by the dint of glass and vapour,

Discover stars and sail in the wind’s eye,

I wish to do as much by poesy.17

Banks’s conservatism showed in other ways. The end of the Napoleonic Wars had raised the question of the future role of science in the growing British Empire and colonies. What loyalty did science owe to the state? Officially in wartime Banks had taken a patriotic line when required, maintaining that national and commercial interests must lead, though producing scientific advantages. His enthusiasm for the Australian penal settlements around Sydney Cove was based on his belief that the tough colonial life would redeem their inhabitants, and ultimately benefit the Empire. Yet they were also more than justified, in his view, by the mass of scientific data and botanical specimens that were constantly sent back to London by their early governors and explorers, like Macquarie, Flinders and Bligh.

Despite his personal experiences in the Pacific, and the reports of Mungo Park from West Africa, Banks would not commit the Royal Society to support the abolition of slavery in the black colonies. Indeed he was inclined to be satirical about the Abolitionists, once remarking to his confidant Sir Charles Blagden how ‘Saint Wilberforce is just returned [from the Antipodes]; he carries with him 4 Persons Tried and Proved in all religious Points up to the standard of Beatification’.18

Yet, paradoxically, he would support abolition in his own way. The slave trade, he believed, should be dismantled for purely commercial reasons. It was simply scientifically inefficient. Rivalry with the French in the West Indies, where there was a huge sugar industry based on black slaves, proved that the labour of ‘freemen’ was more productive than that of slaves. But this, he maintained, was not a moral position. ‘A struggle almost equal to an Earthquake must take place & Slavery must be abolished not on moral principles, which are in my opinion incapable of being maintained in argument, but on Commercial ones which weigh equally in moral & immoral minds.’19

Certainly by 1815, when the black revolutionary movement had established itself on Haiti, Banks could write excitedly to ‘Saint’ Wilberforce with all his old, boyish and Romantic enthusiasm. ‘Was I Five and Twenty, as I was when I embarked with Capt. Cook, I am very sure I should not lose a day in Embarking for Hayti. To see a sort of Human Beings emerging from Slavery & making the most rapid Strides towards the perfection of Civilization, must I think be the most delightful of all Food for Contemplation.’20 The new King of Haiti-perhaps a more superior ‘sort of Human Being’-never stopped sending Sir Joseph Banks specimens for Kew, and inviting him to make a ceremonial visit to the island.


If it was obvious to Banks what a young man should do at five and twenty, it was not so clear to John Herschel. In November 1813, at the age of twenty-one, John had the most serious disagreement of his life with his old father, Sir William. It was over his choice of profession.

John’s career at Cambridge had been a meteoric success. As his aunt Caroline put it dotingly in her journal: ‘from the time he entered the University till his leaving he had gained all the first Prizes without exception’.21 Caroline had remained in his confidence. She was eagerly introduced to his glittering Cambridge friends, among them the mathematician Charles Babbage, future Lucasian Professor, and the Lancashire geologist William Whewell, future Master of Trinity. She had been a guest of honour at his twenty-first birthday dinner, when John presented her with a ‘very handsome’ silver necklace. Typically, she almost immediately gave it away to a niece, ‘I being too old for wearing such ornaments,’ as she remarked coquettishly.22

She was particularly impressed when John and Babbage formed the Analytical Society in 1812. It was dedicated to replacing Newton’s fluxions with the Continental calculus. This was the very subject that she remembered William and his brother Jacob arguing over all those years ago in the little house in Hanover. Now her nephew was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in her view he had the world at his feet.

But being the only child, the prodigy, the apple of his father’s eye, John found it very difficult to speak his mind to either parent. He wrote confidentially to Babbage: ‘God knows how ardently I wish I had ten lives, or that capacity, that enviable capacity, of husbanding every atom of time, which some possess, and which enables them to do ten times as much in one life.’23

Finally, shortly before the Christmas vacation of 1813, John plucked up courage and wrote a long letter from Cambridge to his father in Slough. In it he made it clear that he wished either to remain permanently as a Fellow at Cambridge, doing research in pure mathematics, or else to support himself as a lawyer in London. Here he thought he would have ample time to pursue more practical science-notably chemistry and geology-in the evenings and during law vacations. He knew that he was probably heir to a considerable fortune, from both his mother’s and his father’s side. But he believed that it was his duty to acquire an independent livelihood, and that ‘a man should have some ostensible means of getting his bread, by the labour of his head or hand’.

William Herschel was dismayed by this outburst, and wrote back reproachfully. His son was ungrateful, and did not have ‘a just idea’ of his privileged situation. William could approve of neither of John’s proposed careers. He was scathing about the law: ‘It is crooked, tortuous and precarious…Your studies have been of a superior kind.’ The idea that the mere routine of the law would allow ‘unbounded scope’ for science was ‘a most egregious error’. Herschel was also subtly undermining about Cambridge. ‘You say that Cambridge affords you the society of persons of your own age, and your own way of thinking; but know my dear son, that the company and conversation of older, experienced men, of sound judgement, whose way of thinking will often be different from your own, would be much more instructive, and ought to be carefully frequented.’

Finally he urged his son to become-of all things-a clergyman. John must have been astonished to receive a long, passionate letter in support of a career in the Church. But perhaps he also saw the unconscious humour of this recommendation. The real advantages, as his father solemnly enumerated them, emerged in a list of ever ascending and increasingly secular importance: ‘A clergyman…has time for the attainment of the more elegant branches of literature, for poetry, for music, for drawing, for natural history, for short and pleasant excursions of travelling, for being acquainted with the spirit of the law of his country, for history, for political economy, for mathematics, for astronomy, for metaphysics, and for being an author upon any one subject in which…[he is] qualified to excell.’24

John quickly replied, explaining frankly that he could not believe in Anglican doctrine. But Herschel was quite equal to this apparently insuperable objection. ‘You say the church requires the necessity of keeping up a perpetual system of self-deception, or something worse for the purpose of supporting theological tenets of any set of men. The most conscientious clergyman may preach a sermon full of sound morality, and no one will enquire into theological subtleties.’

This attitude infuriated John, and he remonstrated with his father, coming close to accusing him of hypocrisy. Herschel’s dismay now turned to anger. ‘You say [you] cannot help regarding the source of church emolument with an evil eye. The miserable tendency of such a sentiment, the injustice and the arrogance it expresses, are beyond my conception.’ There was now a grave risk of a serious breach between father and son, as there would be so frequently among a whole later generation of Victorian families over exactly such matters.

After four days’ reflection, the old astronomer-William Herschel was now aged seventy-five, and increasingly fragile-suddenly recognised the fatal gleam of filial disaffection, the risk of a real rupture. Perhaps he remembered the arguments with his own family years ago in Hanover; or perhaps Caroline reminded him of them. At all events, he wrote again to John in a chastened and forgiving mood. Nothing he had said was intended ‘to breathe the spirit of bitterness’ against his son. He simply wished to hear ‘everything you have to say on the subject’. He loved him unconditionally. ‘I can as little doubt your sincere attachment to your old philosophical father, as he does of your perfect returning affection.’ His mother added soothing postscripts to Herschel’s letters, assuring John that his father was not ‘really angry’, and adding pathetically: ‘Cannot you dine on Xmas day? You would make us all happy.’25

In the end John consented to come down from Cambridge and have a long, frank discussion with his father about the future. Herschel reassured him that there need be no profound disagreement, carefully pointing out in one of his letters that he had deliberately never previously discussed religion with his son: ‘I wished to leave you at liberty to follow your own sentiments.’ He did not believe they could possibly disagree on that subject, being ‘two unprejudiced persons with natural good sense’. In effect, he had no more belief in Anglican doctrines than his son had.

Wisely, Herschel decided to give John his head, and bide his time. His son would not have to pursue the Church. Instead, he could go to London with Babbage, attend regular meetings of the Royal Society, and try out a legal career at Lincoln’s Inn. As Herschel suspected, the trial of London legal life did not last long, and was succeeded by a mathematical tutorship and then a full Fellowship back at St John’s, Cambridge. ‘I am determined,’ John wrote rather desperately to Babbage in March 1815, ‘as the profession is of my own choosing, much against the wish of my parents, that I will pursue it in good earnest.’26 But he was unhappy and drifting.

In the summer of 1816 John took a holiday with his father, now aged seventy-seven, to Dawlish on the idyllic Devon coast. For several evenings they sat out under the stars, with rebellious Queen Cassiopia very bright overhead, and gently talked things over. Eventually John submitted. With that extraordinary lifelong determination of his, William Herschel had once again quietly achieved his real objective: to have John come home, and pursue a full-time career in science. On this basis, Herschel agreed to provide his son with an immediate and generous private income, so that he would be free to pursue pure research in whatever field he chose. In return John found himself volunteering to assist his ageing father with his astronomical work, and take over the running of the forty-foot and the observatory at Slough.

Caroline had faithfully supported John throughout these discussions and waverings. Very often John’s afternoons would end in her lodgings at Slough, where he could take tea, let off steam and discuss the leading scientific questions of the day. Then at dusk they would all three-father, son and comet-hunting aunt-meet at the foot of the great telescope, and work would begin. In December 1819 John presented his first paper to the Royal Society, correcting Newton on the subject of polarised light. Joseph Banks observed that it caused a stir among the mathematicians, and ‘much interest among the Polarizers’. A new man of science was launched.27


William Herschel’s reputation was now spreading rapidly among other young men. Percy Bysshe Shelley, fascinated by science since his earliest days at Eton and Oxford, was driven to revolutionary thoughts. At the age of eighteen, Shelley had been expelled from university for publishing a pamphlet, ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. At twenty-one, he drew on Herschel’s work (as well as Godwin and several French philosophes) to write a series of free-thinking prose ‘Notes’ which he appended to his epic poem Queen Mab, published in 1813. This technique of adding long, discursive notes to the poetry was imitated from Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden, though in Shelley’s case they were often angry and polemical.

Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:

The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation…It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman…The works of His fingers have borne witness against him…Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth…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.28

Shelley’s later prose writings, still little-known, continue these materialist ideas, and explore the implications of contemporary scientific research with candour and ferocity. In his ‘Essay on a Future State’ (1819), he argued that the scientific and anecdotal evidence for the total cessation of all mental and bodily functions after death was definitive. There was no Future State.29

In his teasing ‘Essay on the Devil and Devils’, Shelley used the ideas of Herschel and Laplace to satirise beliefs in a geocentric cosmology. ‘Are Earthlings or Jupetrians more worthy of visitations by the Devil…?’ He was also amused to see that Herschel always believed that the sun was inhabited, and asks if this was, after all, the most sensible location for Hell.30 Many other scientific ideas also appeared in his poems of 1819-21, especially in Prometheus Unbound, which revels in Herschel’s new cosmology and Davy’s chemistry.

In Act I, the earth speaks of her own birth struggles, witnessed by the rest of the galaxy:

Then see those million worlds which burn and roll

Around us; their inhabitants beheld

My sphere’ed light wane in wide heaven…31

In Act II, Asia describes the earliest, painful emergence of human tribes upon the planet, in terms that recall Davy’s account of man before the advent of science and hope:

…and the unseasonable seasons drove

With alternating shafts of frost and fire,

Their shelterless, pale tribes to mountain caves:

And in their desert hearts fierce wants he sent…

Prometheus saw, and waked the legioned Hopes.32

In Act IV, Panthea describes electrical energy in terms that almost seem to anticipate the notion of an atomic nucleus surrounded by electrons:

A sphere, which is as many thousand spheres,

Solid as crystal, yet through all its mass

Flow, as through empty space, music and light:

Ten thousand orbs involving and involved,

Purple and azure, white, and green, and golden,

Sphere within sphere; and every space between

Peopled with unimaginable shapes…33

But perhaps most striking of all is the love song that Shelley gives to the moon to sing to planet earth. Though a pure, traditional love lyric, this elegantly includes scientific notions of gravitational orbit, tidal attractions and magnetic fields. Moreover, the moon’s lyric is given an extraordinary kind of hypnotic humming sound-the sound of spinning through space.

Thou art speeding round the sun

Brightest world of many a one;

Green and azure sphere which shinest

With a light which is divinest

Among all the lamps of Heaven

To whom light and life is given;

I, thy crystal paramour

Borne beside thee by a power

Like the polar Paradise,

Magnet-like of lovers’ eyes;

I, a most enamoured maiden

Whose weak brain is overladen

With the pleasure of her love,

Maniac-like around thee move

Gazing, an insensiate bride,

On thy form from every side…34 


As the impact of the new Romantic science spread through Regency England, Banks was much concerned with securing the reputation of the Royal Society. He had struggled to maintain its pre-eminence in British science, and had fought to prevent the splitting away of new, separatist bodies like the Geological Society (1807) and the Astronomical Society (1820). ‘I see plainly that all these new-fangled Associations will finally dismantle the Royal Society, and not leave the Old Lady a rag to cover her,’ he wrote in 1818.35 He accepted an honorary membership in the Geological, but pointedly resigned it two years later, making his displeasure at its independent policies known.

Banks felt that the new Astronomical Society would certainly steal his thunder with new discoveries. When the Duke of Somerset accepted the first presidency, Banks called him to breakfast, and convinced him to resign even before he had taken up the presidential chair. Other Royal Society members were sufficiently intimidated to send Banks notification of their invitations to join the Astronomical Society, with copies of their refusals annexed.36

But Banks was trying to hold back a tide of history. It was no coincidence that it was the young men from Cambridge, John Herschel and Charles Babbage, who were leading the astronomers away from the Royal Society. The increasing separation and professionalisation of the individual scientific disciplines had begun at the universities. It would become the general hallmark of Victorian science. Nor could Banks have imagined that it would be a woman who would first identify this development, and grasp its opportunities, in a short, incisive book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834). It was written by Mary Somerville (1780-1872), whose husband was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Though she lived to be ninety-one, and would have an Oxford college named after her posthumously, Somerville herself was never elected.

Banks retained a noble Enlightenment vision of a unified science, but his Romantic instincts had steadily given way to conservative policies. Under him, the election of the Royal Society’s members had steadily ossified. Over 10 per cent were now clergymen (including a large number of bishops), and nearly 20 per cent were members of the landed aristocracy. The Council itself consisted of 40 per cent such members.37 Neither of these groups necessarily excluded true men of science, but among younger members there was a growing feeling of stifling consensus, cautious propriety and snobbish exclusion, which did not reflect the spirit of the age.

This was particularly felt in the increasingly flourishing philosophical societies of the provinces, and especially the great manufacturing cities of the Midlands and the North. To John Herschel and Babbage it seemed astonishing that a chemist like John Dalton, from Manchester, should not have been elected, or that Michael Faraday should have received no medal for his work. Many younger members now referred scathingly to Banks as a ‘courtier’. This did not prevent Babbage from asking him for a personal recommendation when applying for the Chair of Mathematics at Edinburgh in 1819 (difficult because he was not a Scot). Banks ended his letter of reference with genuine warmth: ‘Adieu my dear Sir, believe me Anxious for your success & with real Esteem and Regard’.38

Banks felt the pressures of age and unpopularity, and, increasingly weak and immobilised, wondered if he should continue. He secretly admitted that his eyes were no longer good enough even to look through a microscope. Gout inflamed his arm joints, and uric acid formed kidney stones which regularly passed through his urethra with agonising spasms. In November 1819 he wrote uncertainly to his confidant Blagden: ‘Our Election approaches. I almost feel uneasy at again offering myself a Candidate. If I am again elected it will be the 42nd time. Enough I think to satisfy the ambition of any man.’ Blagden noted that the President’s arithmetic was also weakening: it would be his forty-first election.39

His election was, in the event, a triumph. Confirmed by acclaim, he was ‘unanimously replaced in the Chair’. But it was not a good winter. ‘The cold Weather disagreed with me & I think paralysed all the activity of Science. Now the death of the late King [George III] & the dangerous indisposition of Geo IV has brought all things to a Stand Still.’40

Yet still Banks schemed and dreamed with his protégés. He had arranged for young Lieutenant William Edward Parry to mount a polar expedition through Baffin Bay, to make one more attempt on the elusive North-West Passage, from the Arctic to the Pacific oceans. The twenty-eight-year-old Parry, manfully suppressing his unseamanlike nerves, had been summoned to one of the by-now legendary breakfasts at 32 Soho Square, and left a vivid record of the event and Banks’s bluff and hospitable style.

At ten precisely Lady and Mrs [Sophia] Banks made their appearance, to whom I was introduced in form, and without waiting for Sir J (who was wheeled in, five minutes after) we sat down to breakfast. Sir J shook hands with me very cordially, said he was glad to become acquainted with a Son of Dr Parry’s, for whom he entertained the highest respect, and was glad to find I was nominated to serve on the Expedition to the North West. Having breakfasted, I wheeled Sir J into an anteroom which adjoins the library, and, without any previous remark, he opened the map which he had just constructed, and in which the situation is shown, of that enormous mass of ice which has lately disappeared from the Eastern coast of Greenland…He desired that I would come to him as often as I pleased (’the oftener the better’) and read or take away any books I could find in his library that might be of service to me. He made me take his map with me…Having obtained carte blanche from Sir J, I shall of course go to his library without any ceremony, whenever I have occasions…41

Throughout his last spring Banks waited anxiously for reports of ‘our Polar adventurers’, and news of their progress. Parry’s specially constructed ship HMS Hecla, ‘fitted as strong as wood & Iron can make her’, would take two years to pass through the ice, and Banks was dead before this young protégé returned. Parry was the first to sail right through the perilous Lancaster Sound, and had named a remote and icy promontory at the far end, adjacent to the Beaufort Sea, Banks Island, after his patron.42

One of Banks’s last pet projects was to find some brilliant young astronomer to set up a major observatory in South Africa, at the Cape, so the southern sky could be explored as William Herschel had explored the northern. He never gave up looking for this man, although in fact he was close by all the time.43

Banks became very ill with jaundice in the spring of 1820. His last letters were written from Soho Square to Blagden in Paris. In one of them, very brief and signed ‘in haste’, he showed that he had lost none of his ranging interests. He commented on a new thermometer used to calculate the strength of alcoholic spirits; on the notorious ‘Lancashire Black Drop’ opium, ‘said to resemble Morphium very much and produce the same effects of Depression’; and on two delightful Newfoundland puppies he was sending to Blagden on the Paris mail coach, very eager to meet him, but waiting for a suitable passenger to take them over.

They may never have met their new master. To Banks’s dismay and grief, Charles Blagden died, while drinking coffee with Berthollet and Laplace, a fortnight later. It was perhaps the greatest professional blow Banks had sustained since the death of his old shipmate and scientific comrade Daniel Solander.44

In late May 1820 Sir Joseph Banks wrote in a firm hand from Soho Square to offer his resignation to the Royal Society, being ‘so far impaired in sight and hearing’ as to be unable to carry out his presidential duties. The Society unanimously rejected his resignation. Possibly the last letter he read was from the Director of the Botanic Gardens at Glasgow. It enclosed a list of their most sought-after rare plants, including no fewer than ten in the family of Banksia. If he was childless, yet he had a numerous offspring.

Sir Joseph Banks died on 19 June 1820, nursed by his faithful and longsuffering wife.45 With his death, after over forty years as President of the Royal Society, there was the sense that a distinctive era in British science had come to an end. Within a decade this had sharpened into a growing feeling of uncertainty and crisis.


At first it seemed that Sir Humphry Davy, called back from his European wanderings, was the likeliest successor. Davy arrived in London on 16 June 1820, three days before the death of Banks. The presidency of the Royal Society was now vacant, and Davy saw this as the natural summit of his professional ambitions, as he told his mother in a confidential letter. He sent her a beautiful Italian shawl, posted down to Cornwall, and coral necklaces to his sisters. At this critical juncture he was alone in London, for Jane had remained in Paris. They were both aware that the second Continental tour had not healed the rifts in their marriage.

Yet it was now more than ever important to establish a workable modus vivendi with Jane. Davy urged her to return, and never considered divorce, largely because of the Royal Society. In a curious way they were both trapped by the requirements of their public lives. They agreed to accompany each other to official events, but to travel and entertain separately as far as possible. With this in mind, they sold the house in Grosvenor Street early that summer, and bought an even larger one in Park Street, on the more fashionable side of Grosvenor Square, nearer Hyde Park. Here, with large suites of rooms and separate staircases, Jane and Davy could conduct more independent lives, but still present themselves as the first scientific couple of the nation.

Davy threw all his energy into lobbying Fellows to support his candidature for the presidency, with private letters and discreet dinner invitations. His old friend Davies Giddy acted as his unofficial party manager. His high public profile, his knighthood and his reputation at home and abroad as the inventor of the safety lamp attracted what appeared to be an unassailable majority. Yet there were rumours of dissent. Aristocratic members were uneasy at Davy’s Cornish background (so different from Banks’s Eton and Oxford), while younger members, on the contrary, wondered if his social ambitions had overtaken his scientific ones.

An alternative candidate emerged. The shy, mild, supremely dedicated and meticulous chemist Dr William Hyde Wollaston (who had been appointed caretaker President) found himself being championed by the young Turks, and especially the group of Cambridge men including Babbage, Whewell and John Herschel. It was felt that Wollaston represented British science at its purest, while Davy, for all his fame, was a contentious figure. John Herschel expressed this view vigorously in a private letter to Babbage in June 1820: ‘The reasons for wishing that Davy should be opposed are grounded solely on his personal character, which is said to be arrogant in the extreme, and impatient of opposition in his scientific views, and likely, if power were placed in his hand to oppose rising merit in his own line, and not patronise it in others, and in particular to involve the Royal Society in controversies of much personal acrimony with other learned European bodies.’

These caveats made clear reference to Davy’s treatment of Faraday, and the awkward priority dispute with Gay-Lussac and the French Académie des Sciences.46 As Herschel did not know Davy personally at this stage, much of this was hearsay and gossip. Yet it was precisely the sort of thing that Wollaston dreaded, and, appalled at the notion of open wrangling between scientific men, he abruptly withdrew his candidature in favour of Davy. The vote was set for November 1820.

Davy and Jane now accepted an invitation to spend the later part of that summer (the grouse-shooting season) in Scotland with Walter Scott, recently made a baronet by the newly crowned George IV. They travelled to the manse at Abbotsford separately, but both enjoyed mingling with the Scottish aristocracy and literary men like Scott’s son-in-law John Lockhart and Henry Mackenzie (author of The Man of Feeling), who took a fancy to Jane and travelled in her carriage during the endless hunting expeditions. Davy managed to spend most of his days shooting on the moors, and his evenings in Scott’s smoking room. With considerable diplomacy Scott had also invited Wollaston, who proved himself a keen fisherman, so that he and Davy were soon on good terms, teasing each other with piscatorial arcanae.

Lockhart later wrote an amusing account of Davy striding out at dawn in his full fishing gear, his white wide-brimmed hat stuck with innumerable fly-hooks and his enormous green waders far in excess of what any tinkling Scottish burn could possibly require. Yet Davy would also recite from memory passages of Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, while sipping whisky during a moorland picnic. Lockhart recalled one of the Scottish ghillies whispering to him when Davy and Scott had kept the party up with their ‘rapt talk’ round the log fire, long after midnight: ’“Gude preserve us! This is a very superior occasion! Eh Sirs!”-then cocking his eye like a bird-“I wonder if Shakespeare and Bacon ever met to screw ilk other up?”‘47

Back in London, Davy was elected President of the Royal Society unopposed in November 1820. In his acceptance speeches he tried very hard to smooth over old differences, and presented an uplifting vision of ‘The Progress and Prospects of Science’ to the assembled Society in December. He recalled the great tradition of ‘experiment, discovery and speculative science’, from the time of Hooke and Newton to that of William Herschel and Cavendish. If he was now in some sense their ‘general’ and leader, he announced, ‘I shall always be happy to act as a private soldier in the ranks of science.’ Perhaps there were some ironic smiles at that.

Prophetically, Davy picked out the fields of research in which the most exciting new work would be done: astronomy, polar exploration, the physics of heat and light, electricity and magnetism, geology, and the physiology of plants and animals. He was careful to mention by name the work of Wollaston, Dalton, John Herschel, the young Scottish physicist David Brewster and a number of French chemists. He urged the Fellows to be guided by the spirit of Bacon and Newton, to work soberly by ‘the cautious method of inductive reasoning’, but with passion, and ‘to exalt the powers of the human mind’. Finally he issued an exhortation, with a kind of challenge and warning attached. ‘Let us then labour together, and steadily endeavour to gain what are perhaps the noblest objects of ambition-acquisitions which may be useful to our fellow creatures. Let it not be said, that, at a period when our empire was at its highest pitch of greatness, the sciences began to decline…48 That last sentence would come back to haunt the Society.

Davy’s initial determination to recover the support of the younger men was shown in several ways. He made attempts to befriend John Herschel (now twenty-eight) over Park Street dinners, and voted money for Charles Babbage’s first prototype of his famous ‘difference engine’, or calculating machine. In 1821 he made sure that the annual Copley Medal was awarded to young Herschel for his work on polarised light (as Banks had once assured it to his father for discovering Uranus). The award was accompanied by a handsome speech. ‘You are in the prime of life, in the beginning of your career, and you have powers and acquirements capable of illustrating and extending every branch of physical enquiry…May you continue to exalt your reputation, already so high.’ He concluded with a reference to the work of Sir William, now an almost legendary figure. John was urged to follow ‘the example of your illustrious father, who full of years and of honours, must view your exertions with infinite pleasure; and who, in the hopes that his own imperishable name will be permanently connected with yours in the annals of philosophy, must look forward to a double immortality’.49 Though obviously well intentioned, this must surely have sounded more than a little heavy-handed to John, and more than a little ludicrous to Babbage.

Davy had also been curiously undiplomatic about his old patron and predecessor in the Chair, Sir Joseph Banks. It was surely a moment for generosity, especially considering the support Banks had given him over the Bakerian Lectures and the safety lamp. Yet he circulated a sketch of Sir Joseph which seemed unnecessarily grudging and critical: ‘He was a good humoured and liberal man, free and various in conversational power, a tolerable botanist, and generally acquainted with natural history. He had not much reading, and no profound information. He was always ready to promote the objects of men of science; but he required to be regarded as a patron, and readily swallowed gross flattery. When he gave anecdotes of his voyages, he was very entertaining and unaffected. A courtier in character, he was a warm friend to a good King. In his relations to the Royal Society he was too personal, and made his house a circle like a court.’50

So Davy dismissed Banks as a dilettante and a patriarch. There was little recognition of the huge scientific network that he had established, nor of the way in which he had kept British science alive and international in a time of war. Above all there was no recognition of Davy’s personal debt to him, let alone of the heroic way he had battled against personal illness and disability. Perhaps this can be partly explained by Davy’s immense anxiety to assert his own authority at this juncture. Perhaps, too, he wanted to be seen as speaking for the younger generation of professional men of science. But it was a hurtful and puzzling document all the same.

That summer Davy went down to Penzance, to glory a little in his own immortality. He was given a public dinner by the Mayor, interviewed and toasted, presented at a provincial ball, all to the immense satisfaction of his ageing mother. He was the guest of honour of the newly founded Geological Society (to which he made a handsome contribution), and was congratulated by its jocular new President, John Ayrton Paris. Paris may have mentioned that he had ambitions to become Sir Humphry’s eventual biographer. At all events he shrewdly noted that Lady Davy could not be persuaded to accompany the great man on this filial visit. Davy, aged forty-two, innocently revelled in the role of local boy made good, and wrote dreamily to his old friend Tom Poole in Somerset: ‘I am enjoying the majestic in Nature, and living over again the days of my infancy and early youth…I am now reviving old associations, and endeavouring to attach old feelings to a few simple objects.’51

For a time Davy felt that he had achieved his greatest ambition in becoming President of the Royal Society. Yet his peremptory genius in the laboratory made him something of a tyrant in the Committee Room. Over the next three years, to his dismay and astonishment, he found that his popularity, while still immensely high with the general public, was increasingly resented at Somerset House. His social ambitions and snobbery were easily mocked, and he did not have the gift of drawing out hidden talents. As John Herschel had feared, he was irascible, and easily drawn into feuds.

This was particularly marked in the case of Michael Faraday, who was after all Davy’s star pupil, now aged twenty-nine. In 1821 Faraday had married very happily, after a tender two-year courtship sparking numerous love letters, including some rather neat light verse.52 His bride was Sarah Barnard, a pretty, quietly-spoken girl and fellow Sandemanian who was happy to move into his modest set of rooms above the Institution, thus enabling him to continue with his formidable daily workload in the laboratory below. Faraday lectured, published papers, and developed a strong connection with the French physicists, notably Pierre Hachette and André Ampère.53

However, there was no increase in his salary, and in 1823 Davy took the extraordinary step of blackballing Faraday’s election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society. This was all the more surprising since Faraday had just been elected to the scientific Accademia in Florence, and to the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Davy’s explanation was that Faraday had offended Wollaston, by plagiarising some experiments concerning electro-magnetic rotation and falsely claiming priority in results. But Faraday had already established his own authority in this field (which he would soon revolutionise), and anyway he was always meticulous in such matters. Evidently no deliberate plagiarism was intended, and Wollaston himself (as mild as ever) was much inclined to dismiss the whole affair. Davy seemed incapable of recognising Faraday’s rising star in the world of international science.

Faraday’s supporters, of whom there were an increasing number, thought that Davy seemed motivated, at least unconsciously, by jealousy of his old pupil. Some may also have believed that his painful experience of the safety lamp controversy had made him oversensitive about priority disputes. Yet others suggested darkly that Sir Humphry was influenced by a different kind of magnetism, the negative polarity of Lady Davy towards her erstwhile ‘valet’. Again, all this was much as John Herschel had foretold. Faraday’s election became an embarrassing cause célèbre, with notices pinned up and torn down from the Royal Society’s noticeboard. Faraday’s seconders in the ballot eventually included the names of John Herschel, Babbage, Charles Hatchett, Peter Roget (from the old Bristol Pneumatic Institute days), Dr Babington (one of Davy’s fishing cronies), Davies Gilbert (his campaign manager), and even Wollaston himself.

In the end Faraday’s election had to be proposed no fewer than eleven times, a proceeding without precedent, and was not ratified until January 1824. The Royal Society’s minutes noted that finally there was only one vote cast against him, but according to the club rules it remained anonymous. It was obviously Davy’s own. It seems that the President had been isolated and humiliated.54

There was even a story put about that Davy had deliberately encouraged Faraday to undertake a potentially lethal chemical experiment, which had nearly blinded him. It was said that one Saturday evening in March 1823, looking in at the Royal Institution’s basement laboratory, Davy had casually suggested to Faraday that he try a further analysis of chlorine crystals by heating potassium chlorate with sulphuric acid in a sealed glass tube. (The properties of potassium chlorate-used to produce medical chlorine-were one of Davy’s great chemical discoveries.) After Davy left, Faraday did so, and the subsequent explosion, in Faraday’s own words, ‘blew pieces of glass like a pistol-shot through the window’, lacerating his face and filling his eyes with tiny fragments of glass. Sarah Faraday spent the rest of the evening tenderly sponging them out with cold water.

This sinister story gained credibility as it circulated. So much so, that thirteen years later Faraday was still being asked about it, and was not entirely inclined to exculpate his old professor. Perhaps Davy-knowing very well the properties of potassium chlorate-had set him a kind of pedagogical object lesson; or, frankly, a trap. Perhaps he wanted to underline just how much Faraday still had to learn in chemical matters. ‘I did not at that time know what to anticipate, for Sir H. Davy had not told me his expectations, and I had not reasoned so deeply as he appears to have done. Perhaps he left me unacquainted with them to try my ability.’55

Though apparently disingenuous, this is a surprisingly damaging suggestion, and does imply some ill-will on Davy’s part. Yet it also reveals that Faraday still thought of himself (married and aged thirty-one) as Davy’s naïve apprentice, whose ‘ability’ might very reasonably be put to the test. Faraday also fails to mention the fact that the chlorine experiments took place over several days, and produced not one but several explosions. The first was a minor one that surprised, but did not harm, him. He then deliberately pursued the course of the experiments, presumably now forewarned of what might occur. The explosion that nearly blinded him was actually the third to shake his laboratory. Neither Faraday nor Davy wore the ‘safety spectacles’ that are now de rigueur in laboratory work. It all throws light on a new and highly significant human relationship that was emerging in professional science: that between the director and his research assistant, between master and pupil, between sorcerer and apprentice.56 

Davy was more successful in forming new friendships outside the Royal Society, notably with the rising politician Robert Peel, then Home Secretary. Like Banks before him he tried to raise the government’s awareness of science and technology. With Peel he became a Trustee of the British Museum, and helped develop the Great Russell Street site, which included organising George III’s great bequest of books, which became the famous King’s Library. The collection also included the Greek and Egyptian statuary which had inspired Shelley, Keats and Leigh Hunt to write their fine, thoughtful sonnets about Nature, Time and Empire. Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, a meditation on the enormous stone head of Ramses II, was one of the last poems he wrote before departing for Italy. It might be described as a meditation on imperial hubris.57

Davy wanted to establish a stronger scientific presence at the Museum, and make it more open to the general public. He suggested reorganising it as three main departments under separate management: ‘a good Public Library-a Gallery of Art-a Gallery of Science’. After four years of frustrating committee meetings-not his forte-he had made little headway, writing in 1826: ‘I have been to the British Museum, but I despair of anything being done for Natural History. The Trustees think of nothing but the Arts, and money is only obtained for these objects.’58 

He took over another of Banks’s pet projects, the foundation of the Royal Zoological Society with Sir Stamford Raffles, and drafted its Prospectus, proposing a zoological garden in Regent’s Park. He agreed with Peel that it should aim to rival the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and have at its heart the collection of wild animals from all over the world, and finding ways of adjusting their natural habitats to a northern climate. He could not forbear to add that these might perhaps include ‘eight or ten races of partridges’. He also pursued Banks’s enthusiasm for polar research, and took over his protégé Parry. In July 1826, Maria Edgeworth, staying as his guest in Park Street, came down to breakfast to find ‘Sir Humphry with a countenance radiant with pleasure and eager to tell me that Captain Parry is to be sent on a new Polar expedition’.59

Davy also became a founder member of the all-male Athenaeum, where he could gracefully withdraw from Lady Davy’s company in the evenings. As the club was in another part of Somerset House, this was very convenient, and it became virtually an extension of his own presidential study room. He insisted to his fellow founder, the Tory MP and Secretary to the Admiralty John Wilson Croker, that scientific members should be put up with literary and artistic ones, and candidates should be drawn equally from the Royal Academy and the Royal Society. His own list of personal recommendations included John Herschel.

But there was another contretemps when on Davy’s advice Michael Faraday was appointed the first Club Secretary. Faraday assumed that at last this was a mark of social acceptance. However, he soon found that the position was really a low-grade, time-wasting clerical appointment, an affair of lists and envelopes, and carried the £100 salary of a clerk. He quietly withdrew. It was hard to know if his old patron Davy had intended a professional kindness or a social slight. Perhaps, concluded Faraday, he barely knew himself. But from now on Faraday, who was very happy in his own drawing room, would make his own way.

Davy’s relations with his protégé would remain enigmatic and uneasy, until in 1825 Faraday was eventually proposed as Director of the Royal Institution. Here Sir Humphry Davy was forced to give his approval, and gravely sealed the appointment. So at long last Michael Faraday-modest, unworldly and utterly unlike his patron-was finally appointed to the position that would soon make him world-famous.


For John Herschel it was the shadow of his father, and the great forty-foot telescope, which seemed longest. By 1820 it was clear to John that his father was failing. William, now aged eighty-one, could no longer handle the larger telescopes, and was fretful and forgetful over his scientific papers. He grew petulant and anxious if his son was away from Slough too long, and uneasy when John and Babbage made their first extended Continental tour together, visiting France and Italy for four long months between July and October 1821.

In Paris they met the great Alexander von Humboldt, who inspired them with his tales of the South American forests and mountains, which he had visited during his legendary five-year expedition between 1799 and 1804. His Personal Narrative had been published in 1805, and translated throughout Europe. It included his visions of the great Amazon river, and his famous account of how he nearly died trying to climb the 20,700-foot Mount Chimborazo (he reached 19,309 feet). They were much struck by his dynamic philosophy of science: ‘To track the great and constant laws of Nature manifested in the rapid flux of phenomena, and to trace the reciprocal interaction-the struggle, as it were-of the divided physical forces.’60

Humboldt had become a central figure at the great Berlin Academy of Sciences, which Herschel and Babbage particularly wished to emulate. He knew and greatly admired William Herschel’s work, but was inclined to underestimate his son’s potential. ‘John Herschel appears to me inferior to the originality of his father, who was astronomer, physicist and poetical cosmologist all at the same time…The science of the Cosmos must begin with a description of the heavenly bodies and with a geographical sketch of the universe: or perhaps I should say with a true mappa mundi, such as was traced by the bold hand of William Herschel.’61 But Humboldt, now fifty-two, treated the young men in kindly, avuncular fashion, told them how much he admired English science, and how he had heard Joseph Banks lecture in London shortly after his return from the round-the-world voyage of 1768-71. So the torch of Romantic inspiration was passed on.62

In Switzerland Herschel and Babbage made geology an excuse for adventurous scrambling in the Alps, and wanderings over the glaciers of Chamonix in the footsteps of Dr Frankenstein’s Creature. They also made meteorological studies of the mountain storms and cloud formations, and climbed everywhere with telescopes, thermometers, geological hammers and a ‘mountain barometer’, supposed to warn them of impending storms.63

On his return to Slough, John found his unconquerable aunt Caroline had become the sole person who could manage William’s daily regime, and understand his increasingly rambling scientific requests. She also helped John develop new sweeping techniques with the cumbersome forty-foot, and once again began acting as astronomical assistant, still able-to John’s admiration and amazement-to sustain long nights in the shed beneath the telescope scaffolding. When he formed the Royal Astronomical Society with Charles Babbage in 1820, their first Honorary Member was his aunt Caroline, and this gesture sealed the bond between them. John had strong views about science being open to women-the Society’s second Honorary Member was to be Mary Somerville.

At Slough, the old observations workshops were falling into disuse, and masses of equipment and unfiled papers accumulated. William retreated to his study or his day-bed, but occasionally sent Caroline on quixotic missions to recover sheets of calculations or copies of papers once sent to the Philosophical Transactions. She alone could do this, but it caused her endless frustration and heartache.

Ill health now came to plague both Herschel and Caroline. The long nights of observation had gradually stricken him with crippling arthritis, while she began to suffer from an eye infection that a local doctor (not James Lind) casually diagnosed as leading to inevitable blindness. After several terrifying weeks, spent largely alone convalescing in her darkened lodgings, fearing she would never be able to see the stars again, Caroline recovered and slowly began using her telescope once more. The experience shook her profoundly, and reminded her of her isolation. The disease was almost certainly ophthalmia, which was rife among poorer households in the Thames Valley at this period. Several years before, Percy Shelley, living nearby across the river at Great Marlow, had also caught it while taking food and blankets to destitute families, as part of one of his many philanthropic projects.64

In the last months of his life Herschel had become increasingly weak and immobile. Yet he was loath to give up his stars. During the summer he wrote in a trembling hand on a tiny slip of paper, one of his last surviving notes. ‘Lina-There is a great comet. I want you to assist me. Come to dine and spend the day here. If you can come soon after one o’clock we shall have time to prepare maps and telescopes. I saw its situation last night-it has a long tail.’ Caroline meticulously filed away this note, and years later annotated it in her neat, precise script: ‘I keep this as a relic! Every line now traced by the hand of my dear brother becomes a treasure to me.’65

Towards the end, William asked Caroline to unearth a copy of his late ‘Sidereal’ paper, together with a print of his forty-foot telescope, to present to a friend who had asked for a special memorial gift. Close to tears, Caroline hurried to his chaotic library of papers to find it. After a long, miserable, dusty search, she finally discovered it, but was then too upset to read it through: ‘For the universe I could not have looked twice at what I had snatched from the shelf,’ she recalled. She returned and put it into her brother’s hands. ‘When he faintly asked if the breaking up of the Milky Way was in it, I said “Yes!”, and he looked content. I cannot help remembering this circumstance, it being the last time I was sent to the Library on such an occasion.’66

On 25 August 1822, Sir William Herschel, knighted and recognised by learned societies around the world, died in his room overlooking the great forty-foot telescope. He was quietly buried in the little church of St Lawrence, Upton, where he had been married. Just as he had feared, his son John had been abroad and had not been at his deathbed. But on his return, at Caroline’s urging John wrote a long epitaph to be carved in marble above his father’s tomb, and had it translated into elegant Latin by the Provost of Eton. It contained a wonderful phrase: ‘Coelorum perrupit claustra’-‘He broke through the barriers of heaven’; or as a later friend translated, ‘He o’er-leapt the parapet of the stars.’67

Herschel’s long and distinguished obituary appeared in The Times, and across four columns in the September issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine: ‘As an Astronomer he was surpassed by no one of the present age, and the depth of his research, and extent of his observations, rendered him perhaps second only to the immortal Newton.’ The magazine added punctiliously: ‘In these observations, and the laborious calculations into which they led, he was assisted by his excellent sister, Miss Caroline Herschel, whose indefatigable and unhesitating devotion in the performance of a task usually deemed incompatible with female habits, surpassed all eulogium.’ No doubt Caroline was pleased with that mention, though she doubtless objected to astronomy being referred to as a task ‘usually incompatible with female habits’.68

This obituary was immediately followed in the same issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine by a short notice of the death of one Percy Bysshe Shelley, son of the Whig MP for Horsham. ‘Supposed to have perished at sea, in a storm, somewhere off Via Reggio, on the coast of Italy…Mr Shelley is unfortunately too well-known for his infamous novels and poems. He openly professed himself an atheist. His works bear the following titles: Prometheus Chained [sic]…etc.’69 For good measure a London daily newspaper, the Courier, added: ‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.’70

The poet Thomas Campbell, who had interviewed Herschel at Brighton a decade before, wrote a long appreciation of his life in the October issue of the New Monthly Magazine. It included a summary of the way Herschel had changed the layman’s view of the cosmos: how the solar system was larger and more mysterious than Newton ever supposed; how the creation of the stars had taken place in inconceivable gulfs of time and space, and was still developing and unfolding; how our Milky Way was probably just one galaxy (or island universe) among millions; and how this galaxy-our beautiful home in space-would inevitably wither and die like some fantastic but ephemeral flower. Campbell carefully avoided raising any theological implications, and instead played wittily on the late, mad King George’s (perhaps apocryphal) remark: ‘Herschel should not sacrifice his valuable time to crotchets and quavers.’71

Among many other honours, a new constellation was proposed, Telescopium Herschelii, The Telescope; and thus it appears in James Middleton’s beautiful Celestial Atlas of 1843, located 10 degrees above Castor and Pollux, close to where Uranus first swam into his ken.

Caroline now seemed strangely detached. Despite everything that John could urge, she took the surprising decision to return at once to Hanover, although she had not been there for nearly fifty years. She was now seventy-two, and set about briskly winding up her affairs, making John the executor of her Will.72 William had left her an annual £100 pension for life, but she immediately made it over to John in quarterly instalments. It was as if she wanted to bring the circle of her life in England to an abrupt close.

The one thing that would have kept her in England, she told John, was if she had been able to ‘offer of my service for some time longer to you, my dear nephew’ as astronomical assistant. But she felt too old and infirm to do this.73 She took with her to Germany a large, comfortable English bed, some astronomy books, and the beautiful seven-foot Newtonian ‘sweeper’ telescope which William had made for her all those years ago in 1786. ‘It shall stand in my room and be my monument-as the Forty-Foot is yours.’74

On 16 October there was a final reception for her at Bedford Square, London, hosted by Lady Herschel and John. Charles Babbage rode down from Cambridge, arriving at the very last minute. Caroline’s parting message to him, an unspoken one, was about John. ‘I could find no time for any conversation with [Babbage]; but just by a pressure of the hand recommended my Nephew (in incoherent whispers) again to the continuance of his regards and Friendship.’75

Caroline was destined to live on for another twenty-six years, her mind sharp and her memories vivid and sometimes bitter. ‘I did nothing for my brother,’ she once confided, ‘but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, I did what he commanded me.’76 She began to send the first version of her Memoirs back from Hanover in the year following William’s death, 1823. It was written up slowly, carefully withheld from all her German relatives and friends, and posted in secret instalments to John in England, with many hesitations and caveats. She wrote poignantly: ‘As my thoughts are continually fixed on the past, I was as it were conversing with you on paper, not choosing to trust them to anyone about me [in Hanover]. For I know none who would understand me, or whom it can concern what my own private opinion and remarks have been about the transactions that continually passed before my eyes. But there can be no harm in telling them to my own dear Nephew.’77

She and John corresponded regularly for the next twenty years. Very rarely she wrote about her personal feelings, but sometimes there were sudden glimpses, like clouds clearing on a good observation night. ‘I am grown much thinner than I was six months ago; when I look at my hands they put me so in mind of what your dear father’s were, when I saw them tremble under my eyes, as we latterly played at backgammon together.’78

She read all John’s Royal Society papers as they appeared, and took huge pleasure in his successes, as if her beloved brother were still alive. She kept him supplied with all the new technical books and papers published in German, and recommended he read the philosopher Schelling. ‘You must give me leave to send you any publication you can think of, without mentioning anything about paying for them.’ Like many old people, she was fierce if he did not reply to her letters immediately.

Caroline’s explanation for her generosity was characteristic. ‘It is necessary that every now and then I should lay out a little of my spare cash…for the sake of supporting the reputation of being a learned lady…for I am not only looked at for such a one, but even stared at here in Hanover.’79 She assembled and recalculated for John a huge new Star Catalogue of the 2,500 nebulae. Should he ever escape on the expedition he was starting to dream about, he could add to it while observing the stars of the southern hemisphere. Herschel and Babbage made sure she was awarded the Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal for this in 1828. It sports her name on a beautiful medallion showing William Herschel’s forty-foot telescope, and the Society’s motto Quicquid Nitet Notandum-‘Let Whatever Shines be Noted’.80 For herself there was now little chance of star-gazing: ‘Two or three evenings a week are spoiled by company. And at the heavens is no getting, for the high roofs of the opposite houses.’81

When John visited her in Hanover he found Caroline to be more energetic than ever. After all those years of stellar observation, she was still essentially a night bird. ‘She runs about town with me, and skips up her two flights of stairs. In the morning until eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite fresh and funny at ten o’clock pm, and sings old rhymes, nay even dances! to the great delight of all who see her.’82

It was Caroline who worried about his health, and urged him not to let science drive him too hard. He must not become obsessive about his work, or allow himself to become remote or unfeeling. Here she was clearly looking back on her brother William’s career: ‘I wish often that I could see what you were doing, that I might give you a caution (if necessary) not to overwork yourself like your dear father did. I long to hear that the Forty Foot instrument is safely got down…I know how wretched and feverish one feels after two or three nights waking, and I fear you have been too eager at your Twenty-Foot…I should be very sorry on your account, for if I should not live long enough to know you comfortably married…if you can meet with a good-natured, handsome and sensible young lady, pray think of it, and do not wait till you are old and cross.’83


In 1823, pursuing his idea of raising the national profile of science, Davy had accepted a commission from the Royal Navy to solve a major problem with their new steam-powered warships. This was the rapid corrosion of their copper hulls in sea water, which also encouraged their fouling with weed and barnacles. After a relatively short period at sea, the combined effect could drastically reduce the ships’ speed through the water and manoeuvrability in action. The commission was widely publicised in the press, and Davy threw himself into the task, hoping to achieve a public success comparable to his invention of the safety lamp in the winter of 1815.

For this work he no longer asked for Faraday’s help. He solved the corrosion problem quickly and brilliantly, by analysing the corroding (oxidising) effect of salts on copper, and through a series of experiments finding that it could be neutralised with the use of small cast-iron plates placed along the length of the ship’s hull. The more rapid oxidising of the iron produced a charge of ‘negative electricity’ along the hull, which prevented the oxidising of the copper. He wrote excitedly to his brother John of his ‘most beautiful and unequivocal’ results.84 He read a paper on this discovery to the Royal Society in January 1824, and went on naval trials aboard HMS Comet, one of the Navy’s latest steam paddle-ships, to Scandinavia to demonstrate the results. The work was greeted by a fanfare of approval in the newspapers when he got home.

To crown his achievement, Davy announced with a flourish that, as with the safety lamp, he would refuse to take out a patent. ‘I might have made an immense fortune by a patent for this discovery; but I have given it to my country, for in everything connected with interest, I am resolved to live and die at least sans tache,85 If not the Napoleon of science, he would be the Nelson.

But Davy’s claims for the new process were premature. Within months it was found that the unoxidised copper hulls attracted weeds and barnacles far more quickly and heavily than before. By October accusing paragraphs were appearing in the Portsmouth papers, and sarcastic letters in The Times. The navy was disgruntled, the Royal Society was embarrassed, and the press was derisive. Davy’s reputation was tarnished, not to say barnacled, by this episode, and his unpopularity at the Royal Society increased.86 It was also noted that while he was touring Scandinavia, his wife was altogether elsewhere on the Continent, travelling through Germany and charming the aged Goethe at Weimar, in a party organised by one of her aristocratic friends, the gossiping Lord Dudley.

Ironically, Davy’s science was perfectly correct, only the practical application was faulty. After several years of further sea-trials an adaptation of his iron-plate techniques did keep the Royal Navy’s copper hulls perfectly clean. It was largely his impetuosity, his premature publication of results and his increasing hunger for glory that had betrayed him. Moreover, pure science was not the same as applied science. Successful laboratory experiments did not always transfer smoothly to actual conditions in the field. He wrote touching letters to his mother trying to explain all this, and insisting he was right. ‘Do not mind any of the lies you may see in the newspapers…about the failure of one of my experiments. All the experiments are successful, more even than I could have hoped.’87

But Davy’s reputation was now increasingly vulnerable. Robert Harrington had again mocked him in a widely circulated pamphlet as ‘a self-styled Hercules…seated on the shoulders of Sir Joseph Banks’.88 In 1824 he was attacked by the new magazine John Bull in its satirical series ‘Humbugs of the Age’. He was pilloried not as a scientist, but as a snob and a socialite (No. 1 was De Quincey, No. 2 was a worldly prelate, and No. 3 was Davy). ‘The poor fellow fancies himself irresistible among the girls, and is evidently pluming himself while conversing with them…about the last new novel, or the set of china, or the pattern of a lace, or the cut of a gown-not at all about chemistry. O! he is a universal genius. You never, my dear, would take him for a great philosopher.89

Davy was still attempting to secure his position with the younger Fellows of the Royal Society. He had John Herschel appointed as one of the two Society Secretaries in 1824, but then undermined the reformist implications of this by refusing to have Charles Babbage elected as the other. The irascible Babbage accused Davy of temporising and trimming, while Davy let it be known that the combination of two Cambridge University mathematicians in two such key appointments would, in his opinion, unbalance the Royal Society’s traditional composition. Unbalancing the traditional composition, with its predominance of ‘slumbering’ gentlemen amateurs, was of course exactly what Herschel and Babbage had intended.

Babbage began to reflect angrily on the minatory phrase from Davy’s inaugural address, the potential ‘decline of British science’. Here was a possible line of attack. But how could ‘decline’ be inductively demonstrated? For example, how many scientific papers or lectures, he wondered, had each Fellow actually published? No one had ever considered something so ungentlemanly as gathering such data from the Philosophical Transactions. But it might be a good empirical question to ask. He and Herschel had, after all, already published well over fifty papers between them.90

Over the next three years Davy spent most of his summers travelling outside London-usually to go shooting or fishing-in Wales, the Lake District, Ireland and Scotland. He joined the house parties of aristocratic acquaintances, but was rarely accompanied by Jane. Older friends like Wordsworth and Scott noted that his health was weakened. He walked less (though he still climbed Helvellyn), and he drank and talked more.

In September 1826 his mother Grace died in Penzance after a short illness. This had a profoundly upsetting and undermining effect on Davy, from which he never entirely recovered. It was Grace who had sustained him from the earliest days in Borlase’s pharmacy, and followed all his triumphs so faithfully. It was now that the hollowness of his marriage left him emotionally unsupported. He attended his mother’s funeral in Penzance with his sisters and his brother John, who had returned swiftly from Corfu. But he was not accompanied by Jane, who remained in London. Friends and family thought she was unbelievably callous; but Davy had almost certainly asked her not to come. It had long been agreed between them that his Penzance life was his own.

From this time Davy began to suffer from feelings of exhaustion, pains in his shoulder and right arm which he attributed to rheumatism, and palpitations in his throat. In fact he was suffering from progressive heart disease, which had prematurely killed many on the male side of his family. In October, during his final Bakerian Lecture, he had to admit that his work on the copper sheathing of ships had not been immediately successful.91 At the annual general meeting of the Royal Society he barely got through his official address, sweating profusely, and returned home to Park Street without attending the official dinner.

In December 1826, while on a shooting party in Sussex with Lord Gale, Davy suffered a series of strokes, and to his horror found himself partially paralysed down his right side. He was taken back to Park Street, where Jane (who had as usual spent Christmas in London) proved herself efficient and kindly in organising nurses and doctors. Davy was only forty-eight, and could not forget his father’s premature death at the same age. His friend and physician Dr Babington recommended exercise and diet, and gradually he began to recover the use of his arm, and some rather stiff movement in his leg. By January 1827 he was able to write again, and he found to his immense relief that he could still cast a fishing line and shoot tolerably well. But he tired easily, and became deeply depressed and irritable. Babington suggested a long holiday on the Continent.

Fitting out his carriage with books and hunting gear, Davy set out with his dogs and his brother John in January. For Jane this must have been a decisive moment, but the old intimacies of the Highlands could not be recovered on either side, even in this extremity. She decided she could not travel happily with her husband, and so would remain in London, looking after his affairs at Park Street, entertaining the more sympathetic Royal Society Fellows, and keeping up her wide circle of aristocratic correspondence. It was John alone who travelled with him over the snowbound Alps, and remained with him at Ravenna until recalled to his post as military doctor on Corfu in late spring. It was a painful farewell for both of them.

From now on the whole tenor of Davy’s life would profoundly and permanently change. He became much more like the solitary boy who had roamed the wilds of Cornwall in his youth. He was aware of his fatal illness, and knew that he could drop dead at any moment, and that no medication existed that could help him: a terrifying prospect. He was also aware of insidious psychological enemies: chronic depression, alcoholism, morphine addiction, or simply spiritual despair. He had little to cling to but his belief in science.

John later wrote movingly of his brother’s predicament: ‘The natural strength of his mind was very clearly manifested under these circumstances. Dependent entirely on his own resources; no friend to converse with; no one with him to rely on for aid, and in a foreign country, without even a medical advisor; destitute of all the amusements of society; without any of the comforts of home-month after month, he kept his course, wandering from river to river, from one mountain lake and valley to another, in search of favourable climate; amusing himself with gun and rod, when sufficiently strong to use them, with “speranza” [hope] for his rallying word.’92

In July Davy wrote stoically from the shores of Lake Constance: ‘My only chance of recovery is in entire repose, and I have even given up angling, and amuse myself by dreaming and writing a very little, and studying the natural history of fishes. Though alone, I am not melancholy…I now use green spectacles, and have given up my glass of wine per day.’93

At Ravenna he wrote a series of short meditative poems, simply entitled ‘Thoughts’. He was anxious not to fall into easy, consoling delusions; and in this the man of science came to the aid of the poet. Often the literary effect is severe, sceptical and coldly metaphysical. There is none of the showy confidence, or the assertive music, of his earlier hymn ‘The Massy Pillars of the Earth’. Yet Davy’s own voice remains clear.

We trace analogies; as if it were

A joy to blend all contrarieties,

And to discover

In things the most unlike some qualities

Having relationship and family ties.

Thus life we term a spark, a fire, a flame;

And then we call that fire, that flame, immortal,

Although the nature of all fiery things

Belonging to the earth is perishable.

But sometimes he allowed himself a great outburst of feeling, an uprush of longing for survival and consolation and love.

Oh couldst thou be with me, daughter of heaven,

Urania! I have no other love;

For time has withered all the beauteous flowers

That once adorned my youthful coronet.

With thee I still may live a little space,

And hope for better, intellectual light;

With thee I may e’en still in vernal times

Look upon nature with a poet’s eye,

Nursing those lofty thoughts that in the mind

Spontaneous rise, blending their sacred powers

With images from mountain and from flood,

From chestnut groves amid the broken rocks

Where the blue Lima pours to meet the wave

Of foaming Serchio…94

Many of these poems led him back to one of his consoling rivers. As a distraction in the evenings, Davy decided to begin writing a book about fishing. It would recount a series of piscatorial adventures and conversations, in the spirit of Izaak Walton, but adding a good deal of natural history and fishing folklore. He entitled it Salmonia, or Days of Fly-Fishing.

Davy’s scientific writing had always been admirably plain, factual and direct, though in his lectures he prided himself on being able to produce the clever analogy or the uplifting overview. He now tried something quite different, the play of dialogue and contrasting viewpoints. For this he invented four fictional fishermen, amalgamating elements of himself and several of his friends, including his faithful doctor Babington, Professor Wollaston from the Royal Society, and a composite literary figure who might have been part Coleridge and part Walter Scott. These he compounded into four allegorical figures: ‘Ornither’, an expert on birds and field sports; ‘Poietes’, the literary man who is also ‘an enthusiastic lover of nature’; ‘Physicus’, who is ‘uninitiated’ as an angler, but who has a shrewd scientific approach to natural history, and a taste for metaphysics; and ‘Halieus’, a fully accomplished fly-fisherman.

Davy’s first attempt at fiction was not entirely successful. The first three of his fishermen are not easily distinguished from each other, and their role seems largely to give the fourth, Halieus, a chance to show off his knowledge of natural history-at stunning length. Halieus is a convincing, if unintentional, portrait of a scientific pedant. Yet on close examination, the book is full of intriguing and unexpected digressions, especially when Halieus is unexpectedly contradicted. In an early section (‘Day One’) Davy investigates the mysterious memories of fish, which he regarded as quite as interesting a phenomenon as those of human beings. For example, once a trout was caught and thrown back into the river, could it remember being hooked? Could it remember the painof being hooked? Could it feel-or remember-pain at all? And if so, was trout fishing inherently cruel? This is an astonishingly modern question, and one which hauntingly recalls Davy and Coleridge’s forgotten speculations about pain and anaesthetics.

Halieus, the self-confident and assertive fisherman, tries to dismiss the question as essentially absurd. ‘If all men were Pythagoreans, and professed the Brahmin’s creed, it would undoubtedly be cruel to destroy any form of animated life; but if fish are to be eaten…’ This would appear to be Davy’s own dismissal of the issue, until the metaphysical Physicus intervenes. ‘But do you think nothing of the torture of the hook, and the fear of capture, and the misery of struggling against the powerful rod?’ Halieus tries to dismiss this on anatomical grounds. Fish do not have feeling in the gristle of the mouth. But again Physicus returns to the charge, from another angle: ‘Fishes are mute, and cannot plead, even in the way that birds and quadrupeds do, their own cause…‘95 Here Davy gives a surprising picture of two different kinds of sensibility in debate. Many other philosophical questions are raised in this indirect manner, and Davy slowly began to expand the work.

The idea of being useful, and leaving a scientific inheritance, came increasingly to preoccupy him. He describes in Salmonia (‘Day 4’) an incident that had occurred years before during a day’s fishing at Loch Maree in the Highlands. Two adult eagles were teaching their young to fly above the loch, climbing in ever widening circles ‘into the eye of the sun’.96 He expanded this into one of his most striking and symbolic poems, ‘The Eagles’. Coleridge had often talked to Poole of the natural symbolism of eagles (images of pride, power and independence), and described himself as an eagle who could not soar. Davy’s poem moves in a different direction, towards the idea of eagles representing initiation and apprenticeship.

He depicts himself watching in rapture the two adult grey-tailed eagles in the bright sunlight, followed by their young offspring. This moment is transformed into an image of Davy the man of science, hoping to inspire his young scientific protégés to ever greater discoveries.

The mighty birds still upward rose

In slow but constant and most steady flight.

The young ones following; and they would pause,

As if to teach them how to bear the light

And keep the solar glory full in sight.

So went they on till, from excess of pain,

I could no longer bear the scorching rays;

And when I looked again they were not seen,

Lost in the brightness of the solar blaze.

Their memory left a type and a desire:

So should I wish towards the light to rise

Instructing younger spirits to aspire

Where I could never reach amidst the skies,

And joy below to see them lifted higher,

Seeking the light of purest glory’s prize.97

Of course, the poem has a certain irony. Davy’s greatest protégé, his young eagle Michael Faraday, had not flourished under his patronage and now flew increasingly on his own. Yet perhaps Davy acknowledged the necessity of this, for in Salmonia the all-knowing Halieus comments: ‘Of these species [of eagle] I have seen but these two, and I believe the young ones migrate as soon as they can provide for themselves; for this solitary bird requires a large space to move and feed in, and does not allow its offspring to partake its reign, or to live near it.’98

Writing the book was not easy going. ‘This paper is stained by a leach which has fallen from my temples whilst I am writing,’ he noted.99 The work went better when he took rooms at Herr Dettela’s inn at Laibach in Illyria. He hardly recognised Josephine, now a young woman of twentyfive, but with the same bright blue eyes and nut-brown hair. ‘I hope it is a good omen that my paper by accident is couleur de rose,’ he joked.100


In November 1827 Davy returned briefly to London to resign his presidency of the Royal Society. He later gave a moving glimpse of his disillusion with his own scientific career on this sad return: ‘In my youth, and through the prime of manhood, I never entered London without feelings of pleasure and hope. It was to me as the grand theatre of intellectual activity, the field of every species of enterprise and exertion, the metropolis of the world of business, thought, and action…I now entered the great city in a very different tone of mind, one of settled melancholy…My health was gone, my ambition was satisfied, I was no longer excited by the desire of distinction; what I regarded most tenderly [my mother], was in the grave…My cup of life was no longer sparkling, sweet, and effervescent…it had become bitter.’

In a wonderfully sardonic aside, Davy added that his metaphor of the ‘cup of life’ was scientifically derived from the chemical fermentation of ‘the juice of the grape’, and then after a certain lapse of time, its oxidisation and acidification.101

Rather than remaining with Jane, he spent Christmas with his old friend Tom Poole at Nether Stowey. As Davy clambered painfully out of his carriage in Lime Street he greeted Poole with a weary smile: ‘Here I am, the ruin of what I was.’102 But soon memories of the happy Bristol days-with Beddoes, Southey, Gregory Watt and Coleridge-were revived, and Davy considered taking a large country house in the Quantocks for his retirement. With this in mind they rode over to visit Andrew Crosse at Fyne Court, near Broomstreet, on the eastern escarpment of the hills. Crosse was a wealthy and eccentric bachelor who had spent most of his fortune on installing ‘an extensive philosophical apparatus’ with which he later claimed to have generated spontaneous life forms. It was later suggested that he was another ‘original’ of Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein.

Crosse’s huge, chaotic laboratory was installed on the ground floor, in what had originally been the ballroom of Fyne Court. It contained large, gleaming electrical condensers, which were linked to a network of copper wires strung through the trees round the whole estate. These were designed to pick up massive charges of static or ‘atmospheric’ electricity. The largest condenser was marked with a blasphemous warning notice: ‘Noli Me Tangere’-that is, ‘Do not Touch Me’-because of the possible electric shock. The phrase is famous from the Gospels: the risen Christ’s first words to Mary Magdalene.

Poole noticed that Davy, for the first time, became animated and cheerful. ‘As we were walking round the house very languidly, a door opened and we were in the laboratory. He threw a glance around the room, his eyes brightened in the action, a glow came over his countenance, and he looked like himself, as he was accustomed to appear twenty years ago.’103 Davy did not take the house, but put the finishing touches to Salmonia, and told Poole: ‘I do not wish to live as far as I am personally concerned, but I have views which I could develop, if it pleased God to save my life, which would be useful to science and mankind.’104

In spring 1828 Davy departed once more for the Alps and lower Austria, again leaving Lady Davy behind, according to their agreement. He was writing, fishing and taking morphine. Throughout this summer and autumn he wrote a series of enigmatic letters to his wife, discussing his health and his scientific researches, but always making vague references to Josephine Dettela, the innkeeper’s daughter.105 In June he wrote from Laibach: ‘The first time since my illness, I have found a month pass too quickly here. The weather has been delightful, and I have had enough shooting…and my pursuits in natural history respecting the migration of birds, have given me some new and curious results. I must not forget the constant attention and kindness of my “Illyrian maid”, I mean poetically and really. The art of living happy is, I believe, the art of being agreeably deluded; and faith in all things is superior to Reason, which, after all, is but a dead weight in advanced life, though as the pendulum to the clock in youth.’106

In July he went down to the coast to collect some specimens of the electrical eel or torpedo fish at Trieste. He had renewed his interest in Vitalism and the mysteries of animal electricity. But he hurried back to Laibach, again writing to Jane almost teasingly: ‘I am just returned to my old quarters & my pretty Illyrian nurse, after an excursion of a fortnight to Trieste…I succeeded in my projected experiment on the Torpedo and I have I think been able to establish a new principle with respect to the species of Electricity which will be a [gain] in Nat Science.’107

He worked on throughout the summer, trying to believe he was convalescing, and remained at Laibach as long as possible, until the autumn weather broke and the snowclouds began to gather in the mountains. In November, forced to go to Rome for the winter, he was already looking back wistfully. He confessed to Jane: ‘I remained at Laybach till October 30. I left that place with regret, kindness makes the sunshine of life in a sick man & that kindness is not less agreeable because it is given by a blooming and amiable maiden-I shall ever be grateful to my charming Illyrian nurse.’108 He now admitted that he was suffering from low spirits, ‘too feeble to bear general society’, and greatly missing Josephine. ‘I fear I shall find no Illyrian nurse here, such as the spirit that dispelled my melancholy at Laybach.’109 In December he wrote more hopefully, and a little more explicitly, to his brother John in Corfu. ‘Perhaps in the spring you could come to me at Trieste & see me in Illyria. I would then show you my dear little nurse, to whom I owe most of the little happiness I have enjoyed since my illness.’110

It is strange that Jane did not react to all these hints, but in the New Year she eventually responded with a light-hearted question about the identity-real or imagined-of the mountain ‘nymph’ who danced attendance on him so charmingly in Illyria. She noted, without irony, that she had seen that the ageing Goethe had his youthful female followers too. Davy seemed pleased to answer. ‘If you mean my little nurse and friend of Laybach, I shall be very glad to make you acquainted with her. She has made some days of my life more agreeable than I had any right to hope. Her name is Josephine or Pappina.’111 John later tactfully recalled: ‘Laybach, which had peculiar attractions for him…might be considered his head-quarters in this region. The attractions were, its situation near a fine river…and, not least…a kind little nurse, the daughter of the innkeeper.’112

Was this all the fantasy of a dying man? At Laibach sometime in that summer of 1828 Davy wrote rough drafts of two short love poems to Josephine. They occupy three pages of his scientific notebook, and are much crossed out and difficult to read. They reveal a little more about their relationship. He nicknamed her ‘Pappina’, a tender diminutive he used in the first poem, which is headed ‘Laybach August 16 1828. To Josephine Dettela’. It begins:

Kiss me Pappina, kiss me again!

Thy kisses will become a gage:

They waken in my heart a hope

Which was not of my early age…

No other poem that Davy had ever written has this simple, erotic directness. It is all the more touching, perhaps, because of its clumsy, childlike syntax. It is an open appeal for tenderness and love. Yet Davy does not use the word ‘love’. Instead he repeats the word ‘hope’. In the next stanza he feels the hope ‘a blessed father feels’, the hope ‘a much-loved brother knows’, a hope that ‘heaven reveals’. The little lyric continues:

But when thy angel form I see

And gaze upon that bright blue eye

And watch thy calm [unclouded] smile

And know thy virgin purity

Thy lips’ warm pressure wakes no Thought

Unworthy of the virgin’s name

But gives me hopes allied to heaven

Which will preserve thy earthly frame…

The remaining five lines are largely deleted or corrected, though the meaning is clear. ‘And in thy kiss…And in thy kiss I seem to share…And oft I shed a tear…It is a tear of happiness…Thy innocence I seem to share…And sure I share thy happiness.’

The second poem consists of only five lines, mostly crossed out and rewritten, and crossed out again. It is titled simply ‘To the Same’. It insists again on the purity of his feelings, and the theme is the ‘Vestal fire’ in Josephine’s eye, a calm, innocent ‘sacred light’ which ‘never glitters through a tear’. It is the ‘source and hope of heavenly bliss’. The last line has only one word: the rhyme for ‘bliss’-‘kiss’. Here the draft of the second lyric breaks off. Davy wrote nothing further about Pappina in his notebooks of 1828. Though, judging by his letters, he seems never to have stopped thinking about her, or hoping to get back to Illyria.113

John Davy, who must have seen both poems subsequently, chose never to publish them. They are after all very slight, unpolished and unfinished. They certainly do not suggest any grand passion. But they do suggest Davy’s longing for tenderness, and a sweet reciprocation on Josephine’s part; and that can take many forms. In Regency slang the name ‘Pappina’ would refer admiringly to her breasts. Perhaps the haunting phrase about Davy’s feeling for her, ‘which was not of my early age’, also suggests something-a desire, a fulfilment-which had been denied him ever since his Cornish childhood.

In fact it is possible that Davy briefly set up house with Josephine in that last summer. Although to Jane he always speaks of staying at the Laibach inn, he did in reality rent a private lodge at a little village just outside the town, as local enquiries more than a century later revealed: ‘In Podkoren, on the Wurzen Pass, and just into Slovenia, a house that he rented for fishing bears a blue plaque in English and Slovenian. The village is very small; the house is one of the best in it, but it is by no means large-rather like what a country doctor near Penzance might have lived in. In front are the fields, and behind the beech woods and streams where he must have walked. Nearby is the Sava, or Save River, where he loved to fish. The view of the Julian Alps must be still much as he saw it.’114

Davy never forgot the uplifting view of those life-giving Alps, which brought back so many memories. ‘They surround the village on all sides, and rise with their breast of snow and crests of pointed rock into the middle of the sky. The source of the Save is a clear blue lake surrounded by woods, and the meadows are as green as those of Italy in April, or of England in May.’115


Meanwhile, Salmonia was published in England in 1828, and favourably reviewed by Walter Scott in the Quarterly, thanks to Lady Davy pulling strings with her cousin. With considerable insight, she understood how much a little literary glory would soothe Davy at this juncture. Indeed, greatly encouraged, he began working on a second expanded edition. He now also embarked on a last work, which was intended as a summation of a lifetime’s thoughts and beliefs, Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher. He planned to dedicate it not to any of his grand aristocratic friends or patrons, but to his old confidant from the West Country days, Tom Poole. To Poole he confided his hopes for the book: ‘ write and philosophize a good deal, and have nearly finished a work with a higher aim than [Salmonia]…which I shall dedicate to you. It contains the essence of my philosophical opinions, and some of my poetical reveries. It is like the Salmonia, an amusement of my sickness; but paulo majora canamus. I sometimes think of the lines of Waller, and seem to feel their truth-

‘ “The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,

Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made” ’116

The Consolations is one of the most extraordinary prose books of the late Romantic period. Its title links it to the tradition of Boethius’ medieval Consolation, a form of renouncing the world before death. But Davy mixes philosophy and autobiography with highly original sections of science fiction, some visionary travel writing, various theories of history, race and society, and an important apologia for science. It also contains unexpected speculations about the nature of evolution, and the future of the human species.

The Consolations is divided into six Dialogues, with the fragment of a seventh, never completed; but the rather stilted exchanges of Salmonia are greatly improved upon. Though still using various semi-fictionalised figures, the whole book is intensely confessional. The early chapters are inspired by memories of Davy’s encounters and reflections during his various visits to Rome, including the Coliseum by moonlight, to Naples and the top of Vesuvius, and to the ruins of Paestum, especially during the two-year tour of 1818-20. The later chapters, which become steadily more intimate, draw on the two long summers spent in Austria and Illyria in 1827-28. The book goes far beyond a travelogue. There is a sense of open, passionate debate of ideas, and the necessity of unveiling the truth, whether in science or religion.

Davy never forgot that he was dying, and that his time had almost run out. He wrote unguardedly to Jane that he would therefore make it his ‘best work’, and would fearlessly reveal truths vital to the ‘moral and intellectual world’ which could never be recovered if lost by his death: ‘I may be mistaken on this point, yet it is the conviction of a man perfectly sane in all the intellectual faculties, and looking into futurity with prophetic aspirations, belonging to the last moments of existence.’117 The deliberate testamentary phrasing was no coincidence. But behind it lay the poignant anxiety that heavy opium-dosing might have distorted his ‘intellectual faculties’ and his reason.118

The book includes much strange, visionary material and imaginary voyaging. One chapter starts on planet earth and ends on Saturn. An early draft suggests that Davy wished to establish a spiritual Guide, a beautiful woman who would lead him (as Beatrice led Dante, perhaps) through all his scientific writings and reflections. In the final text he reduced her to a disembodied voice, though she still seems feminine: ‘A low but extremely distinct and sweet voice, which at first makes musical sounds, like those of a harp.’119

This trope of the beautiful female guide had appeared in several of Davy’s poems of the 1820s, as it had in Shelley’s ‘Epipsychidion’ (1821). It is again curious that Shelley, quartered in Rome in the spring of 1819, had also written a visionary story set in the Coliseum by moonlight. But then, Davy and Shelley were both part of a whole generation of exiled Romantic wanderers in Italy, looking for health, love and imaginative inspiration-including Goethe, Humboldt, Lord Byron, Trelawny, Mary Shelley, Walter Savage Landor and John Keats.

Dialogue I, subtitled ‘The Vision’, begins with Davy’s moonlit dream in the Coliseum at Rome. Left alone by two companions amidst the ruins, he finds himself addressed by an invisible presence, ‘which I shall call that of Genius’. Davy is told a sort of scientific creation myth, a Promethean version of man’s growing material dominion over the earth. From his primitive tribal beginnings, art and technology lifts man above the wild animals, until such global developments as chemistry, engineering, medicine and the ‘Faustian’ invention of the printing press bring an advanced Western civilisation.120

This account by Genius includes some racial theory about the ‘superiority of the Caucasian stock’ of a type familiar to students of Blumenbach. But Genius also makes an uneasy prophecy of colonial persecutions, of the kind that Banks would have recognised. ‘The negro race has always been driven before the conquerors of the world; and the red men, the aborigines of America, are constantly diminishing in number, and it is probable that in a few centuries their pure blood will be entirely extinct.’121

These increasingly unsettling visions culminate in a visit to a society of extraterrestrial beings on Saturn and Jupiter, by means of a shuttle network of comets. This device of comet-hopping appears in much earlier speculative literature such as Voltaire’s story ‘Micromégas’ (‘The Tiny Huge’, 1752), and it is also reminiscent of Caroline Herschel’s humorous fantasy of comet-travelling. Davy sees the moon and the stars go by ‘as if it were in my power to touch them with my hand…it seemed as if I were on the verge of the solar system’. The double ring of Saturn appears to him as ‘I have heard Herschel often express a wish he could see it’.122

On Saturn the super-intelligent inhabitants are said to include ‘the monad or spirit of Newton…now in a higher and better state of planetary existence, drinking intellectual light from a purer source and approaching nearer to the infinite and divine Mind’. These intelligences appear to float around Davy rather like enormous angelic seahorses, with wings made of ‘extremely thin membranes…varied and beautiful…azure and blue’. They gently explain that the entire solar system, including Mars and Venus, is full of life forms, and these do not stop at Uranus. After physical death, human beings are transported into ‘higher or lower’ planetary forms, depending on their ‘love of knowledge or intellectual power’.123 Davy, like the reader, is left stunned and disturbed by these revelations.124

The second Dialogue takes place one evening on the summit of Vesuvius. It moves into a lively discussion of the variety of religious experience on earth, comparing Christian, Jewish and Islamic beliefs. Older theologies are considered as incomparably cruel. ‘To the Supreme Intelligence, the death of a million of human beings, is the mere circumstance of so many spiritual essences changing their habitations, and is analogous to the myriad millions of larvae that leave their coats and shells behind them, and rise into the atmosphere, as flies on a summer day.’125

But Davy’s own beliefs are more optimistic, and like Naturphilosophie tend to suggest some form of spiritual evolution taking place on earth. They compare human destiny to that of ‘a migratory bird’ looking by instinct for a higher existence. The outlook is hopeful, and mankind is young. ‘We are sure from geological facts, as well as from sacred history, that man is a recent animal on the globe.’126

Davy’s ‘visionary maiden’ recurs in the second Dialogue, where one character (Philalethes), who is evidently Davy, claims to have first seen her in his feverish dreams two decades before, but denies that she was originally based on any actual woman. Nonetheless, her Illyrian reappearance is clearly based on Josephine Dettela. The others gently tease Philalethes about this angelic apparition, but he insists on her physical reality and importance to him.

-‘All my feelings and all my conversations with this visionary maiden were of an intellectual and refined nature.’

-‘Yes, I suppose, as long as you were ill.’

-‘I will not allow you to treat me with ridicule…to her kindness and care I believe I owe what remains to me of existence…Though my health continued weak, life began to possess charms for me which I thought were for ever gone; and I could not help identifying the living angel with the vision which appeared as my guardian genius during the illness of my youth.’

-‘I dare say any other handsome young female, who had been your nurse in your last illness, would have coincided with your remembrance of the vision, even though her eyes had been hazel and her hair flaxen…‘127

But, sadly perhaps, no further intimacies appear in this Dialogue.

The third Dialogue takes place during a dawn visit to the temples of Paestum, and introduces a new figure called The Unknown, who is discovered wandering through the ruins, clad in rough travelling clothes, with a pilgrim’s hat and staff, and a vial of medical chlorine (Davy’s discovery) round his neck to guard against marsh fever. Part man of science and part mystic, The Unknown is yet another projection of Davy’s secret myth of himself, now the pilgrim scientist on his last journey.

Much of this Dialogue is based on geology and ideas of the earth’s evolution. It is notable that while Davy revels in the idea of Herschel’s ‘deep space’, he finds it difficult to accept the concept of ‘deep time’ that had been argued by Hutton, and would soon be developed by Charles Lyell. Even the sceptical figure (Onuphrio) finds it hard to accept the ‘absurd, vague, atheistical doctrine’ of evolution, though he describes it surprisingly succinctly. ‘That the fish has in millions of generations ripened into the quadruped, and the quadruped into man; and that the system of life by its own inherent powers has fitted itself to the physical changes in the system of the universe.’128

The talk then drifts intriguingly into a discussion of ghosts, visions and nightmares. Some of these seem to reflect the horrors of Davy’s own illness, such as the dream of a group of murderous robbers breaking silently into his bedroom, and one of them ‘actually putting his hand before my mouth to ascertain if I was sleeping naturally’.129 John Davy would later say that one of his brother’s most painful and irrational obsessions in these last months was the fear of being buried alive.

The Unknown refers to dreams which bring back the events of a whole life, such as that of Brutus in his tent before battle. ‘I cited the similar vision, recorded of Dion before his death by Plutarch, of a gigantic female, one of the fates or furies, who was supposed to have been seen by him when reposing in the portico of his palace. I referred likewise to my own vision of the beautiful female, the guardian angel of my recovery, who always seemed to be present at my bedside.’130 These are the reflections of a haunted man, whose belief in his own powers of reason is increasingly under siege.

The fourth Dialogue contains more thinly veiled autobiography, referring to Davy’s own illness and his mother’s recent death in Cornwall. It draws on his more recent travels in the Austrian Alps and Illyria.131 There is a dramatic account of being swept away in a fishing coracle down the river Traun, being carried through boiling passages of white water, and finally being hurled over the great Traun waterfall itself and losing consciousness. ‘I was immediately stunned by the thunder of the fall and my eyes were closed in darkness.’ He wakes to find himself being mysteriously pulled to safety. ‘ was desirous of reasoning…upon the state of annihilation of power and transient death which I had suffered when in the water.’132 Whether this terrifying accident actually occurred to Davy is never made clear, but the entire episode seems symbolic of his whole life being swept away towards death.

Appropriately, the scientific theme of this Dialogue is the nature of the Life Principle, its analogies with electricity, and the whole Vitalism debate. Davy also puts forward the sustaining idea that men of science like Archimedes, Bacon and Galileo had actually advanced human civilisation far more than statesmen, religious leaders or artists. This is a position that he had frequently argued in his later lectures, deliberately contradicting Coleridge, who had said that the ‘souls of 500 Newtons’ had gone into the making of a single Shakespeare. Davy said emphatically that as benefactors of mankind, he held Bacon far above Shakespeare, and Newton far above Milton. ‘At that time, when Bacon created a new world of intellect, and Shakespeare a new world of imagination, it is not a question to me which has produced the greatest effect upon the progress of society-Shakespeare or Bacon; Milton or Newton.’133♣

In the fifth Dialogue, which he entitled ‘The Chemical Philosopher’, Davy set out his hopes for the future of chemistry. It embodied all his passionate belief in science as a progressive force for good, both in its practical results and its impact on the mind. This would be widely accepted as a credo by the next generation of young scientists: ‘Whilst chemical pursuits exalt the understanding, they do not depress the imagination or weaken genuine feeling; whilst they give the mind habits of accuracy, by obliging it to attend to facts, they like wise extend its analogies; and, though conversant with the minute forms of things, they have for their ultimate end the great and magnificent objects of Nature…And hence they are wonderfully suited to the progressive nature of the human intellect…It may be said of modern chemistry, that its beginning is pleasure, its progress knowledge, and its objects truth and utility.’134

Davy claimed chemistry as the crown of a ‘liberal education’, and assumed that a serious chemist would begin with an elementary knowledge of mathematics, general physics, languages (it is interesting that he included Latin, Greek and French), natural history and literature. He should write up his experiments in ‘the simplest style and manner’. But his imagination ‘must be active and brilliant in seeking analogies…The memory must be extensive and profound.’135 He was not above adding a little perilous glamour to the pursuit: ‘The business of the laboratory is often a service of danger, and the elements, like the refractory spirits of romance, though the obedient slave of the Magician, yet sometimes escape the influence of his talisman, and endanger his person.’136

The sixth and last Dialogue (‘Pola, or Time’) ends on a mystical note, with an almost Blakean speculation about angelic intelligences. This bursts out on the final pages with a salute to Herschel’s views of a dynamic and ever-evolving universe: ‘There is much reason to infer, from astronomical observations, that great changes take place in the system of the fixed stars; Sir William Herschel, indeed, seems to have believed that he saw nebulous or luminous matter in the process of forming suns…It is, perhaps, rather a poetical than a philosophical idea, yet I cannot help forming the opinion, that genii or seraphic intelligences may inhabit these systems, and may be the ministers of the eternal mind.’137 With characteristic precision, Davy refused to add capital letters to those last two words.

This strange book, part philosophy and part science fiction, was to have a surprising hold on the younger generation of Victorian scientists. What it suggested was that chemistry was the most awe-inspiring and visionary of the sciences, and that ‘to study it was to catch the ultimate forces of nature itself’ at work.138 It was frequently referred to by Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Charles Darwin. Though clearly fitting into a recognisable pattern, in which a highly rational man develops intense mystical longings towards the end of his life, it carried a true sense of humanity and hope. In a later éloge, Georges Cuvier called it, with pardonable exaggeration, ‘in some respects the last words of a dying Plato’.139

Consolations in Travel was timely in emphasising the progressive nature of science as an expression of man’s ‘immortal’ spirit, and the particular qualities required by a scientist, both by training and by temperament. It did not reveal much about Davy’s personal relations-there is nothing specifically about his childhood, his family, his wife, or the problematic subject of Michael Faraday. But it carried a haunting sense of his career, so marked by both exceptional achievement and bitter disappointment. It could perhaps claim to be the first ever scientific autobiography in English. It certainly belongs to the new Romantic genre of memoir, that includes in various ways Wordsworth’s Prelude (1805-50), Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1816) and Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).

Though he was solitary during this whole period (apart from his dogs), Davy had the support of a servant, whom he refers to with mournful humour as his Caliban. There was also his godson, a young medical student, John Tobin, son of his Bristol friend James Tobin, who had once tried laughing gas. Young Tobin’s main employment seems to have been reading to the great man in the evenings. These could be demanding sessions, covering contemporary novels, much poetry (especially Byron), the Arabian Nights, and on one occasion a Shakespeare reading that Tobin claimed lasted for nine hours on end.

Though he was useful for valeting and taking dictation, young Tobin was no Faraday; though like Faraday he found it difficult to maintain equable relations with his moody, reclusive employer: ‘Sir Humphry…frequently preferred being left alone at his meals; and in his rides, or fishing and shooting excursions, to be attended only by his servant. Sometimes he would pass hours together, when travelling, without exchanging a word, and often appeared exhausted by his mental exertions.’140

It is noticeable that in Lady Davy’s absence, Davy gradually seemed much softened towards her, and began writing a stream of increasingly tender letters, of which she kept at least forty-eight carefully done up in ribbons.141 In one he writes: ‘I think you will find me altered in many things-with a heart still alive to value and reply to kindness, and a disposition to recur to the brighter moments of my existence of fifteen years ago, and with a feeling that though the burnt-out flame can never be rekindled, a smothered one may be. God bless you! From your affectionate, H Davy.’142

Davy was now less inclined to boast of his achievements, but sadly lamented how little they had been recognised: ‘I have been used so ill by the public when I have laboured most to serve them, and injured my body and mind in exertions for their good (witness safety lamp, copper bottoms, Royal Society…).’143

Vitalism still held his intense interest. He stubbornly sent off another scientific paper to the Royal Society, on the ‘animal battery’ contained in the body of the torpedo or electric eel. It was published on 20 November 1828. He had now submitted forty-six papers to the Society, his first on the voltaic battery long ago in June 1801, and his most famous one on the safety lamp in 1816. He did not want the torpedo to be his last, and he continued to investigate the mystery of ‘animal electricity’ and its possible connection with the universal principle of life. John Herschel would be particularly struck by this paper, which compared the electric eel to a voltaic battery, asked whether the eel could exert this ‘most wonderful power’ at will, and speculated whether the human brain itself might be ‘an electric pile, constantly in action’.144

Nature held other analogies, too. A late autumn 1828 entry in Davy’s private journals reads: ‘Bees, wasps and various winged insects, which appeared to me to be of the Vesper or Apes families were feeding in almost every flower, their tongues searching the honey. They were all languid, it was a cold evening though the sun was bright, and some of them appeared to me actually to die whilst in the act of feeding on their last meal of ambrosia! Happy beings…‘145 Perhaps he had hoped that something like that might have happened to him at Laibach.

At last Davy reluctantly left the enchantments of Pappina and Illyria, and went to winter in Rome. He felt increasingly weak and ill, but continued to work spasmodically on the final sections of Consolations. In February 1829 he suffered another devastating stroke, and summoned his brother John. John was now working as a military surgeon in Malta, but instantly talked himself aboard a Royal Navy frigate, and rapidly made his way to Naples, and then by horse to Rome.

Convinced that he was dying, Davy had also begged Jane to join him from London. She finally agreed to do so, hoping ‘to arrive not quite useless’, and having been detained for several days by her own doctors. She sent ahead a curiously formal letter, pledging to Davy ‘all the faith and love I have ever borne to you’, but searching in vain for that touch of intimacy or tenderness that had long eluded them both. Its last sentence read: ‘I cannot add more than that your fame is a deposit, and your memory a glory, your life still a hope.’146

But when Jane finally arrived in Rome in early April, she did something which gave Davy immense pleasure. From her chaotic suite of trunks, bags and hatboxes she produced with a flourish the second, expanded and corrected, edition of Salmonia, hot off the press, and with beautiful new steel engravings added throughout. Nothing could have pleased him more, a sort of proof of his literary immortality. He immediately began rereading it.147

Davy continued gallantly to dictate sections of the Consolations to John. Sometimes he was feverish, his pulse rate rising to 150. As in the old days, John took over the dissection of the torpedo fish, and they gently debated whether ‘animal electricity’ was the intrinsic source of its life, or a mere physiological mechanism for paralysing prey or for self-protection. ‘The greater part of the day I sat by his bedside, reading the “Dialogues”, stopping occasionally to discuss particular parts. His mind was wonderfully cheerful and tranquil, and clear, and in a very affectionate and most amiable disposition…He had lost all the irritable feeling to which he was very liable before…It was difficult to conceive such power of mind, when the body was near dissolution: medically it seemed incompatible.’148

At the end of April Davy smelt the spring blowing in over the campagna. He announced that he wished to travel again before he died. John arranged for a slow coach journey northwards towards Switzerland, with many stops to admire the spring countryside and gaze at the rivers and waterfalls. Jane tactfully went ahead to arrange for accommodation in Geneva. On 28 May 1829 Davy arrived at the Hôtel de la Couronne, overlooking the tranquil lake where Byron and Shelley and young Dr Frankenstein had once sailed. He took tea, and gazed down from his window at the sunset. He carefully questioned the Swiss waiter about the varied species of fish that the lake contained. To John, with a wistful smile, ‘he expressed a longing wish to throw a fly’. He took his evening dose of morphine, and John read him to sleep. That night at 3 a.m., Sir Humphry Davy had another stroke and died.

Davy had no children, and left considerable wealth to a nephew, his sister’s boy, Humphry Millett, whom he barely knew. All his scientific papers went to his faithful brother John, though Lady Davy retained family letters and journals. John did not see eye to eye with his sister-in-law, and quickly disappeared back to his adventurous medical career with the army, which took him to the Ionian isles, Ceylon and the West Indies. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, married, and eventually settled at Ambleside in the Lake District, where he became the Wordsworths’ family doctor.

Jane made no attempt to publish anything of Davy’s, or about him, though she dined out for the next twenty years on her amusing tales of ‘dear, great Sir Humphry’. But John, partly encouraged by Wordsworth, worked doggedly on his brother’s papers for more than twenty-five years. He first published a two-volume Life in 1836, hurried out in reply to a hostile anecdotal biography assembled by the voluble J.A. Paris of the Penzance Geological Society (2 vols, 1831). Later John produced a ninevolume Collected Works in 1839-40, with a carefully rewritten Memoir of his brother’s life, attached as a Preface to Volume I. Finally, when settled in the Lakes, he issued a slim but revealing volume of Fragmentary Remains in 1858, which contains much of Davy’s poetry. No other major edition of his papers, letters or journals has so far been produced. Perhaps John’s most intimate tribute was his own book about fishing in the Lake District, The Angler and his Friend (1855).

Sir Humphry Davy’s Will included endowments for a Davy Medal to be administered by the Royal Society; and for the maintenance of Penzance Grammar School, which celebrates a Davy Holiday to this day. The remainder of his estate was left to Jane, except for a bequest of ‘£100 or 1,000 florins’ for Josephine Dettela, daughter of the innkeeper of Laibach, Illyria, Austria. In March 1829, a few weeks before he died, Davy added a codicil leaving Pappina a further £50. Lady Davy was made the sole executor of this Will, a duty she carried out faithfully. Despite the urgings of Walter Scott, she never published her own memoirs, which might have described what it was really like to live with a man of science-who knew he was a genius.

 It might be too much to consider this as Shelley’s tribute to Herschel and his faithful, orbiting assistant Caroline. But it can be said that the view Shelley imagines of the ‘green and azure sphere’ seen from the moon is exactly that enshrined in the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph of December 1968 (see page 161).

 Curiously, vague feelings against Lady Davy have always remained in the collective folk memory of Penzance, probably because she never deigned to visit this remote Cornish seaside town during her lifetime. I was told on several occasions that the large stone statue erected to Davy, dominating Market Jew Street, showed his frock-coat with a missing button ‘because Lady Davy was a bad wife and would never sew it back on’.

 The lively ambiguity of this relationship continues in modern research laboratories, where the line between assistant and collaborator remains easily blurred. A protocol has emerged in the joint signing of scientific papers for journals such as Nature; and in many British universities it is obligatory for a Director of Studies to allow his postgraduate assistants to co-sign research studies. But there are still many anomalies. It is currently the view that Edwin Hubble owed a great deal more to his assistant Milton Humason, a genius with stellar photography, than was originally recognised in his historic papers on red-shift. The examples of William Lawrence with Abernethy, Gay-Lussac with Berthollet, and most of all perhaps, Caroline Herschel with her brother, are even more subtle and complicated.

 The foundation of the Natural History Museum, in South Kensington, was achieved in 1881, and the Science Museum in 1885. The New British Library on Euston Road, opened in 1996, took over the King’s Library, which now forms the central architectural feature of the building, as a huge and dramatic glass bookcase, rising six storeys high through the central core of the building. Curiously, the New British Library fulfils much of Davy’s original vision, containing both science and humanities reading rooms, as well as rare books, maps and manuscripts, and two art galleries with changing displays. Near the main staircase is a bronze bust of Faraday; but none of Davy. In the courtyard is Eduardo Paolozzi’s gigantic statue of Newton (1995), an iron man seated on a plinth, leaning forward to take the measure of the world with his dividers. The image wonderfully combines several contradictory versions of science: a noble Enlightenment Newton, reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker; a satanic, calculating, anti-Romantic Newton, based on William Blake’s engraving of 1797; and finally, more than a hint of Dr Frankenstein’s outcast Creature of 1818.

 ‘Eventually we must sing of greater things.’ The book had run to nine editions by 1883. The French edition, edited by the great Parisian science writer Camille Flammarion, supplied a long and dramatically expressive title: Les derniers Jours d’un Philosophe. Entretiens sur la Nature, les Sciences, les Métamorhphoses de la Terre et du Ciel, l’Humanité, l’Ame, et la Vie eternelle. That certainly covered it.

 What Coleridge actually wrote was this. ‘My opinion is this-that deep Thinking is only attainable by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind…that I believe the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton…Mind in his system is always passive-a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if indeed it be made in God’s Image, and that too in the sublimest sense-the image of the Creator-there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system’ (23 March 1801, Letters, Vol. 2, p.709). This saying of Coleridge’s has a peculiar power to outrage men of science, even modern ones. In November 2000 there was a special day-long seminar organised at the Royal Society by the then President Sir Aaron Klug, on the subject of ‘The Idea of Creativity in the Sciences and the Humanities’. Among its twenty distinguished participants were Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Carl Djerassi, George Steiner, Lisa Jardine and Ian McEwan. This citation from Coleridge proved more contentious than any other single proposition, and eventually goaded an eminent scientist (none of the above) to cry out in exasperation: ‘That is complete and utter balls… We don’t have to put up with such rubbish.’ Equilibrium was restored when it was pointed out that the idea of computing the contents of ‘500 souls’ was possibly Coleridge’s idea of a mathematical joke.

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