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Origin and Descents by John Mathew November 9, 2008

Posted by Jenny Ferng in EWP Book Club.
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This post is not actually mine but belongs to a colleague here in Paris and one of Will’s former classmates, John Mathew, who is a candidate in the history of science at Harvard University. He has written a fictional novel about to be published based on Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and their encounter with India. Most of his material is based on historical archives. I thought this selection of his work reminds us of the quandary that many historians and indeed, many writers of historical fiction inevitably face — can historical novels be capable of good historical study, and can they do justice to their protagonists who are based on real-life scientists? Charles Gillispie in a recent issue of Isis advocated for true faithfulness to historical sources, a lively narrative, and a push for less apparatus, more readibility.

This selection is copyrighted by John Mathew through Apeejay House, Calcutta (Kolkata). Please do not quote or reproduce without permission of the author.

Chapter 1
They tell you there are stars when it happens. Never mind the intervening elements, like branches and leaves, and yes, headstones looming lofty on the hill alongside if you’re lying supine in context. But I don’t remember the stars from the outset. I do remember the leprechaun, however, pirouetting and whirling like a grinning dervish on the grave of Asa Gray, which, my mind informed me, afforded me a current locus in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Then the clouds parted and the stars appeared, braided into a necklace that gleamed off white and all of a sudden there was a throat and a face besides. I blinked and took in lips widening from apprehension to relief.
“You’re not Asa Gray?” I blurted out, then remarked a silent ‘daft one, she’s the wrong sex.’
She shook her head. She didn’t resemble the leprechaun either. And I wasn’t in Mount Auburn Cemetery but on a four-poster bed with the covers back and me in pyjamas that were not familiar. Doubtless there had been an undressing, doubtless a…
She shook her head again, and the smile played with the softest touch of mischief. “Not to worry. It’s all very virginal yet.”
Damn, I thought. Nice accent. English. Thames side. All the same who the dickens was…
“Thelma,” she said, anticipating again. “Cunningham.”
“Oh, er…Jo..”
“I know your name.” That smile again.
“Thank you. I’m flattered. Did you look at my license? Where am I?”
“271 Clarendon Street. Back Bay. Why did you say Asa Gray? Not that I’m surprised.”
“You’re not?”
“Well, considering what you did at O’ Sullivans.
That was it. O’Sullivans was an increasingly yuppie pub in Southie that I visited every year for St. Patty’s. 5 years on the trot and counting. There was a great band this time, lots of Irish fiddle, the inevitable dirge, a call to mind of Danny Boy and progressive inebriation until, until….
“…you stood on the table and declared that you would give your life for three brothers or nine cousins, even if the mathematics was wrong. Then you collapsed and I knew I’d found you.”
“I didn’t recall being lost.” I blinked again and my eyes hardened in some suspicion. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said patiently. “They said you’d gone incommunicado for a bit, that it was natural for you to do so every so often, and that you’d surface eventually with three new papers on punctuated equilibrium. Then your colleague Ahmed Khan, (I grimaced) suggested that I might try O’ Sullivan’s on St. Patrick’s. So I did, and you obliged so magnificently, doing Haldane to the crossed t. I couldn’t have scripted it better. A virtuoso performance, I might add.”
“Why are you looking for me?”
“Because you’re the possible key to the greatest mystery in evolutionary biology, you nitwit.”
Such familiarity! I did a quick mental cost-benefit analysis and realized, not for the first time that in sum, a fetching face was entitled.
“Please elaborate. I gather you’re in the field yourself.”
“I’m a populariser of natural science based out of Oxford. You know, school of Dawkins, although I think he’s stuffy. You haven’t heard of me, not yet anyway, I don’t have any nifty attributed concepts like ‘the selfish gene’ or ‘the extended phenotype’ but I’m getting there. And you’re going to help me.”
“Me?” I blanched, as much as my complexion would allow.
She looked at me archly. “Blyth.”


“So you’re telling me,” I spluttered over the coffee that she had obligingly provided and just as obligingly scalded, “that when I was out for the count, you lied at O’ Sullivan’s that I was with you, hauled me into your car, drove me to your bed and breakfast place, deposited me in the lift, dragged me to your bed, undressed me, put me into pyjamas and left coffee on the boil until I woke up, and all because you wanted to ask me about Edward Blyth?  What in Heaven’s name could have possessed you to go through that rigmarole? Why didn’t you just try the telephone?”
“I did,” she said simply. “And reached Ahmed Khan. He didn’t have your mobile.”
“I don’t have a mobile,” I muttered, then with some lameness, “alright, it’s unlisted.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said briskly. “The point is Blyth. What’s the scoop?”
“Are you a populariser of evolutionary biology or an investigative journalist?” I asked with some suspicion.
“A bit of both,” she said and the necklace seemed to grin. “Are you going to the Black Hole?”
“You mean Calcutta?”
She shrugged.
“Because your history’s wrong. He got there 84 years later.”
“Fine.” The exasperation was evident. “This is what is important, though. Did he get it first?
“Natural selection.”
“Eiseley would like to believe so.”
She snorted. “Oh, come. No one takes Eiseley with any sense of seriousness.”
“Are you baiting me? I do.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“That’s why you’re here.”
“I read your article.”
“I’m surprised. Pleasantly, of course. I thought the Norwich Naturalists’ Newsletter took the cake for obscurity.”
“Here’s the thing. Wallace is in South-East Asia. Bates is off to South America. Darwin’s sitting on this mine of information post the Beagle, and rearing pigeons. And all the while, Blyth is curating animals at the Asiatic Society of Bengal and musing on how selection might work. You said it yourself when you mentioned his paper of 1835.” She rummaged through a stack of papers and came up with one that I recognised immediately. She read aloud, “‘It is a general law of nature for all creatures to propagate the like of themselves: and this extends even to the most trivial minutiae, to the slightest peculiarities; and thus, among ourselves, we see a family likeness transmitted from generation to generation.’”
I raised a hand. “I know what it says. I did quote it after all.”
She stopped me with a glare then continued.
“When two animals are matched together, each remarkable for a certain peculiarity, no matter how trivial, there is also a decided tendency in nature for that peculiarity to increase; and if the produce of these animals be set apart, and only those in which the same peculiarity is most apparent, be selected to breed from, the next generation will possess it in still more remarkable degree; and so on, till at length the variety I designate a breed is formed, which may be very unlike the original type.’ So there.”
“Look, Eiseley himself says this is artificial selection.” I yawned. “He isn’t making that drastic a leap. Everyone who has ever studied Blyth, including his biographers, to whom you should have spoken first, by the way, knows how conservative he was. He believed in the immutability of species, he believed in God and the effect of the environment and locality, he…”
“…paved the way for Darwin’s eventual ideas on sexual selection. You’ve seen the letters, ten in 1855, nine in 1856 and then the dry out. The Mutiny has started and then there is one missive in 1857. Then one in 1858, at which point the colonial is shining through.”
“There you have it. Blyth wasn’t going to do much more than speculate with the greatest circumspection and continue to believe in hierarchies of his time. That’s why he couldn’t be Darwin. Eiseley writes beautifully and he can be persuasive. But so was Arthur Koestler. In ‘The Case of the Midwife Toad’ he almost converted me to Lamarckism.”
“But I thought you said you believed Eiseley,” she said with some accusation.
“My article suggests Blyth may have something there. Oh, alright, I did say as much to you. Fact is, he even wrote to Darwin in 1855 saying that he thought Wallace was on the money on the question of how races become species – it may well have been a driving factor in Darwin’s subsequent haste in publishing ‘The Origin of Species.’ At the very least, what is true is that he had oodles of data, he tried to make some sense of them, and it’s worth an exploration.”
“In the Jewel of the Crown, no less.”
“It’s home,” I answered simply.
“It’s more than that,” she challenged. “You’re obviously not going there simply to make a case for the primacy of India in the history of evolutionary theory, surely.”
I paused. This was the moment I was dreading.
“Do I have your trust?”
She smiled easily. “Sure.”
I inhaled and took my chance.
“It’s the other side of the correspondence, see. What Darwin said. No one knows. But there’s just the possibility it’s squirreled away in the confines of the ASB, in some long forgotten cupboard. And if there’s the slightest chance the letters are there, I’m going to find them.”
“Sweet,” she said and whistled softly.
Something struck me.
“How did you know I was going to Calcutta?”
She laughed.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“How do you mean?”
“You’ve got half the puzzle. You leave your article with the intriguing quotation from Darwin, ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.’” What’s the major piece of the puzzle still shrouded? The India connection. Who is likely to do the sleuthing? By your own admission, a home-turning Indian. And besides,” she added carelessly, “it didn’t hurt to have a little heart-to-heart with the editor of the Norwich Naturalist’s Newsletter.”
“Blanche is a friend,” I protested.
“Silence has its price,” she returned.
I sighed. “What price yours?”
She considered me for a long moment and then reached into her handbag.
“No, thank you.” I held my breath.
The mandatory ring of smoke held the silence. Then she said, “What if I told you I’d just have to come along?”

“Ah.” I thought for a moment, and the cost-benefit analysis came into play again. “More coffee?” she enquired.

And I wondered as I nodded as to whether it really was worth taking my chances with the scalding.


Outside, the rain was falling in sheets. Blyth looked disconsolately through the window upon a road with little traffic. Behind him, the room, small, dark and dank with the steady drip of water through the roof, offered little relief. There was a mouldering carpet on a wooden floor, a small table bearing a multitude of books and papers with a fortitude befitting a beast of burden, and all illumined by a single large candle, casting long shadows along lines and interstices and a row of mounted birds, wide-eyed to the stuffing. Blyth considered one of them – a Himalayan Mountain Quail, and thought about the expedition to China for which he had just been passed over. A cloud of censure from the Asiatic Society of Bengal, made known in 1847 continued to hang and drift over the periphery of his thinking nearly a decade later, and more practically, stood in the way of a raise in his honorarium. Times were decidedly bleak for Edward Blyth in Calcutta.
Turning from his thoughts, he walked to his desk and sat down heavily. He closed his eyes for a moment then opening them, looked at the letter he was composing, already seven pages long. It was one of his chief joys, framing letters to the estimable Mr. Darwin and responding at length to his questions on breeding and domestication. He had met Mr. Darwin before his departure to Calcutta in 1841 and was delighted to hear from him at a time when his immediate circumstances were less than salubrious. Mr. Darwin had taken the long trip with Captain FitzRoy around the world on the Beagle and was possessed of the most wonderful insights on natural history as a consequence. Oh, and his speculations on origins. Delicious. It was a matter of considerable pride to be associating with men of his ilk. “Fodder for the intellect,” he often thought. He missed being in the company of clubbable men.
“My Dear Sir,” he read aloud. A slight smile played about his lips as he skimmed the pages he had penned, and when he came to the end, dipped his quill in ink and resumed his writing.


“Poor Blyth,” Darwin murmured. He was standing by the hearth, his back to the fire, and reading a letter aloud to his friend Joseph Hooker, botanist and son of the Keeper of Kew Gardens, Sir William. “You remember what I said to you of him when you went to India?”
Hooker smiled, “Almost verbatim.”
Darwin raised an eyebrow then permitted himself a delicate, “oh?”
“Did you see Mr. Blyth in Calcutta; he would be a capital man to tell you what is known about Indian zoology, at least in the Vertebrata; he is a very clever, odd, wild fellow who will never do, what he could do, from not sticking to any one subject.”
Darwin clapped, very slowly. “My dear Hooker, you never cease to amaze. However did you remember that so well?
“On account of the fact that I was struck by an assessment that proved to be accurate in the extreme. When we met, I could not but remark to myself what a nervous bundle of energy he was, writing papers on a host of organisms, now cranes, now dogs, now reptiles, and directing field naturalists of no mean stature themselves, guiding, cajoling, even arguing. The arguing is really…”
“what is and will be his undoing,” said Darwin, then stopped in some embarrassment. To interrupt someone else’s train of thought was uncharacteristic for him, even impolite. “Forgive me. I spoke out of turn. You were saying.”
Hooker shook his head and smiled. “As Blyth might put it, n’importe.”
The men laughed. “It’s true,” Darwin mused, “he does enjoy peppering his efforts with French, does he not?” A shadow passed over his face. “Oh, but his altercations with the establishment can only be to his misfortune. Listen to this:
“If I meet with any more unworthy opposition from the old quarter (that medical clique who have uniformly opposed me always), I certainly shall not mince matters at all; but republish and circulate widely, to the discredit of the Asiatic Society, a correspondence on the subject which passed about 10 years ago, respecting which our present Secretary who has just read it, writes me word that he thinks the conduct of the Council then to me was ‘most illiberal and narrow-minded.’”
“Ah,” said Hooker.
“This was approximately at the time when you met, I recall.”
“There were rumblings then, yes. Is he merely seeking a sympathetic ear now, or is there aught else.”
“He has sent me a copy of the letter he has circulated. I gather he seeks my assistance.”
“To gain an increase in his pension?”
“Among other things. The good man is obviously in dire need of like-minds. I wish for his sake he could benefit from such company as we enjoy at the Royal Society, but I cannot but confess that his presence in India is fundamental to the explication of the race question. It is altogether vexing.
“What will you do?” Hooker enquired.
Darwin regarded his friend, then turned to the fire as he considered the question. “I shall do whatever is in my power to help, Hooker. Edward Blyth has been invaluable. He deserves nothing less.”



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