Science and lucre
David Gelber applauds a meticulous biography of the polymath physician whose global collections of flora and fauna laid the foundations of the British Museum
WHAT Pliny… never conceived the human genius would dare to undertake, we have seen accomplished,’ declared one of Sir Hans Sloane’s eulogists following his death in 1753. Sloane’s name, he predicted, would become ‘immortal’. In a sense, it has: the map of London abounds with streets christened to honour him. But how many residents of Chelsea on their morning trudge across Hans Crescent or through Sloane Square would be able to tell you anything about the man whose life they commemorate?
No one who reads James Delbourgo’s encyclopaedic new biography of Sloane will want for information about the person he artfully calls ‘the most curious man in the world’. Born in Ulster in 1660, Sloane was a marvel of his age—a physician, naturalist, collector and colonist whose fame extended throughout the world. Anyone attempting to chronicle his long life and myriad ventures must have a mind at least as inquisitive as his. In this magnificent book, Prof Delbourgo proves himself a match for his subject.
Sloane trained as a doctor in England and France, but owed his initial success to a fortuitous piece of patronage. In 1687, Christopher, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, was appointed governor of Jamaica and chose Sloane to accompany him as his personal physician. the Duke, Sloane euphemistically wrote, was ‘accustomed by being at court to sitting up late and often being merry’. Much of Sloane’s time on the island was spent tending to the various medical complications that flowed from his master’s appetite for wine.
In spare moments, he gathered local flora and fauna, laying the foundations of a collection that would become the wonder of London and, after his death, led to the establishment of the British Museum.
Albemarle’s lifestyle eventually caught up with him: the numerous bleedings and purges that Sloane prescribed were not enough to save him. In early 1689, a few months after his death, Sloane was sailing back to Britain. the vessel transporting him carried not just the Duke’s embalmed body, but also Sloane’s collection of plants, insects, birds and cacao, not to mention an alligator and a 7ft- long snake that feasted on the ship’s rats.
Sloane never again set foot outside Britain. Instead, he became an armchair imperialist, establishing in his house in Chelsea a microcosm of the British Empire. His marriage in 1695 to Elizabeth Rose Langley, the widow of a Jamaica plantation owner, brought him a sizeable fortune, which he used to acquire items from across the globe. As Britain’s maritime power grew, so too did Sloane’s network of contacts: merchants, missionaries, settlers and pirates were all charged with acquiring new and rare artefacts for his collection.
Prof Delbourgo offers a fascinating analysis of the way Sloane’s activities as a collector dovetailed with his medical practice. ‘Science and lucre,’ he says, ‘went hand in hand.’ At a time when plants and animals were used for a wide variety of treatments, Sloane’s natural-history collection placed him at the forefront of his profession. His internationally sourced pharmacopeia, which included items such as gnats’ blood and beavers’ glands, allowed him to offer novel treatments.
His collection also provided good PR: it advertised his learning and lured new patients to his practice. As his fame grew, he attracted royalty and the cream of London society to his consulting rooms, becoming as much a collector of people as of natural history.
He also stacked up honours, becoming a baronet in 1716, president of the College of Physicians in 1719 and president of the Royal Society in 1727. By then, he was de facto minister of health, overseeing medical experiments, issuing public advice on matters such as breast-feeding and smallpox prophylaxis and formulating regulations for apothecaries.
However, Sloane’s long-term influence on the scientific profession was small. the primary purpose of his collection was empirical: although he published luxuriously illustrated catalogues of his collections, these were descriptive rather than analytical. ‘the list,’ Prof Delbourgo states, ‘was his quintessential literary mode.’
His principal aim was to increase the sum of human knowledge. Beyond that, he sought only to proclaim the glory of God by revealing the order and intricacy of his creation. His philosophical laxity led some to dismiss him as a charlatan: he was lampooned as a collector of ‘pebbles and cockle-shells’ and a ‘master of only scraps’.
If Sloane emerges from this book as an ambiguous figure— as much magpie as magus— it is due to his biographer’s thoroughness in exploring every aspect of his life. Sloane might frown at some of his judgments, but he would, at least, applaud his meticulousness.
Lucy Worsley’s sprightly new biography of Jane Austen, criticised in some quarters for a perceived reliance on a previous Austen biography, offers readers a buoyantly partisan account of the life of one of Britain’s best-loved novelists.
At the outset, Dr Worsley disclaims impartiality: Jane Austen at Home is a celebration of her unabashed admiration for an author she reinvents as a personal heroine and, in a very 21st-century fashion, an icon of female choice, achievement and empowerment. This is not conventional literary biography.
The writer’s close engagement with her subject imparts a degree of liveliness to her text, an effect consolidated by her informal, even colloquial prose style: her reference, for example, to ‘Georgian ladies… going bonkers’ and an uncle fortunate in his inheritance who is described as ‘having won his own game of Legacy Bingo’.
The narrative voice here is remarkably similar to that of Dr Worsley’s many television programmes: refreshing, enthusiastic, determinedly upbeat in contrast to much of Austen’s life, which, even as it survives in patchy remaining sources, contained its frustrations and disappointments, alongside ultimate success as a writer.
‘There are a thousand advantages to be derived from a marriage,’ Austen wrote, ‘besides those inferior ones of rank and Fortune it will procure me a home, which of all other things is what I most desire.’ This statement, with its focus on home, provides Dr Worsley’s inspiration for her retelling of Austen’s life through domestic details and the search for her own private space: her emphasis is consistently on what Austen called the ‘little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends’ and her account is enriched by a discursive contextual element.
There is an exhilarating quality to much of this account, commissioned, like others, to coincide with the bicentenary of Austen’s death. In the long term, Dr Worsley’s biography may not acquire the longevity of less personal accounts, but this does not diminish its pleasure in the short term. Matthew Dennison
‘There is an exhilarating quality to much of this account
Sir Hans Sloane: ‘the most curious man in the world’