Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

A Man of the Time: Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace
and His Coming Autobiography (S743: 1905)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by 'J. M.' printed in the May 1905 number of The Book Monthly. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 545]] Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace is writing his autobiography, and its interest may find some herald in the present talk which took place with him the other afternoon, at his home down in Dorset.

    There, where the pine trees and the heather are neighbours to the sea, he passes full days, for, although he is eighty and two years older, he has the energy and the spirits of youth. He is not only living his life over again in his reminiscences as he writes them down, but he is adding to its activities by following closely and cheerily the day's work of the world. When he looks out of his study window in the morning it is to see the Purbeck Hills in the distance and the gleam of the sea still further away. Beside him are his books and his papers, telling eloquently, if quietly, what a busy, fruitful career his has been, and how much he has achieved in it.

    It was not to speak of that, however, that I went to see him, for Dr. Russel Wallace finds other people and other things much more interesting than himself, and it was only now and then that his own personality crept, so to speak, into view. The phrase "a dreamer of dreams" has been applied to more than one great man; and you can read it in the blue, thoughtful eyes of this veteran, who, before most of us began life, was dragging nature's secrets from her on the Amazon and in the islands of far Malaya.

    "Yes," he said, and here the charm and simplicity of the man came out in a sentence; "Yes, I think the most fortunate thing that happened to me was the loss, by the burning of the ship that carried them, of many of the specimens as they were coming home from the Amazon. Otherwise I should have gone back there, where Bates had been working for years, while as the result of this accident I went to the Malay Archipelago, a perfectly virgin country, which hardly any naturalist had then properly explored. My experiences in the Far East were of singular interest to me, and I look back upon them as standing for probably the best part of my life."

    [[p. 546]] Now how many people would give this blithe, radiant history of an incident which meant the loss of the results of much valuable work? It was the same when Dr. Russel Wallace went on to speak of Charles Darwin and of that extraordinary drama of science, their simultaneous discovery, for so it may well be called, of the great theory of Natural Selection.

    "What Darwin's surprise must have been," said Dr. Russel Wallace, "when he got my paper on Natural Selection it is easy to understand, for he had long, as I thereupon learned, been developing the identical theory. Sir Charles Lyell said to him, 'Well, I warned you that somebody would get hold of the idea and bring it out, and now here, you see, Wallace has been working on the same lines as yourself.' Darwin's intention had been to set the thing out thoroughly in a large book which would have taken years to write, and which might, in conception, be compared to Spencer's system of philosophy. He modified that plan by preparing 'The Origin of Species'--for which he had an immense deal of material to draw upon--the great book of the nineteenth century, the book most far-reaching in its consequences on the thought and knowledge of the world.

    "Many people have asked me if I was not a little disappointed to find that Darwin had anticipated me, because he had his materials gathered and ready? For that very reason I was not disappointed. I felt that while I could only have written a slight volume, he was able to launch the discovery backed, first, by a mass of carefully compiled evidence, and secondly, by his already very high reputation as a naturalist. Everything was for the best, as perhaps it usually is. All this, indeed, only brought Darwin and myself closer as friends, and in our respective work we criticised each other faithfully as friends should. There were several special points upon which we could not agree, and upon which we stubbornly held our own views. This thought pained him, and the melancholy way in which he spoke of it in some of his letters was most amusing."

    So much for a chapter in the history of thought, and now for Dr. Russel Wallace's memory of Charles Darwin the man, with a word on Herbert Spencer.1

    "A delightful man." That is how he summed up Darwin. "He had a vast deal of natural humour, which brimmed over in his conversation and in his private writings making both so interesting. No doubt the two greatest men I have known were Darwin, the naturalist, and Spencer, the philosopher. A rather tragic fact which linked them was this: they were both confirmed invalids, an infliction hard to bear. [[p. 547]] Darwin saw few people, because conversation, at all events when it became debate, was apt to bring on his stomach trouble. Spencer, again, suffered from chronic insomnia. His extreme argumentativeness, as he says in his autobiography, was one of his great faults. Naturally, however, that was not noticeable when he was with men of his own calibre, like Huxley or Tyndall.2 Spencer was very musical, and he sometimes played the flute; accordingly, though he lived in boarding-houses and thus among a lot of commonplace people, he said the life suited him well enough. What he meant, I suppose, was that it was rest and change to his intellect."

    From science and the high road which Dr. Russel Wallace has trodden so ardently, we turned to the other one of literature and to Tennyson, also a seer into the future.

    "I have not," remarked Dr. Russel Wallace, "known many great literary men, because I was away so many years, and because, for the rest, I have been so closely occupied with my own special work. But while I was living at Godalming I paid a visit to Tennyson, whose Surrey home was not far off, and we had a most delightful hour or so together. He wanted to see and talk to me about Spiritualism. He was practically a Spiritualist, as his writings show, and he wished to hear of my personal experiences in the matter.

    "After luncheon, when he had lighted his pipe, we talked at considerable length. His poetry, as it seems to me, shows a wonderful insight into science--he had the seeing eye, the vision into the beyond. 'In Memoriam' is a marvellous poem, both for beauty of feeling and the wonderful scientific anticipations which it voices. We talked almost wholly of Spiritualism, and he spoke of trying to see something himself, but we did, for a little while, drift to another subject.

    "As you will remember, there is in 'Enoch Arden' a description of the paradise of the Tropics, and Tennyson was curious to know if the local colour was correct. I was able to say that it was perfectly correct.

    "Another case of this power of grasping local conditions by intuition occurred to me when I read of the death of my namesake, General Lew Wallace. His 'Ben Hur' has all the glow of the East in its pages, and yet when he wrote it he had never been there. A third case which one might mention occurs in a story by Charles Reade. It gives a most realistic description of life on the Australian gold fields a full half-century ago. Reade was never there, he knew nothing from actual experience, and, as he explained, he got the local colour [[p. 548]] from a book, never very well known and now, I suppose, wholly forgotten, which was written by William Howitt3 under, I think, the title 'Land, Labour, and Gold.'"

    Here we had been speaking of men who possessed in an eminent degree what Dr. Russel Wallace, making some allusion to his own autobiography, called the faculty of language.

    "I never had it," he said, "and the setting down of these reminiscences has very much confirmed me in the belief. What I mean, of course, is not that I have any difficulty in writing what I want to say, but that, for example, I can never recall the words of a conversation. And that is a real charm in biography and autobiography,--the gift of reproducing a conversation, not necessarily as it took place, but in a life-like fashion. I can't do it, and so it is a relief to me to be able to draw upon the letters and other accumulated materials which I have had lying beside me. I never kept a journal except when abroad, but I constantly wrote to my friends at home; and these letters, as I have been going over them, tell very freshly the story of my doings in various quarters of the globe. But I would have liked, if only for this present task of mine, to have had the faculty of language. Huxley had it in a high degree, Darwin not so much. With Dickens, as the most casual reader of him discovers, it was part of his genius."

    As the name of Dickens thus came up, Dr. Russel Wallace went on to express his admiration of his books.

    "I can," he said, "read him again and again, and I cannot do that with Thackeray. Charlotte Bronte is another favourite author of mine, and I have a real regard for some of Miss Braddon's4 stories. Might I speak as highly as one can of 'The Silence of Dean Maitland'5 and of the same author's other book, 'His Last Sentence.' These have struck me as two of the most remarkable books of recent years, and the second I think even finer than the other. People seem to grumble about the state of our literature, but I cannot myself see much reason in that attitude. True, we have not the great lights of a generation or two ago, no Scott, no Dickens. Still we have our lights, and I should doubt if at any time the quality of English literature, speaking generally, has been higher. The amount of clever new work that comes out is perfectly surprising. What I am really afraid about is that those who write good books do not always get adequate recognition. Some years back there appeared Mr. W. H. Hudson's work 'A Naturalist in La Plata.' It was widely read, I believe, but that [[p. 549]] was a finer work than Darwin's 'Voyage of the Beagle' or my own 'Malay Archipelago.' I suppose we all have our discouragements, for I always remember the experience of my first book, 'Travels on the Amazon,' which was published in 1853. We printed 750 copies, and between the time that it appeared and the time of my return from the Far East, we had sold--how many do you think?--five hundred. However, the book in a cheaper edition still sells, which proves, I take it, that it requires a name to make an average book sell."

    Dr. Russel Wallace has gratitude for the Tropics as well as praise. "I was," he casually remarked, "excessively delicate as a child, so delicate that I was despaired of on three occasions during my early years. Here I am, you see, at eighty-two fairly well, all things considered, and still capable of doing a little work. I lived for twelve years in the best portions of the glorious Tropical climate--those near the Equator--with the sun and the sky, the wind and nature, always about me, and it was then, I do not doubt, that I laid up the store of health which is not yet, I am glad to say, exhausted."

    The colour of the Tropics will indeed be in the coming autobiography, which everybody will read, as everybody will wish that its author may long be spared to us.

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Editor's Notes

1Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English sociologist and philosopher.
2Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), English biologist and philosopher, and John Tyndall (1820-1893), Irish physicist.
3William Howitt (1792-1879), English writer.
4Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837-1915).
5by Maxwell Gray, pseudonym of Mary Gleed Tuttiett (1847-1923)

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