Peter Raby, who has biographies of Samuel Butler and Oscar Wilde to his credit, does not set out an explicit theme for this book, in which he strings together mini-biographies of Darwin and Alfred Wallace, the co- founders of evolution by natural selection, with a host of lesser lights. But the implicit one is an examination of explorers driven primarily by the quest for knowledge, as opposed to the Stanleys, Burtons and Bakers who went into the unknown for personal fame and fortune.
After three recent massive biographies of Darwin, there is nothing more to be said on the voyage of the Beagle and its aftermath but, in the spirit of John Cage, Raby says it anyway. Wallace is a different case. He badly needs a good modern biography, and there are many signs that Raby would like to have written it. Perhaps he should have noted the view of Frank Harris of My Life and Loves fame. Harris was a notorious liar who specialised in denigrating the famous. But he knew everyone, so when he says that Wallace was by far the greatest genius he ever met, it is worth taking notice.
The author spends a lot of time on people whose claims to be included are dubious. Mungo Park, though trained as a physician, scarcely qualifies as a scientific explorer; it is stretching a point to put the redoubtable Mary Kingsley in this category; even odder is a 16-page description of Richard Lander's explorations in West Africa, for Lander had no scientific credentials at all.
It soon becomes clear that when Raby says "scientist" he means "naturalist". Hence the eccentric decision to write about the Amazonian adventures of Richard Spruce rather than his far more important contemporary Louis Agassiz. The unresolved confusion between "scientist' and "naturalist" is compounded by a failure to distinguish the explorer proper from the traveller who traverses charted territory "because it's there". Wallace has genuine claims as an explorer, but most of Raby's chosen crew were travellers, while the timorous Darwin, who was too frightened to appear in person at the famous 1860 Oxford debate, was little more than a scientific tourist.
What we are left with, then, is an inconsequential farrago of travellers' tales. Even in his chosen area Raby has failed to consult many fundamental works and key monographs. And his judgements seem wildly eccentric, particularly in the final chapter which yokes together Conrad, Stevenson, Rider Haggard and Buchan and appears to have wandered in from an entirely different book.
Readers who know nothing whatever about 19th-century exploration might find this book useful. But for those with even a nodding acquaintance it will appear a decidedly rum concoction.
Frank McLynnReuse content