THE HEYDAY OF NATURAL HISTORY by Lynn Barber

THE HEYDAY OF NATURAL HISTORY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

High marks to Lynn Barber for her wry, scholarly treatment of those proper Victorians who pursued nature with pious enthusiasm, finding ""sermons in stone, and good in everything."" Innumerable clergymen and Christian gentlewomen penned enormously popular volumes stressing Design in Nature and Divine Providence, while extolling the virtues of collecting ferns and fungi, flowers and feathers. Thus the first half of the 19th century gave birth to fads which saw the middle classes (and the lower classes, my dear!) take to fen and bog, seashore or rock strata, while at home they fashioned bottle gardens and stocked aquaria. Barber, a British journalist, sets just the right tone of gentle, knowing mockery to make this a delightful addendum to Victoriana. She also moves on, however, to the changes wrought by ideas of evolution and uniformitarianism by midcentury--which culminated in a dissolution of the innocent (but self-righteous) amateurism of the earlier period, and pointed the way toward the establishment of biology as a science. Among the eminent we meet are Linnaeus (coyly classifying flowers by their sexual parts: ""Twenty males in the same bed with the female""), Lamarck, Cuvier, Richard Owen, Agassiz, Gosse, and Audubon--as well as such lesser-knowns as Hugh Miller, a self-educated stone mason and geologist/ fossil-collector. (The chapter on Philip Gosse is an interesting corrective to son Edmund's harsh portrait in Father and Son.) Finally the great dissenters appear for the denouement: Darwin, Wallace, Huxley. While Barber breaks no new ground here, her profiles are in keeping with current, accepted interpretations of the personalities and the intellectual history. Not the least of the book's many charms are its fine illustrations: portraits, color plates, and cartoons satirizing the times.

Pub Date: March 20th, 1981
Publisher: Doubleday