Thomas Henry Huxley.

Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley online

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membered that he had always worked at the extreme limit


of his powers the limit, as he used regretfully to say,
imposed on his brain by his other organs and that after
his first breakdown he was never very far from a second.
When this finally came in 1884, his forces were so far spent
that he never expected to recover as he did.

In the marriage this year of his youngest daughter,
Huxley was doomed to experience the momentary little
twinge which will sometimes come to the supporter of an
unpopular principle when he first puts it into practice among
his own belongings.

ATHENAEUM CLUB, Jan. 14, 1889.

MY DEAR HOOKER I have left the x " Archives ' here for
you. I left them on my table by mischance when I came here on
the x day.

I have a piece of family ne\vs for you. My youngest daugh-
ter Ethel is going to marry John Collier.

I have always been a great advocate for the triumph of
common sense and justice in the "Deceased Wife's Sister "
business and only now discover, that I had a sneaking hope
that all of my own daughters would escape that experiment !

They are quite suited to one another and I would not wish
a better match for her. And whatever annoyances and social
pin-pricks may come in Ethel's way, I know nobody less likely
to care about them.

We shall have to go to Norway, I believe, to get the business



In the meantime, my wife (who has been laid up with bron-
chitic cold ever since we came home) and I have had as much
London as we can stand, and are off to-morrow to Eastbourne
again, but to more sheltered quarters.

I hope Lady Hooker and you are thriving. Don't conceal
the news from her, as my wife is always accusing me of doing.
Ever yours, T. H. HUXLEY.


4 MARLBOROUGH PLACE, Jan. 24, 1889.

Many thanks for your kind letter. I have as strong an
affection for Jack as if he were my own son, and I have felt
very keenly the ruin we involuntarily brought upon him by our
poor darling's terrible illness and death. So that if I had not
already done my best to aid and abet other people in disregarding
the disabilities imposed by the present monstrous state of the
law, I should have felt bound to go as far as I could towards
mending his life. Ethel is just suited to him. ... Of course I
could have wished that she should be spared the petty annoy-
ances which she must occasionally expect. But I know of no
one less likely to care for them.

Your Shakespere parable * is charming but I am afraid
it must be put among the endless things that are read in to the
" divine Williams " as the Frenchman called him.

There was no knowledge of the sexes of plants in Shake-
spere's time, barring some vague suggestion about figs and dates.
Even in the i8th century, after Linnaeus, the observations of
Sprengel, who was a man of genius, and first properly explained
the action of insects, were set aside and forgotten.

I take it that Shakespere is really alluding to the " enforced
chastity' of Dian (the moon). The poets ignore that little
Endymion business when they like !

I have recovered in such an extraordinary fashion that I
can plume myself on being an " interesting case," though I am
not going to compete with you in that line. And if you look

* The second part of the latter replies to the question whether
Shakespeare had any notion of the existence of the sexes in plants
and the part played in their fertilisation by insects, which, of course,
would be prevented from visiting them by rainy weather, when he
wrote in the Midsummer Night" 1 s Dream

The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eve,
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.


at the February Nineteenth I hope you will think that my brains
are none the worse. But perhaps that conceited speech is evi-
dence that they are.

We came to town to make the acquaintance of Nettie's
fiance, and I am happy to say the family takes to him. When
it does not take to anybody, it is the worse for that anybody.

So, before long, my house will be empty, and as my wife and
I cannot live in London, I think we shall pitch our tent in East-
bourne. Good Jack offers to give us a pied a tcrre when we
come to town. To-day we are off to Eastbourne again. Carry
off Harry, who is done up from too zealous Hospital work.
However, it is nothing serious.

The following is in reply to a request that he would
write a letter, as he describes it elsewhere, " about the wife's
sister business for the edification of the peers.''

March 12, 1889.

MY DEAR DONNELLY I feel " downright mean," as the
Yankees say, that I have not done for the sake of right and
justice what I am moved to do now that I have a personal in-
terest in the matter of the directest kind ; and I rather expect
that will be thrown in my teeth if my name is at the bottom of
anything I write.

On the other hand, I loathe anonymity. However, we can
take time to consider that point.

Anyhow I will set to work on the concoction of a letter, if
you will supply me with the materials which will enable me to
be thoroughly posted up in the facts.

I have just received your second letter. Pity you could not
stay over yesterday it was very fine. Ever yours very faith-
fully, T. H. HUXLEY.

The letter in question is as follows :

April 30, 1889.

DEAR LORD HARTINGTON I am assured by those who know
more about the political world than I do, that if Lord Salisbury-
would hold his hand and let his party do as they like about the
D.W.S. Bill which is to come on next week, it would pass. Con-
sidering the irritation against the bishops and a certain portion
of the lay peers among a number of people who have the means
of making themselves heard and felt, which is kept up and



aggravated, as time goes on, by the action of the Upper House
in repeatedly snubbing the Lower, about this question, I should
have thought it (from a Conservative point of view) good
policy to heal the sore.

The talk of Class v. Mass is generally mere clap-trap ; but,
in this case, there is really no doubt that a fraction of the Classes
stands in the way of the fulfilment of a very reasonable demand
on the part of the Masses.

A clear-headed man like Lord Salisbury would surely see
this if it were properly pressed on his attention.

I do not presume to say whether it is practicable or con-
venient for the Leader of the Liberal Unionist party to take any
steps in this direction; and I should hardly have ventured to
ask you to take this suggestion into consideration if the in-
terest I have always taken in the D.W.S. Bill had not recently
been quickened by the marriage of one of my daughters as a
Deceased Wife's Sister. I am, etc.

Meantime the effect of Eastbourne, which Sir John
Donnelly had induced him to try, was indeed wonderful.
He found in it the place he had so long been looking for.
References to his health read very differently from those
of previous years. He \valked up Beachy Head regularly
without suffering from any heart symptoms. And though
Beachy Head was not the same thing as the Alps, it made
a very efficient substitute for a while, and it \vas not till
April that the need of change began to make itself felt.
And so he made up his mind to listen no more to the eager
friends who wished him to pitch his tent near them at either
end of Surrey, but to settle dow<n at Eastbourne, and, by
preference, to build a house of the size and on the spot that
suited himself, rather than to take any existing house lower
down in the to\vn. He must have been a trifle irritated by
unsolicited advice when he wrote the following :

It is very odd that people won't give one credit for common
sense. We have tried one winter here, and if we tried another
we should be just as much dependent upon the experience of
longer residents as ever we were. However, as I told X. I was
going to settle matters to-morrow, there won't be any oppor-
tunity for discussing that topic when he comes. If we had taken
W.'s house, somebody would have immediately told us that we


had chosen the dampest site in winter and the stuffiest in sum-
mer, and where, moreover, the sewage has to be pumped up into
the main drain.

He finally decided upon a site on the high ground near
Beachy Head, a little way back from the sea front, at the
corner of the Staveley and Buxton Roads, with a guarantee
from the Duke of Devonshire's agent that no house should
be built at the contiguous end of the adjoining plot of land
in the Buxton Road, a plot which he himself afterwards
bought. The principal rooms were planned for the back of
the house, looking S.W. over open gardens to the long line
of downs which culminate in Beachy Head, but with due
provision against southerly gales and excess of sunshine.

On May 29 the builder's contract was accepted, and for
the rest of the year the progress of the house, which was
designed by his son-in-law, F. W. Waller, afforded a con-
stant interest.

Meantime, with the improvement in his general health,
the old appetite for work returned with increased and un-
wonted zest. For the first time in his life he declares that
he enjoyed the process of writing. As he wrote somewhat
later to his newly married daughter from Eastbourne, where
he had gone again very weary the day after her wedding:
1 Luckily the bishops and clergy won't let me alone, so I
have been able to keep myself pretty well amused in reply-
ing." The work which came to him so easily and pleasur-
ably was the defence of his attitude of agnosticism against
the onslaught made upon it at the previous Church Con-
gress by Dr. Wace, the Principal of King's College, London,
and followed up by articles in the Nineteenth Century from
the pen of Mr. Frederic Harrison and Mr. Laing, the effect
of which upon him he describes to Mr. Knowles on De-
cember 30, 1888:

I have been stirred up to the boiling pitch by Wace, Laing,
and Harrison in re Agnosticism, and I really can't keep the lid
down any longer. Are you minded to admit a goring article
into the February Nineteenth?

As for his health, he adds :


I have amended wonderfully in the course of the last six
weeks, and my doctor tells me I am going to be completely
patched up seams caulked and made seaworthy, so the old hulk
may make another cruise.

We shall see. At any rate I have been able and willing to
write lately, and that is more than I can say for myself for the
first three-quarters of the year.

... I was so pleased to see you were in trouble about your
house. Good for you to have a taste of it for yourself.

To this controversy he contributed four articles ; three
directly in defence of Agnosticism, the fourth on the value
of the underlying question of testimony to the miracu-

The first article, " Agnosticism," appeared in the Febru-
ary number of the Nineteenth Century, No sooner was this
finished than he began a fresh piece of work, " which," he
writes, " is all about miracles, and will be rather amusing."
This, on the " Value of Testimony to the Miraculous," ap-
peared in the following number of the Nineteenth Century.
It did not form part of the controversy on hand, though
it bore indirectly upon the first principles of agnosticism.
The question at issue, he urges, is not the possibility of
miracles, but the evidence to their occurrence, and if from
preconceptions or ignorance the evidence be worthless the
historical reality of the facts attested vanishes. The cardinal
point, then, " is completely, as the author of Robert Elsmere
says, the value of testimony."

The March number also contained replies from Dr. Wace
and Bishop Magee on the main question, and an article by
Mrs. Humphry Ward on a kindred subject to his own,
" The New Reformation." Of these he writes on Febru-
ary 27 :

The Bishop and Wace are hammering away in the Nine-
teenth. Mrs. Ward's article very good, and practically an an-
swer to Wace. Won't I stir them up by and by !

And a few days later:

Mrs. Ward's service consists in her very clear and clever
exposition of critical results and methods.



Feb. 29, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES I have just been delighted with Mrs.
Ward's article. She has swept away the greater part of Wace's
sophistries as a dexterous and strong-wristed housemaid sweeps
away cobwebs with her broom, and saved a lot of time.

What in the world does the Bishop mean by saying that I
have called Christianity " sorry stuff " (p. 370) ? To my knowl-
edge I never so much as thought anything of the kind, let alone
saying it.

I shall challenge him very sharply about this, and if, as I
believe, he has no justification for his statement, my opinion of
him will be very considerably lowered.

Wace has given me a lovely opening by his profession of
belief in the devils going into the swine. I rather hoped I should
get this out of him.

I find people are watching the game with great interest, and
if it should be possible for me to give a little shove to the " New
Reformation " I shall think the fag end of my life well spent.

After all, the reproach made to the English people that " they
care for nothing but religion and politics " is rather to their
credit. In the long run these are the two things that ought to
interest a man more than any others.

I have been much bothered with ear-ache lately, but if all
goes well I will send you a screed by the middle of March.

Snowing hard ! They have had more snow within the last
month than they have known for ten years here. Ever yours
faithfully, T. H. HUXLEY.

He set to work immediately, and within ten day de-
spatched his second contribution, " Agnosticism, a Rejoin-
der," which appeared in the April number of the Nineteenth

On March 3 he writes :

I am possessed by a writing demon, and have pretty well
finished in the rough another article for Knowles, whose mouth
is wide open for it.

And on the Qth :

I sent off another article to Knowles last night a regular
facer for the clericals. You can't think how I enjoy writing
now for the first time in my life.


He writes at greater length to Mr. Knowles :

March 10, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES There's a Divinity that shapes the ends
(of envelopes!) rough-hew them how we will. This time I
went and bought the strongest to be had, and sealed him up
with wax in the shop. I put no note inside, meaning to write
to you afterwards, and then I forgot to do so.

I can't understand Peterborough nohow. However, so far as
the weakness of the flesh would permit me to abstain from smit-
ing him and his brother Amalekite, I have tried to turn the tide
of battle to matters of more importance.

The pith of my article is the proposition that Christ was not
a Christian. I have not ventured to state my thesis exactly in
that form fearing the Editor but, in a mild and proper way,
I flatter myself I have demonstrated it. Really, when I come to
think of the claims made by orthodox Christianity on the one
hand, and of the total absence of foundation for them on the
other, I find it hard to abstain from using a phrase which
shocked me very much when Strauss first applied it to the Resur-
rection, " Welthistorischer Humbug ! '

I don't think I have ever seen the portrait you speak of. I
remember the artist a clever fellow, whose name, of course, I
forget but I do not think I saw his finished work. Some of
these days I will ask to see it.

I was pretty well finished after the wedding, and bolted here
the next day. I am sorry to say I could not get my wife to
come with me. If she does not knock up I shall be pleasantly
surprised. The young couple are flourishing in Paris. I like
what I have seen of him very much.

What is the " Cloister scheme " ? * Recollect how far away
I am from the world, the flesh and the d .

Are you and Mrs. Knowles going to imitate the example of
Eginhard and Emma? What good pictures you will have in
your monastery church ! Ever yours very faithfully,

And again, a few days later :

* It referred to a plan for using the cloisters of Westminster Abbey
to receive the monuments of distinguished men, so as to avoid the
necessity of enlarging the Abbey itself.



March 15, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES I am sending my proof back to Spottis-
woode's. I did not think the MS. would make so much, and I
am afraid it has lengthened in the process of correction.

You have a reader in your printer's office who provides me
with jokes. Last time he corrected, where my MS. spoke of the
pigs as unwilling " porters " of the devils, into " porkers." And
this time, when I, writing about the Lord's Prayer, say " cur-
rent formula," he has it " canting formula." If only Peterbor-
ough had got hold of that ! And I am capable of overlooking
anything in a proof.

You see we have got to big questions now, and if these are
once fairly before the general mind all the King's horses and
all the King's men won't put the orthodox Humpty Dumpty
where he was before. E\er yours very faithfully,


After the article came out he wrote again to Mr.
Knowles :

4 MARLBOROUGH PLACE, N.W., April 14, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES I am going to try and stop here, deso-
late as the house is now all the chicks have flown, for the next
fortnight. Your talk of the inclemency of Torquay is delight-
fully consoling. London has been vile.

I am glad you are going to let Wace have another ; ' go."
My object, as you know, in the whole business has been to rouse
people to think. . . .

Considering that I got named in the House of Commons
last night as an example of a temperate and well-behaved blas-
phemer,* I think I am attaining my object.

Of course I go for a last word, and I am inclined to think
that whatever Wace may say, it may be best to get out of the
region of controversy as far as possible and hammer in two big
nails (!) that the Demonology of Christianity shows that its
founders knew no more about the spiritual world than anybody
else, and (2) that Newman's doctrine of "Development' is
true to an extent of which the Cardinal did not dream.

* In the debate upon the Religious Prosecutions Abolition Bill,
Mr. Addison said "the last article by Professor Huxley in the Nine-
teenth Century showed that opinion was free when it was honestly
expressed." Times, April 14.



I have been reading some of his works lately, and I under-
stand now why Kingsley accused him of growing dishonesty.

After an hour or two of him I began to lose sight of the
distinction between truth and falsehood. Ever yours,


If you are at home any day next week I will look in for a

The controversy was completed by a third article,
' Agnosticism and Christianity," in the June number of the
Nineteenth Century. There was a humorous aspect of this
article which tickled his fancy immensely, for he drove home
his previous arguments by means of an authority whom
his adversaries could not neglect, though he was the last
man they could have expected to see brought up against
them in this connection Cardinal Newman. There is no
better evidence for ancient than for modern miracles, he says
in effect ; let us therefore accept the teachings of the Church
which maintains a continuous tradition on the subject. But
there is a very different conclusion to be drawn from the
same premises ; all may be regarded as equally doubtful, and
so he writes on May 30 to Sir J. Hooker :

By the way, I want you to enjoy my wind-up with Wace in
this month's Nineteenth in the reading as much as I have in
the writing. It's as full of malice * as an egg is full of meat,
and my satisfaction in making Newman my accomplice has been
unutterable. That man is the slipperiest sophist I have
met with. Kingsley was entirely right about him.

Now for peace and quietness till after the next Church
Congress !

Three other letters to Mr. Knowles refer to this article.

4 MARLBOROUGH PLACE, N.W., May 4, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES I am at the end of my London tether,
and we go to Eastbourne (3 Jevington Gardens again) on Mon-

I have been w r orking hard to finish my paper, and shall send
it to you before I go.

* i.e. in the French sense of the word.


I am astonished at its meekness. Being reviled, I revile
not; not an exception, I believe, can be taken to the wording of
one of the venomous paragraphs in which the paper abounds.
And I perceive the truth of a profound reflection I have often
made, that reviling is often morally superior to not reviling.

I give up Peterborough. His " Explanation ' : is neither
straightforward, nor courteous, nor prudent. Of which last
fact, it may be, he will be convinced when he reads my acknowl-
edgment of his favours, which is soft, not with the softness of
the answer which turneth away wrath, but with that of the
pillow which smothered Desdemona. Ever yours very faith-
fully, T. H. HUXLEY.

I shall try to stand an hour or two of the Academy dinner,
and hope it won't knock me up.

4 MARLBOROUGH PLACE, N.W., May 6, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES If I had not gone to the Academy din-
ner I might have kept my promise about sending you my paper
to-day. I indulged in no gastronomic indiscretions, and came
away after H.R.H.'s speech, but I w r as dead beat all yesterday,

We are off to Eastbourne, and I will send the MS. from
there; there is very little to do.

Such a waste ! I shall have to omit a paragraph that was
really a masterpiece.

For who should I come upon in one of the rooms but the
Bishop ! As we shook hands, he asked whether that was before
the fight or after ; and I answered, " A little of both." Then we
spoke our minds pretty plainly ; and then we agreed to bury the

So yesterday I tore up the paragraph. It was so appropriate
I could not even save it up for somebody else ! Ever yours,



May 22, 1889.

MY DEAR KNOWLES I sent back my proof last evening. I
shall be in town Friday afternoon to Monday morning next,
having a lot of things to do. So you may as well let me see
a revise of the whole. Did you not say to me, " sitting by a

* As he says (Coll. Ess. v. 210), this chance meeting ended "a tem-
porary misunderstanding with a man of rare ability, candour, and wit,
for whom I entertained a great liking and no less respect."



sea-coal fire' (I say nothing about a "parcel gilt goblet"),
that this screed was to be the " last word " ? I don't mind how
long it goes on so long as I have the last word. But you must
expect nothing from me for the next three or four months.
We shall be off abroad, not later than the 8th June, and among
the everlasting hills, a fico for your controversies ! Wace's
paper shall be waste paper for me. Oh ! This is a " goak ' :
which Peterborough would not understand.

I think you are right about the wine and water business
I had my doubts but it was too tempting. All the teetotallers
would have been on my side.

There is no more curious example of the influence of educa-
tion than the respect with which this poor bit of conjuring is
regarded. Your genuine pietist would find a mystical sense in
thimblerig. I trust you have properly enjoyed the extracts from
Newman. That a man of his intellect should be brought down
to the utterance of such drivel by Papistry, is one of the strong-
est of arguments against that damnable perverter of mankind,
I know of. Ever yours very faithfully,

1 . rl. riUXLEY.

Shortly afterwards, he received a long and rambling
letter in connection with this subject. Referring to the
passage in the first article, ' the apostolic injunction to
' suffer fools gladly ' should be the rule of life of a true
agnostic," the writer began by begging him u to ' suffer
gladly ' one fool more," and after several pages wound up
with a variation of the same phrase. It being impossible
to give any valid answer to his hypothetical inquiries,
Huxley could not resist the temptation to take the opening
thus offered him, and replied :

SIR I beg leave to acknowledge your letter. I have com-
plied with the request preferred in its opening paragraph.
Faithfully yours, ^ R

Online LibraryThomas Henry HuxleyLife and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley → online text (page 21 of 49)