‘Cynthia! Can’t you take up a book and improve yourself? . . . There was some French book that Molly was reading – Le Règne Animal. I think.’ Thus Mrs Gibson, snobbish, ignorant and petulant, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, published in 1864–6 but set in the period ‘before the passing of the Reform Bill’.
The first edition of Cuvier’s great work was published in 1817 (in four volumes) and the second (in five) in 1829–30: it was regarded as both comprehensive and authoritative. We have just reissued an English version in sixteen volumes published between 1827 and 1835 – ‘version’ is the right word, I think, because although much of the work is a direct translation of Cuvier’s text, the editor and his translators have, as they put it, added ‘descriptions of all the species hitherto named, and of many not before noticed’.
As with our Buffon bird books, one of the glories of this edition is the illustrations – hundreds of line engravings, from a variety of sources (some of them based on the sketches of the original discoverers of alleged new species). Many are magnificent – the lion and tiger in Volume 2 especially – though some are less so: for example, it seems unlikely that the polar bear with the dog-like muzzle and eyes was drawn from life. Some of the most striking are the fish and insects – the latter nightmare constructions of armour plates and jointed, bristling limbs and antennae. The plates of shells are also a delight, the engravings bringing out the fine detail of whorls and striations.
Among the birds described are the supercilious owl (difficult to imagine any creature more supercilious that the one in the picture), the changeable pheasant, the commanding bunting, the singed grous [sic], and the cinereous boat-bill, who has a mullet like the young Mel Gibson and an engaging smile. The crested shrike is alleged (though not by me) to share a hairstyle with one of my colleagues. There is indeed a slight sense of anthropomorphism about many of the plates: all the parrots are smiley, and many of the small furry mammals would not be out of place on a ‘cutest-ever’ website.
Baron Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), created pair de France in 1819 in recognition of his work, was perhaps the most important European biologist of his day. The English version, however, was produced by an enthusiastic amateur, the solicitor Edward Griffith (1790–1858), who recruited a team of specialists to assist with the different classes. The first four volumes deal with mammals; there is an overview of the mammal and reptile classes, then three volumes on birds. There is one on reptiles (and amphibians), one on fish, two on insects, one on arachnids and crustacea, one on mollusca and radiata, and an index to the entire series. But possibly the most significant volume in terms of the history of science is Volume 11, which considers fossil animal remains and compares their anatomy with that of contemporary animals. (Cuvier himself gave names to the fossil mammals mastodon and megatherium.)
The other striking feature of the work is that Volume 1 begins (after an introduction to the ‘rise and progress of zoology’) with ‘The first order of the mammalia: the Bimana, or Man’. This section is intended to offer ‘everything peculiar in the organization of man amid all he shares in common with the other mammalia’, as well as ‘the principal varieties of the human race and their distinctive character’ (illustrated with colour images – see these here, under ‘Resources available’ ) and the ‘physical and moral development of Man’: lots of food for thought here, especially the remark that there are ‘intrinsic and almost constitutional obstacles which appear to arrest the progress of certain races of mankind even in the very midst of circumstances the most favourable to improvement’, and the subsequent eulogy to the ‘extensive and powerful branch of the Caucasian race’, which may ‘be placed with justice in the foremost rank of the sons of men’. . .
Descriptions of the animals include their habitat – ‘The meeting with the Namaqua grous is a happy omen for the thirsty traveller amid the burning plains and sandy billows of the South African deserts’ – but also, and rather more distressingly to modern sensibilities, their eating qualities. The Trinidad goatsucker has a disagreeable fishy smell, but ‘when dressed, they look like a round lump of fat … with a flavour and lusciousness peculiarly its own’; the amateur taxidermist is however warned that the bird presents a challenge, ‘as the skin adheres with uncommon closeness and tenacity to the granular fat, which every where covers the body, and which liquefies under the touch’. Learning that yellow wagtails are ‘not even much distrustful of fire-arms, for, on being aimed at, they do not fly far, and frequently return and place themselves within a short distance of the fowler’, reminds us of the equally gung-ho ‘hunt, shoot and stuff’ approach of the youthful Banks or Darwin.
But is it ‘good science’? Cuvier’s studies had in fact convinced him that the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and St Hilaire were wrong, and his influence on the scientific world was such that his discounting of the possibility of evolution was reason enough for many scholars both before and after Darwin to discount it likewise. And the English version was, by the time of the appearance of the later volumes, of less importance to the increasingly professionalised scientific community, which had come to grips with the work in its original language; while for a more amateur readership, the size of the work, and the uncertainty as to what was Cuvier and what wasn’t, may have been off-putting. So the enterprise of Edward Griffith and his team may in some senses have been a heroic failure, but the sheer scale of the undertaking, the engaging illustrations and the quirkiness of some of the descriptions make the work eminently browsable today, as well as providing huge amounts of information on the naming, organising and classifying of the Animal Kingdom at the beginning of the Age of Science.