What particular event in history would you like to have attended? My choices would be the first night of the Marriage of Figaro or of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Though had I been at the latter, would I have been able to make more of the apparent cacophony than anyone else? Probably not.) Or perhaps upstairs in Hatchard’s bookshop on Piccadilly when the first meeting of the Horticultural Society was held?
I would imagine that many biologists would opt for having been present at the meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858 when Lyell and Hooker presented Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers, or at the British Association meeting at Oxford on 30 June 1860 when Wilberforce and Huxley clashed. But earlier than that, there was the Ray Commemoration dinner on 29 November 1828, celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of the great naturalist. Leonard Jenyns (1800–93) was there, and noted among the distinguished company Davies Gilbert (presiding), with Kirby, Henslow and Buckland as his own immediate neighbours. (Almost as good as being at the White House when Thomas Jefferson dined alone…)
Jenyns’s delightful Chapters in My Life is not so much autobiography as anecdotage. It was originally privately printed for his friends, but when he ran out of copies, he added an ‘appendix’ which is in fact considerably longer than the original pamphlet, and published it in Bath in 1889.
Jenyns is perhaps most famous for what he didn’t do than for what he did. ‘I hesitated; and, after a full day taken to consider my decision, I also declined, as well on account of my being engaged in parish work … as on account of my judging that I was not exactly the right person, either in point of health or other qualifications, to offer myself for the situation.’ The situation was that of naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle. Jenyns was the second person to be offered the post, after Henslow (who declined because of his family responsibilities), and they both agreed that Charles Darwin would be a promising third choice.
This was not the only occasion on which Jenyns declined to make an important career move. Over thirty years later, Professor Sedgwick (with outriders) went over from Cambridge to Jenyns’s vicarage at Swaffam Bulbeck to offer him the newly created chair of zoology at the university, for which he was eminently qualified. This time, again, he refused, because ‘I should have to give up so much of my professional work as a clergyman, if not to give up residence in my parish altogether, which I did not consider right.’ And he is sure that the university ‘was not a loser by my holding back from acceptance of the offer so liberally made to me’.
This anecdote is followed by another. Attending the service in St John’s College chapel, the much younger Jenyns was called upon to read the lesson, the scholar whose duty it should have been not having turned up. The lesson was from the Book of Ruth, which ‘is not easily turned to in a moment, unless the reader is well up in the arrangement of the several books of the Old Testament, which I was not at that early period in my life… I got flurried, and after vainly turning the leaves backwards and forwards without success, sat down and hid my face in my hands, not daring to look up until I heard the Dean reading the lesson in my stead. At very few times in after life did I ever feel so thoroughly ashamed of myself as on that occasion.’
The self-deprecating style in which the memoir is written conceals the fact that Jenyns was a competent and well regarded naturalist. A solitary child (nicknamed ‘Methodist’ or ‘Dummy’ by school bullies) he made collections of insect and molluscs, and was also fascinated by chemistry. At school, he manufactured coal gas to light his room, and was introduced to the then elderly Sir Joseph Banks at one of his famous Sunday soirées as the ‘Eton boy who lit his room with gas’. (In the same company, he also met John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Thomas Young.)
However, his chemistry experiments were brought to a close when he arrived at Cambridge (health and safety, no doubt), and once he had met John Stevens Henslow (of the same college, though four years his senior), his fate was sealed: ‘I gave myself up entirely, in companionship with him, to Entomology, Conchology, and Botany.’
There is a list at the end of the book of learned societies of which Jenyns was a member (he was an original member of the Zoological Society, the Entomological Society and the Ray Society), and a list of his journal publications. His books are briefly described earlier. He was working on his Manual of British Vertebrate Animals (published 1836) when ‘Darwin urgently pressed me to undertake the description of his fishes, which he said he could get no one else to do.’ Although he claims to have known virtually nothing about fishes, ‘Regard for my old friend, and the interest I took in all the valuable results of his celebrated voyage, induced me to comply.’ Using the resources of the Cambridge University Library, especially Cuvier’s Histoire des poissons, he set to work, and the resulting volume was published in 1842.
He also published Observations in Natural History (1846), and Observations in Meteorology (1858), as well as a memoir of his mentor, friend and brother-in-law Henslow, after the latter’s death in 1861. At Eton, he had borrowed Gilbert White’s Selborne from a fellow pupil, was instantly enchanted: ‘under the apprehension that I might never see the book again, I copied out nearly the whole of it’, little thinking at the time that in 1843 he would publish his own edition. In 1874, he visited The Wakes, then occupied by a Mr Bell, and was shown the rooms and the White relics. ‘I have never had a more pleasant time than the three days I spent at that classical spot … I sat in his own armchair … put on his own spectacles (glasses, however, broken) … I visited his grave in the churchyard, where stands the venerable large yew tree he speaks of…’.
This book, full of humorous (but never malicious) stories about the scientific giants of his age, and his musings about the role of the church, the political world, and the possibility of an after-life, show Jenyns as a thoughtful and charming person. At the end of his story of the visit to Selborne, he recalls having met a very old man who in his youth had met White. ‘On asking him what sort of a man White was – as to height, figure, and general appearance – he answered, to my great amusement, “O, much such as you are”.’ I think he probably was.