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Looking into the Mind of God

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On one side spiritual freedom and truth, reason and culture, evolution and progress stand under the bright banner of science; on the other side, under the black flag of hierarchy, stand spiritual slavery and falsehood, irrationality and barbarism, superstition and retrogression.
Ernst Haeckel*


Looking into the Mind of God

(Middlemarch, winter 1829–30)

The dark slates underfoot drank up the light, making the uneven ranks of specimen jars seem to float in the pools of candlelight whose yellow cast lent a lifelike tinge to their pallid cargoes. A sensitive soul could almost imagine that the bats and field mice the flickering beams picked out were still drowning, years after their deaths, were it not for the enveloping smell of spirit alcohol, catching at the back of the throat. Mr Farebrother picked up his pipe and occupied himself with overlaying the odour with the sweeter scent of tobacco. Once the stillroom of the old vicarage, the study was no cosy bachelor's parlour, especially in the winter months, but Farebrother had intuited that his new friend Mr Lydgate disliked his mother's sermons, though he was far too well bred ever to voice his boredom, and there was no other refuge in the house.

The doctor's back was turned; his tall form stooped, he was examining Farebrother's latest acquisition, a rare Bechstein's bat, by the light of the fire. 'I wonder sometimes if the lesser Mammalia might hold a clue to my puzzle,' he began.

'They would certainly be simpler to obtain!' said Farebrother, settling into an armchair beside the fire. 'If your lodgings adhere to the Middlemarch average, I dare say you might acquire five species of bat alone for comparative studies without leaving the house – though not my little Myotis bechsteinii there, he's no town dweller.'

'For if the mammalian embryo exhibits a tail and vestigial gills,' Lydgate continued, so caught up in the train of his thoughts that he hardly heard his companion, 'as von Baer demonstrates, then who knows whether, under the appropriate stimulus' – and he was recalling his galvanic experiments of the previous year – 'a feline embryo might develop the hooves of a pig, or a pig might sprout the wings of a bat!'

The young doctor flourished the specimen jar he still held a little too vigorously upon the last words, and the ensuing sound of liquid sloshing recalled him abruptly from grandiose dreams; if truth be told, he was anticipating that golden age when the name of Lydgate would be entered into the pantheon of anatomists alongside his two heroes, Vesalius and Bichat. Fearful of having damaged his friend's prize, he set the glass pot back in its place amidst its fellow Chiropterans with ostentious care, then brushed away the dust from the shelf that marred his perfectly tailored sleeve with a fleeting expression of distaste (so fleeting, indeed, that he might not even have been aware that his face had betrayed it).

'Ah, I must apologise for the liberal coat of dust,' said Farebrother, whose anxiety for the safety of his precious specimen had not blinded him to his friend's quick grimace. 'My mother holds the opinion that the preservation of specimens is both unnatural and ungodly, and will permit neither her sister nor mine to enter the room.'

Lydgate was idly pulling open one drawer after another of Farebrother's extensive Coleoptera collection. 'And your servant probably runs screaming,' he said, eyeing a tray of monstrous-jawed stag beetles.

The vicarage of St Botolph's had, in point of fact, lacked the services of a maid for several years, but as the Vicar was enjoined to secrecy on this subject by the distaff branch of his family, he merely assented.

'I believe the good burghers of Middlemarch consider me a veritable ghoul for my anatomical interests,' said Lydgate. 'Some of them, I'm sure, actually think that the New Hospital was established with no other purpose than to poison them in their beds, and cut them open from sternum to pubis whilst they're still warm!'

'Come, Lydgate, you cannot expect minds lacking in all the benefits of a Paris education to think as you do on the question of post-mortem dissection! At least not where it comes to those Middlemarchers of their acquaintance.'

'I note you say as you do! What do you think on the Warburton bill?'

The doctor referred, of course, to the Anatomy Act lately rejected by Parliament, which would have allowed those sharing the disposition of Mrs Shelley's scientist to pursue their enquiries upon the earthly remnants of the poor without recourse to the services of Messrs Burke and Hare. As the bill's champions included in their ranks such august personages as Mr Bentham, Mr Farebrother's opinion could scarcely be held to be of any consequence.

'I'm by no means qualified to pronounce,' he said, 'but when one has given the last rites as many times as I have, one knows as a fact, not as a supposition, that the soul does not linger in the body after death.'

'I fear the soul lies beyond the compass of science, beyond my compass.' Lydgate was striding restlessly about the room, his boots drumming an accompaniment to his words upon the stone floor. 'I will strive to support the body while it lingers to the best of those abilities that God has given me—but after the body is dead it is dead! To my mind, it no more matters whether it is subsequently dissected than whether it is buried with all ceremony or burned as the ancients did!'

Fortunately for the continuation of their friendship, Farebrother was an agnostic on the vexed question of whether the corpus integrum was actually essential to the bodily resurrection, holding with his habitual pragmatism that the God who could raise the dead might certainly reassemble a few earthly organs. He only said mildly, 'It might matter to the surviving relatives.'

'I suppose so,' Lydgate admitted. 'But if they could only be made to understand how important it could be for underpinning this shaky edifice we call medicine with a true, scientific, understanding! The post-mortem examination need not be irreverent – in fact, I would see it as an act of worship. Do you know, Farebrother,' he said, and at last he ceased his pacing, 'when a chink opens and I get a glimpse of what the primitive tissue might consist of, I feel as if I'm looking into the mind of God himself. I suppose you think that blasphemy?'

'No, not blasphemy. The firmament sheweth his handiwork. When I look at the perfection of the mouthparts of a beetle, or the web of a spider, I feel closer to God than I ever do in the pulpit.' Farebrother let out his quick laugh. 'I suppose that makes me a poor preacher.'

'I must come to hear you sometime, and judge for myself,' replied Lydgate. 'But for now I must take my leave. If I'm to make a fellow of the Royal Society before I am thirty,' he said, rendering into jest that thing dearest to his heart, as men are apt to do, 'then I must get back to my microscope!'

Now Lowick Gate lay on the path between St Botolph's and his lodgings – or if not on the direct path it must have been but a short step away. For Lydgate did chance to step that way that brisk winter evening, and the drawing-room curtains of a certain townhouse chanced to be still unclosed, the evening yet being young, and the daughter of the house chanced to be standing at the window, a radiant portrait against the black brickwork. A happy light illumed her long white neck and perfect features, and made a soft halo of her curls, but Rosamond was blind to the appearance she presented. To Lydgate, his imagination kindled by the high tone of his earlier thoughts, she seemed a butterfly blindly battering against the glass: soft, fragile, helpless. Microscope forgotten, hardly knowing what he did, he bent his blind steps within.

Thus it was that the young doctor was vouchsafed a vision, but whether it emanated from the heavenly spheres or from some other place only the passage of time and the pattern of events can inform.


In the Garden

(London, summer 1839)

The room was full of roses. Blush-pink damasks were doubled in the great gilt mirror above the fireplace, crinkled gallicas stood on the chiffonière, icy albas beside the sofa, and a crimson variety which Mr Farebrother could not identify adorned the piano: so packed was the room with blooms that it resembled a hothouse. But the room lacked life, despite the abundance of botanicals – it wanted music, singing, laughter! Were it not for the scent suffusing the summer air, sickly and heavy, it might be mistaken for a picture into which he had wandered by mistake.

Near ten years are flown since we left the Vicar. The old king is dead and a young queen crowned; cholera wields his sharp scythe again, and the railway's iron web stretches from the capital to Middlemarch and beyond. The Anatomy Act so eagerly anticipated in certain quarters was enshrined in law some seven years past, and conferred on all the destitute that distinction accorded in earlier times only to the hanged. Its chief proponent died just in time to be among the first to benefit, Mr Bentham's body being dissected at his request by his friend Mr Southwood Smith before half the curious of London. His chastely dressed skeleton, its severed, shrivelled head in a glass case at its feet, ensured that the turnover of chambermaids in the Southwood Smith household was fully three times faster than the average of the metropolis, besides presiding monthly over meetings of the Great Man's disciples (though accounts which swore it voted on motions were surely contrary to the notions of its original owner).

The philosopher rested not half a mile distant from the Lydgates' drawing-room; had Mrs Lydgate but known it, she might have thought Henrietta Place rather less eligible, despite its sunny aspect, fine proportions and proximity to Cavendish Square. (It is strange, perhaps, that Rosamond did not know it, for besides his utilitarian tendencies, Southwood Smith was resident physician at the most enlightened Fever Hospital in the capital, and had written a definitive treatise on fever. But her husband had given up fever – or at least he only treated those febrile patients who could pay their guinea.)

The mistress of the house swept in at last to greet her guest. 'I am sorry to keep you waiting, Mr Farebrother,' she said sweetly.

Her presence completed the room, a temple which reflected its goddess: the showy blooms bowed down before the showiest rose of all. Rosamond was little altered by the years. Neither the London air nor the Riveria sun had spoiled her complexion, for she applied Gowland's lotion assiduously and kept a dozen pretty parasols; nor had three successful confinements ruined the delicate undulations of her figure: with her mother's ample example before her eyes, she had taken early to her uncle Bulstrode's dietary precepts.

'Tertius is not yet returned from his surgery,' she continued, 'but I have sent a servant to hurry him.'

'It's no matter, Mrs Lydgate. I have been admiring your roses – Celsiana, Agatha and Blanche de Belgique I know, but what is this little charmer?'

'It is a new French variety. I believe Tertius called it Assemblage des Beautés,' she said, and her faint blush told its own story. 'We cannot have a garden here, as I was used to in Middlemarch, so Tertius brings the flowers to me.'

Though Farebrother was an old bachelor, he understood his part in this performance. 'A most apt name,' he said, sketching a little bow.

Rosamond cast her eyes down and coloured very prettily. 'But you did not come here to flatter me, I am sure,' she said.

'I left your brother and Mary very well, you'll be pleased to know. They have just purchased a smart pony for the boys, and young Caleb begs that you should visit again so that he might show off his horsemanship.'

'Oh, but I hardly ever ride now,' said Rosamond. If truth be told her only interest in her Vincy nephews was in keeping her daughters away from the influence of their curly heads and grubby fingers. 'Keeping saddle horses is such a waste in London, when there is so little time to exercise them, don't you agree?'

The Vicar seldom visited the capital and had never ridden there; God having stinted him in that conversational power which allows some to discourse without disclosing anything, a silence fell. Rosamond was revolving those arguments to press upon her husband to persuade him of the absolute necessity for a barouche; Farebrother was wondering how best to broach a particular topic that had been exercising his mind for several months.

'Does Mr Lydgate read German?' he began abruptly, the urgency of introducing his enquiry before its subject should walk into the drawing-room lending him courage, if not eloquence.

'I could hardly say,' said Rosamond. 'He speaks French, to be sure' – she was recalling those times when he had read her love poetry in that language – 'and every gentleman knows Latin. But German is so ugly.' She gave a little trilling laugh. 'I am sure nothing of any true beauty could ever be expressed in a language with so many clumsy consonants.'

'Do you know— Have you ever seen a book by Herr Dr Schwann?' And Farebrother rattled off the title of a monograph that had, since its publication a few months earlier, loomed large in all the letters from his friends of the learned societies. If their panegyrics were to be credited, the German's achievement in establishing the fundamental cellular architecture underlying all animal tissues – the very bricks from which all flesh was built – was the most important of the century. (The zoologist friend with whom the Vicar was staying had gone so far as to claim that it would render all earlier essays into the microscopic anatomy quite as obsolete as the steam engine was making the horse!)

'Oh, Tertius is forever buying books!' said Rosamond, noticing nothing amiss in her guest's manner. 'He must spend more on them than ever I spend on dresses! There are hundreds of volumes in his study, and very probably some of them are in foreign languages. I could not say which,' she added complacently, 'for I never enter it.'

'He has not seemed low in spirits lately?'

'Why ever should he be? Tertius delights in Baby above all things. Sir Godwyn sent a beautiful silver cup as a christening gift, though he could not attend himself, for you know he never travels now. To be sure, London is very dull in summer, but Tertius is always busy, his practice is expanding all the time! Why, only the other week he was called to attend Lord S— but of course one should not talk of names.'

'But does he seem frustrated in his research?' Farebrother abandoned indirection. 'I mean in his search for the primitive tissue?'

'Oh, no, he has given all that up. And I am glad because it is perfectly horrid, whatever Tertius might say about Vesalius being a hero!' Rosamond shuddered, and drew her shawl closer about her shoulders, a delicate flower sheltering beneath its sepals. 'Now, shall you take some tea?' she said, and they conversed on indifferent matters until her husband returned.

Those restrained greetings of two men who know each others' weaknesses but have not met above thrice in seven years were exchanged. Farebrother privately considered his friend much changed; though his back was unbowed and his hair free from grey, the ardent flame in his eyes had sunk to a mere bed-candle, and the Vicar feared even more to introduce the topic which might make that candle sputter out.

'So what brings you to London, Farebrother?' the doctor asked.

'It's not quite the Royal Society,' said Farebrother modestly, 'but I have been invited to read my paper on comparative studies of Coleopteran mouthparts to the Linnean, thanks to the offices of my good friend George Waterhouse.'

Rosamond prided herself upon her good information on all matters of substance. 'Pray, what are Coleoptera?' she enquired.

'Beetles,' said Farebrother.

'Oh,' she said, and then, 'Do you not think little Godwyn is very handsome?' – the nurse luckily having, just that moment, brought in the children to say their good nights to their father, and so the conversation turned.

'Come now, Rosy, you can't expect a bachelor like Farebrother to be interested in his looks!' said the father, and indeed young master Lydgate was at that undistinguished stage when only those who have experienced parenthood firsthand could find him attractive. 'He's a healthy boy, with prominent frontal development and pronounced organs of causality and concentrativeness' – for even the most modern of medical practitioners could not be expected to resist the old ways entirely, when they should happen to augur well for his own offspring. 'He will make a fine scientist, I am sure.'

'Or a lawyer,' said Rosamond. 'Science cannot be allowed to claim all the clever minds.'

The proud parents' debate over his past achievements and future prospects ranged on while the infant prodigy slumbered in the arms of his nurse. His youngest sister, meanwhile, clung to her mamma's skirts, only peeking out her head now and again, but one of the other girls, Lily, swiftly seemed to discern that the visitor was harmless. She approached and tugged his coat. 'I like beetles,' she announced confidentially.

'So do I,' said the Vicar. 'My friend George has beetles from faraway islands in every colour of the rainbow! But I believe I spied a ladybird on one of your mamma's roses. Shall we try to find her?'

The Coccinella specimen was soon discovered trundling over the crisp petal of an alba, a ruby drop amidst the snowy white. It proved to be a humble seven spot. 'Does that mean she's seven, like me?' enquired Lily, allowing the insect to exercise upon her palm.

'What a liar!' said her twin, who was perched upon the sofa with her skirts outspread like a china doll. 'Everyone knows we're both still only six.'

Lily ignored this interjection of prosaic reality, as imaginative persons of all ages will. 'Shall we let her fly away home?' she asked.

But before this charitable notion could be pursued, her sister called out, 'Mamma, Lily is being naughty again!'

'You must not pester poor Farebrother, girls!' said their father, and both children were recalled to their mother's side. The family made a charming group, arranged au naturel with a backdrop of roses; all three daughters shared their mamma's ethereally fair colouring, and the baby, if little more than a bundle, was certainly a bundle of the finest lace and linen.

Can Adam and Eve ever scale the wall to regain the Garden of Eden? Or can patient ploughing and harrowing transform the thorns and thistles of the wilderness into a garden quite as pleasant? Only God can answer the first question, and as to the second, the answer remains to be determined. All that I can say with certainty is that the fire in Lydgate's eyes seemed to flare up once again as he took his son from the nurse and lifted him into his arms. The doctor would never now become a fellow of the Royal Society, and his discoveries would never be hallowed in the textbooks on anatomy, but – God willing – the name of Lydgate would endure.

*From Anthropogenie: Keimes-und Stammes-Geschichte des Menschen (1874), translated by Stephen Jay Gould.