My thee-month stint in the Royal Institution archive ended yesterday on Friday 7th December. I have had a wonderful time working there. Collections staff –Charlotte, Catherine and Jane – have all been brilliant, helping me with queries, fetching boxes of letters, making cups of tea, and generally being very welcoming. Frank James has put up with my endless questions, helped me with the transcription of difficult words and with many other issues raised by the letters. The Royal Institution is a great place to work and I encourage everyone to check out their holdings, and go to visit the museum, which has many iterations of Davy’s safety lamp among other treasures, a first edition of Frankenstein, and a reconstruction of an early nineteenth-century laboratory. They are gearing up for the Christmas Lectures here at the moment, which promise to be excellent too. Find out more about the RI here (http://www.rigb.org/).
It’s a strange characteristic of the work that I’m doing on the Davy Letters (http://www.davy-letters.org.uk/) that I look at the correspondence with a particular individual from its beginning to end. Davy has died on me twice in the course of this last fortnight. In the final letters to his wife, Jane, he was using an amanuensis (his friend Tobin’s son) and writes from Rome on 1st March 1829: ‘I am still alive tho’ expecting every hour to be released’. In the run up to this sad event, his letters had been quite funny at times. He despaired of his two companions: Tobin, who he calls the ‘Savage’ whose table manners he complains of, and George, who he did like well enough until he began treating himself for a venereal complaint with corrosive sublimate, which seems to have half-deranged him.
I’ve found nothing about Davy’s fear of being buried alive, which Michael Neve discussed in his essay in Sophie Forgan’s Sons of Genius collection. Admittedly Neve says that he gets this from John Davy. I did find a quotation that I used in Shelley and Vitality some years ago now, that I found suggestive of an idea circulating at the time. Reflecting on his mortality, Davy writes to his wife on 18th December 1828: ‘I can <not> help thinking that a certain quantity of nervous or vital power is given to Man which when consumed can not be replaced & which limits the period of activity & of existence.’
After the reading the final letters regarding Davy’s death, including one written by his wife on the subject to a friend and one written by the doctor who attended him, I open a new folder in the box to find him alive and well, writing to his mother in the bloom of youth. There aren’t many letters here in the RI to his family (many are in the Science Museum) and most of them have had the signatures cut off by autograph hunters, which made me wonder whether the family sold these letters. As he ages, he becomes increasingly pompous with his mother, expresses his objection and dissatisfaction with his sister’s marriage, and did not particularly endear himself to me. There is an amusing bit on the subject of the failure of the copper-sheathing of ship’s bottoms; in a letter written to his mother on 2nd Jan 1824. Davy writes: ‘Do not mind any lies you may see in the newspapers copied from a Portsmouth paper about the failure of one of my expts. — All the experiments are successful more even than I could have hoped for: & this the world will know in good time.’ He sounds a little too defensive here I think.
There are some interesting tit-bits in letters to his brother John Davy. For example on 1 Dec 1811, he writes: ‘the chem part of the E. Review is vilely conducted’. On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, on 1 June 1815, Davy predicts the British victory: ‘For my own part I do not think that Bonaparte & his diabolical adherents can long oppose the allies & the French are too selfish to adhere to him for any other reason than the hope of plundering their neighbors.—‘ Sometime in the summer of 1815, Davy drafted and redrafted (I have found three drafts so far) a spluttering letter to Lord Liverpool, advising him to ‘destroy’ the French so as to achieve permanent peace. I’ve found no final version of this letter so far, so am not even sure whether he sent it, but certainly he spent much time putting his thoughts to paper.
In a much later letter to the Editors of the Philosophical Journal (dated 14th November 1856), John Davy noted that Davy ‘was little in the habit of keeping letters’. We’re dealing in the main with letters written by rather than to Davy and it is noticeable that in this collection at the RI there are nowhere near as many letters to Davy. There are some really amazing letters though, including letters written from Coleridge to Davy, and it was thrilling to see the real things themselves.
Thanks to those who contacted me with ideas to solve the questions I raised in my last blog posting. My blog will be offline for a month now because of the Christmas holidays. Happy Christmas everyone!