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Anna Jane Vardill

Memoirs of a Recluse

First History


Our youngest Brother, having taken the Speaker’s chair, said, smiling, “Our debate has shown the usual course of human wisdom. We began by seeking for perfect happiness, and must end in determining only which is the least evil. My example may assist your decision, though you will probably call my history the romance of science.

“Modern philosophy has convinced us, gentlemen, that it is no matter who were our ancestors, therefore I will not apologize for my ignorance on this point. In my earliest childhood, my delight was to gaze at the rhomboids and parallelograms of Dr. Caconous, the apothecary and chemist of an obscure village in Dorsetshire. This disciple of experimental Philosophy imagined that he saw in me the embryo of a second Avicenna; and before my eighteenth year I could repeat all that Dion Cassius has told us of the progress of chemistry in Rome before the days of Constantine. I had learnt how it flourish among the Egyptians and Greeks, and by what Arabian writers it was preserved and diffused among the Chinese and Africans. My tutor was in raptures. ‘Italy (said he) may boast of her Maxilius-Ficinus, Palingenius, Corellus, and Josephus Burrhus;—France has had her Flamella, Coleponius, and Faber-Castelnovidihrensis;—Germany her Paracelsus, Croilus, Libavius, and Hartmannus;—Belgia claims her Isaac Holland, Balbianus, and Hoghhelandus;—Denmark her Tycho Brahe, and Scotland her Alexander Seton; but England shall celebrate in the same page with Roger Bacon, the names of Albert Caconous and his pupil Peregrine!’

“These fathers of our sublime science (for Professor Caconous never deigned to consult their modern successors) were not sufficient to lead us beyond the pestle and mortar of a village-shop. I had no inheritance except my supposed talents, and my tutor, who considered me his adopted son, had expended his in a project to light the whole metropolis by one enormous globe of gas on the cupola of St. Paul’s. He had also devised a mode of constructing stage-coaches of steel, and attracting them by loadstones of competent size fixed at every turnpike, by which the expense and danger of horses might have been prevented: but this scheme was defeated by cross-roads; and his proposal to save the costs of a new Post office, by conveying letters from all parts of the island through subterranean pipes to a reservoir in London by the force of large air-guns or steam-engines, sunk under the same difficulty. He began to see in his purse an irresistible proof of that vacuum which so many philosophers have deemed undiscoverable; but the rooted prejudice of the age and the blind ambition of youth made us obstinately persevering; and mischance, as usual, in the shape of a woman, determined my ruin.

“An accident arising, I suppose, from a concussion of those fluctuating atoms which compose the world, brought Viscount Aircastle into my native village, near which he had found a rich park and convenient mansion. This nobleman, and avowed patron of chemic art, had a daughter, whose science and probably inheritance might have called the attention of Albertus Magnus himself. The world was impertinent enough to laugh at the rich contents of her head, because she had never been taught how to hold it: and she had a styptic kind of wit, which interrupted the conversation of ordinary geniuses. It was but a cobweb, but it stopped the flow.

“As philosophy knows no distinction of rank, Lady Barbara thought it her duty to illuminate and energize my mind when my aid was required in her father’s laboratory; and I certainly listened with profound reverence and amaze. At length, I ventured to intimate, that a few thousands advanced by Lord Aircastle would enable me, with the profits of my science, to afford her all the comforts of conjugal life.—‘Sir (she replied), I know not why wealth should be deemed necessary to comfort, when the Therapeutics, the Dervises, Brahmins, and Ebionites, have shewn us how poverty has been honoured in Egypt, India, and Jerusalem. But I have discovered a felicitous expedient to unite both wealth and experimental philosophy. It has been proved, that immense quantities of ore are generated in the channels of rivers, near large cities; therefore I intend to investigate the Thames with the aid of a new diving-bell. We may pursue this experiment jointly:—you shall sit in a boat while I dive, or you shall dive while I sit near.’—‘That might be a very felicitous expedient after marriage,’ I replied, ‘if we wished for a final divorce; but the progress of our prosperity would be much more certain if we pursued it according to the common rules of society.’—‘Citizen (answered Barbara, advancing her right foot and left hand in a fine antique attitude), you have very narrow ideas of the Social Compact, which is nothing more than the submission of weakness to strength. That enlightened philosopher Brissot has shewn, that if two famished men were travelling in a desert, the strongest might lawfully eat the other!’—I receded, I believe, with a distant bow, and saw her no more for some weeks: but her heart seemed such a singular piece of Nature’s workmanship, that a mere philosophical curiosity induced me to think it worth possessing. It certainly was a fossil of the asbestos kind, for no warmth could penetrate it. When I renewed my devotion after a long absence, she gravely shewed me her new invented instrument to measure phlogiston, and commanded me to assist in completing it. For this purpose she led the way to a detached building designed for the operation of alkali on linen, and vulgarly called a laundry. Here I was directed to place myself on the chimney, where I might ascertain the density of the smoke with her phlogistometer. An uncivilized neighbour seeing me seated there at an hour rather contrary to common notions of propriety, enquired my business, and receiving no reply, levelled a musquet at me with an aim so perilous, that in my haste to escape, I dropped the precious phlogistometer, and fell myself into an ample reservoir of water. This catastrophe, and the mirth it created in village-committees, would have roused Lord Aircastle’s suspicions, had he not been engaged at that moment in a most magnificent discovery. Conceiving genius to be no more than an extraordinary excitation of the nervous fluids, he had determined to try the force of electricity in producing poetical ideas. Accordingly, I received orders to convey my most powerful machine to his house, where he explained his system confidentially to me, as one of the most devoted admirers of electric influence. Conscious that I had laboured to place myself in this class, I could not refuse my assent when he invited me to be an assistant in his experiments, especially as it ensured the high privilege of residence under his roof with the sublime Barbara. My tutor with inexpressible delight saw me domesticated there, and engaged in Lord Aircastle’s prodigious scheme, by which he hoped to create wits, poets, and orators. That his theory might be brought to an unquestionable test, he invited a large assembly of scientific friends to be present on the day of the trial, and promised a wreath of laurel in a gold box to the best poet produced by electricity.

“Three months previous to this important day, he collected half a dozen guests, whose poverty, idleness, or caprice, induced them to acquiece in his new scheme. Every morning, after a long fast, he assembled them in his laboratory, and tried his galvanic battery or his electric jar upon each; after which they withdrew to their writing-desks, and indulged whatever poetic inspiration he had given. Only a few sparks were deemed sufficient to produce a sonnet or an epigram, but a strong shock was always given before any one attempted an ode or epic poem. Lord Aircastle provided his pupils with wigs of spunglass, to prevent the escape of the electric fluid from their brains; and gave them a metallic pen to conduct it to their paper. Every article in his mansion was converted into a philosophic machine in aid of this grand project; I slept on a mattress filled with rarefied air, which rendered its hardness intolerable, and ate on a plate so abundantly electrified that my food was in perpetual motion. But unfortunately, though I underwent all the tortures of galvanism and electricity, I never could produce a single ode; and should have been dismissed probably, in disgrace, had not my solicitude to remain near Barbara induced me to seek aid from a young poet whose evil destiny condemned him to the attic compartment of my tutor’s mansion. It must be owned, gentlemen, that the united power of love, hunger, and electricity, excited some very extraordinary specimens of lyric poetry, which I have preserved to enrich the press; but neither my original compositions, nor those I borrowed from my friend Alopex, seemed to advance my success with Barbara. Swedish chymists pretend, that metals can be extracted from gas, but where is the philosopher who can derive any thing substantial from the fumes of female vanity? At length she honoured me with a hint that her father’s studies were too intense to be interrupted after supper, and that I might pursue my scientific researches by moonlight in his park. Not doubting the kindness of this intimation, I took my station in a secluded pavilion which no one entered except Lord Aircastle or his daughter; but the doors were suddenly closed upon me, and I found myself assailed by the heat of a concealed furnace and a stream of vitriolic gas forced through a spirit-lamp. The atmosphere was advanced to some degrees beyond boiling heat; and having endured fumigation enough to cure an Otaheitan in an ague, I called for help with all my strength. But Lord Aircastle and his servants, imagining that a thief had entered to search for gold in his crucible, bestowed on me such unmerciful chastisement, that I was almost half liquified, like a relic of St. Januarius. When lights were brought, and my features were recognized, my patron condescended to apologize for my sufferings, which had been caused, he said, by an apparatus to dissolve platina; and he congratulated me on having benefited my science by ascertaining the precise degree of heat which a human frame can endure. This compliment was no consolation for my bruises and disappointment, but I suppressed my chagrin, as the following day had been destined for the long-expected exhibition. The appointed hour arrived, the audience assembled, the electro-magnetic machine was exhibited, and the poems produced by its operation were read aloud. Mine, which I had bought for the occasion, was unanimously preferred, and the gold box, the prize so anxiously expected by a poor philosopher, was adjudged to me. But when Lord Aircastle opened his treasury chest to deliver the golden recompense, what contortions were in his countenance when he beheld a vacuum! Nothing could be seen except a slip of paper, on which my patron found these words written by my supposed friend, the attic poet.

“‘Mr. Alopex presents his compliments to Lord Aircastle, and hopes his pupils will be hereafter sufficiently excited by his electric skill without the aid of the gold box, which Mr. Alopex conceived himself entitled to take, having written the poem preferred by the divine Barbara, from whom he derived his poetic fire, and who has condescended to be his Cunæan jar of inspiration in matrimony for the rest of his life.’

“Annexed to this precious billet was a bill and receipt for all the verses I had purchased from him at the rate of seven-pence a stanza. But Lord Aircastle was too much enraged by the elopement of his daughter to join the chorus of laughter against me. He commanded my instant departure from his house, and the general derision raised by his baffled scheme forced me to hide myself in my foster-father’s garret. Here I had the additional mortification of learning that Barbara boasted of having sacrificed a lamb to love, according to the rule recommended by her favourite Theocritus. She even insulted me by sending a pair of magnifying spectacles, sufficient, she said, to make the smallest dish appear sufficient for the most carnivorous appetite. I believe, gentlemen, I should have been soon reduce to dine with the help of a microscope, if Lord Aircastle, pitying the false hopes encouraged by his daughter, and by his own philosophical chimeras, had not sent me a sum which obtained my admission into this fraternity. Science and Genius lose their value in the motley world, as wine becomes vapid in a bowl of zinc and silver: I comfort myself, therefore, with the dignity of this retirement, and with the solacing reflection that many other sages have been duped by a woman.”

Brother Peregrine finished his narrative with a groan; and our physician replied, “Such a woman certainly exceeds any of the 2500 evils discovered by medical art; and is one of the 10,000 things which philosophers confess they cannot comprehend. But a tolerable share of happy hope, at least, seems to have mingled with your errors, and your sufferings were probably designed to correct them. When each of us has stated his particular share of supposed evil, we will consider how much general good may be found among the whole.”—Our stoic sprang forward to claim the speaker’s chair, but his history was deferred till the next sitting.


(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 70, August 1816, pp. 110-112