“Eliot is one hell of a writer. Good God, she’s superb. I’m an old man but it’s still a thrill to pick up a book and find oneself, even in old age, taken by that thrall one felt years ago when one was captured by a book, seized ahold of and shaken into wonder, mystery and delight.”
I received his note the same day I began reading My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions (1905) by Eliot’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the British naturalist who, in a wonderful act of synchronicity, came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection at the same time as Charles Darwin. Years ago I read Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), and was moved to read the autobiography by Guy Davenport’s review of a Wallace biography, “A Folklorish Giant.” Davenport writes:
“Except for the young Wallace’s reading every book he could lay hand on, he had only a spotty primary education. His older brother John taught him surveying, an activity that was an education in itself. Moreover it made him curious about geology and botany. At age fourteen he was probably more knowledgeable than a Harvard or Yale senior of the moment. It was books of travel (von Humboldt, Bonpland) that made an explorer of him.”
I always enjoy hearing the stories of autodidacts. Wallace was born in the Welsh village of Llanbadoc, near Usk in Monmouthshire, the eighth of nine children. His father, Thomas Vere Wallace, was feckless. When the boy was five his family moved to Hertford where he attended Hertford Grammar School (his only formal education) until financial difficulties forced him to withdraw in 1836 when he was fourteen. Among other jobs, his father became a librarian in “a fairly good proprietary town library, to which he went for three or four hours every afternoon. After my brother John left home and I lost my chief playmate and instructor, this library was a great resource for me, as it contained a large collection of all the standard novels of the day.”
At least three times a week, Wallace visited the library, where he squatted in a corner to read and not be in the way. His education was rooted largely in fiction. He read all of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Don Quixote, Smollett and Fielding. He read Paradise Lost, Pope’s translation of The Iliad, The Faerie Queene, Walton’s Compleat Angler and “a good deal of Byron and Scott.” He read monthly installments of Pickwick Papers as it was published. At home Wallace’s father kept a small library the boy also consumed: Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, The Vicar of Wakefield and The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Wallace read the books generations of readers of all classes and levels of education read as a matter of course. Like my friend with Daniel Deronda, Wallace as a boy was “shaken into wonder, mystery and delight” by books.