« PreviousContinue »
ART. I.-Memoirs of Baron Cuvier. By Mrs. R. Lee (formerly
Mrs. Bowdich). London: Longman, Rees, and Co. . 1833. It would have sounded very strangely indeed throughout Europe, that the fame of one of the most illustrious naturalists of modern times should be left to the guardianship of a lady, who, however endowed with native ability, and however furnished with acquired accomplishments must, from the very necessity of the case,' have been wholly unable duly to estimate the merits of her hero. But when we consider the circumstances under which this biography was composed, we shall see that the whole of the difficulties to which the above statement gives rise vanish like the vapour before the morning sun.
The exploits of Cuvier as a man of science were not left to be determined by Mrs. Lee or any other biographer; they were well defined already. What was wanted by the world was some account of the individual, some insight into the husband, into the father, into the exalted philosopher, as he held intercourse with his fellowmortals. This is an imperfect summary of the deficiencies which yet remained to be furnished in the Life of Cuvier. Who was to supply the desideratum? Not his enemies, if he had any-not any body who never saw him ---surely not: that is quite plain. All the world will agree that it ought to have been some one who had been about the at philosoher in his better days, who had seen him ir the maturit of his experience and genius, and who was known to have enjoyed his confidence to that degree that would constitute in the eyes of the world a guarantee that at least a genuine account could be given of his personal peculiarities, his habits, &c. That Mrs. Lee comes under this description no one will deny who is acquainted with the close intimacy which has subsisted for several years before his death between Cuvier, with his family, and his present biograp. ar. It may not be superfluous to remind the readers that in Mrs Lee we meet with her who was once Mrs. Bowdich, and who perfectly understands the propriety, or rather the necessity,
vol. IV. (1833) NO. II.
of making some such explanation as we are now attempting. It appears that while she fulilled the character of Mrs. Bowdich she was introduced to the Cuvier family by a very distinguished countryman of her's, the late Dr. Leach, of the British Museum. She informs us that Mr. Bowdich had returned from his second, and she herself from her first, voyage to Africa, in the year 1818, and that shortly after Mr. Bowdich proceeded to Paris, where his reputation, as the successful African traveller, was already known. The letter of Dr. Leach was scarcely necessary with the Baron Cuvier, who received him with that warmth and encouragement which always marked his conduct towards men of talents younger than himself, and that interest which he extended to all who were devoted to science. Struck with the facilities afforded for study in the French capital, Mr. Bowdich determined to remain there some time, in order to qualify himself for the principal object of his ambition, a third travel to Africa. Both he and Mrs. Bowdich accordingly went to Paris in 1819; and from that moment the vast library of the Baron Cuvier, his drawings, his collections, were open to their purposes. They became the inmates of the family, with whom, for nearly four years, they were in daily intercourse. They left France with the blessings of the family of Cuvier; and on returning alone to Europe, Mrs. Bowdich was received even as a daughter. Her correspondence with M. Cuvier's daughter-in-law, and other branches of the family, has been uninterrupted since that period; she has paid them repeated visits at their own house; and for fourteen years not a single shadow has passed over the warm affection which has characterised their intimacy.
Cuvier was a weakly child from the period of his birth, and the maternal attention by which alone he was preserved, ever commanded in his mind the most profound and grateful reverence for the individual to whom he was so indebted. At a very early period of his life Cuvier displayed a taste for the graphic art, and from what we are told by our authoress, it would appear that it was to this partiality he owed his acquired taste for natural history. He chanced to lay his hands, while yet a boy, on an illustrated copy of Buffon. He delighted in imitating the figures, and by degrees launched into a perusal of the text itself. It is believed that the charming style of that great author was accessory, at least, in directing the youthful genius to the study of the animal creation.
At nineteen years of age we find Cuvier a tutor at Caen, in Normandy, in a protestant family, that of Count d'Hericy, and here he was fortunate enough to originate an acquaintance with men of great distinction at the time. In this part of the country the opportunity presented itself to him of examining fully natural objects, in a society established in a neighbouring town. And by his corn respondence with eminent philosophers, Cuvier at last provoked the compliment of being called to Paris, where he was immediately appointed member of the Committee of Arts, and afterwards pro
fessor of the central school of the Pantheon. The next step was his appointment as an associate at the Jardin des Plantes, and then was it that he laid the foundation of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, which has since formed a monument to his memory. Cuvier was one of the first members of the National Institute, and was made third secretary. When Napoleon projected the expedition to Egypt, Cuvier was applied to to consent to join the expedition as one of the naturalists. But he declined it, believing that the Jardin des Plantes afforded the most useful opportunities of assistance in those studies to which he had devoted his mind. In the early days of Napoleon he paid great attention to Cuvier, and to the close of his career that attention was unremitting. In 1802 he was appointed an Inspector of the Lycées; he was also made secretary of Natural Sciences at the Institute, an office which he held to the day of his death. Cuvier was sent to Hamburgh by Napoleon to organize institutions there. Whilst in that city he received the title of Chevalier with a descent of it to his heirs. But the hope of transmitting his worldly honours to his posterity was soon to be destroyed, for, after being deprived of a daughter, four years old, in 1812, he was, in 1813, bereaved of his son, who was seven years of age. This last loss made a deep impression on him, which was vever entirely effaced; and even after the lapse of years he never saw a boy of that age without considerable emotion, a feeling whicli he did not strive to hide from his own family, or those with whom he was intimate; and often, when walking with his daughters, he would stop before a group of boys, who, as they played, reminded him of his child. So late as 1830, says Mrs. Lee, M. Cuvier visited this country. I took my son to see him at the hotel where he was staying, forgetting the effect it was likely to produce; and I shall for remember the pause he made before him, and the melancholy tenderness with which he laid his hand on the head of the boy. This misfortune happened while M. Cuvier was fulólling a mission at Rome, for the purpose of organising the university there.
In 1818 Cuvier was in England, where he was particularly struck with the Westminster election, and frequently in the course of his life afterwards mentioned as a prodigy the attacks which were made by the mob on Sir Murray Maxwell. The authoress alluding to this visit gives the following explanation of it.
M. Cuvier had two objects in visiting England, one of which was, to observe, on the spot, the influence of our constitutional government, which was only known to him in theory. He conversed with several of
political characters, he saw every thing which marked the application of our system upon mankind, and took back with him to France clear and precise ideas, by which he well knew how to profit in future labours. It was frequently a matter of great astonishment to my countrymen to find him so well acquainted with our institutions, even to the details of their expenses, the period of their formation, and the changes they had under gone. The other, and the great object of M. Cuvier's excursion; was of a.
scientific nature; and it is with pleasure I add, that he always spoke of his reception here with gratitude. The facilities afforded him both by our savants and our statesnien, the confidential communications he received, and the manner in which all was laid open to him, were frequently a source of happy recollection, which was as often expressed. Some days of the period of his sojourn in England were passed at Oxford, whither he was accompanied by his valued friend, Dr. Leach of the British Museum, who was his incessant chaperon in this country; he returned from thence perfectly enchanted with the city and its great objects of interest, and with the distinction which attended his reception there. His wife and daughters met him at Windsor, and, after passing the day in visiting the castle, park, &c., they proceeded, late in the evening, to the house of Sir William Herschel, who received them with the utmost kindness, and showed them his great telescope, though the night was too dark to profit much by this famous instrument. Another visit paid by M. Cuvier was often alluded to by him with pleasure; it was to Sir Joseph Banks's house at Spring Grove: he had often been to see him in Soho Square, but the entertainment given to the whole party at Spring Grove resembled a fête champêtre. The only thing to which M. Cuvier could not reconcile himself in England was, the formality and length of our great dinners, the long sittings after which were always mentioned by him with an expression of ennui, even in his countenance.'-pp. 38—40.
Mrs. Lee in the second part of the work considers Cuvier, as he was regarded by the world, as a scientific philosopher, laying the foundation of an entirely new system on the ruins of those which had been erected by his less experienced predecessors. She describes him as rising up at an era when there remained just as much to be done as had been effected since the revival of letters. Botany for many reasons was in a comparatively advanced state: Zoology was backward, owing to the greater absence of facilities for its study. The dissertation which follows, is, from its style, an evident translation from the French, but no clue is afforded to us, as to the authority from which it proceeds. It embraces a full and accurate survey of the labours of the illustrious naturalist in chronological series, beginning of course with his earliest scientific labours, which are described as being almost exclusively devoted to the subject of Entomology. In speaking of one of the early works of Cuvier which obtained a prize, Mrs. Lee explains the origin and nature of this premium. It appears from her account to have been instituted by Napoleon in 1810, by whom it was designated the “
prix decennaux, Wishing at that time, she informs us, to divert the public attention from passing events (the Spanish campaign, &c.), the Emperor issued a decree, stating, that, as he was desirous of rewarding and encouraging every species of study and labour, which could contribute to the glory of his empire, he had resolved to bestow prizes money, every ten years, on the 9th of November, on the best works in every branch of science, art, and literature. The prizes were to be proclaimed by the Minister of the Interior, and the successful candidates were also to receive a medal from the hands
of the Emperor himself, in presence of the princes, the dignitaries of the state, the great officers of the University, and the whole body of the Institute, assembled at the Thuilleries. All labours having sufficient merit were to be examined by a jury and judges, composed of the presidents and perpetual secretaries of the four classes of the Institute. Each class to make a catalogue raisonnée of the works put to the suffrage; those deemed worthy of approaching the prizes, to receive honourable mention; but those of sufficient merit, in the opinion of the judges, to obtain the prize, to be noticed with still greater detail. All the reports and discussions to be given to the Minister of the Interior, by whom they were to be kept entirely secret from the public. No judge to be allowed to pronounce on the merits of his own productions. These prizes soon became an universal theme; an exhibition of the pictures painted for them took place in the Louvre, and every body was more or less interested.
Mrs. Lee devotes a considerable space to an analysis of a few of the principal works of Cuvier;-she traces the progress of his study of fossil geology, and points out the nature of the brilliant discoveries which he made in that interesting branch of science. She then proceeds to consider the ground work of the Regne Animal, and gives a very striking picture of the necessity which existed for some such work, and how admirably it supplies the deficiency. Cuvier, she informs us, was struck with the confusion of systems, their want of conformity to the internal structure of animals, and the heap of synonymes which multiplied species to infinity; and, as may be seen throughout this work, accustomed from the earliest age to entertain elevated views, and to practise method, it was absolutely necessary, even for his own future convenience, that he should rid classification of the incumbrances which impeded its advance, ment.
The next work described is that extensive one on Fishes; it is entitled-Natural History of Fishes, containing more than five thou. sand species of animals, described after nature and distributed according to their affinities, with observations on their anatomy, and critical researches on their nomenclature antient as well as modern. Of this work eight volumes appeared before the lamented death of their author; a ninth has since appeared under the superintendence of M. Valenciennes, whom he had originally engaged to assist him in this work, and who is to continue it. The whole it is supposed, will amount to twenty volumes. Cuvier from his twenty-sixth year, was in the habit of making annual reports of the labours of the members and correspondents of the Institute, an employment which, in the way that Cuvier performed its duties, would have been an occupation sufficient for his life. Another performance which is noticed as highly honourable to his genius and industry, was one undertaken at the command of Napoleon, and which was a history of the march and progress of the human mind since 1789. In the meantime he took an active part in contributing to the Dic