August 13th, 2020

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North in the East

It's really strange how researching my Japan book (at least the nineteenth-century part of it) keeps me bumping into my relatives. First it turned out that Isabella Bird, author of Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (and more recently, protagonist of the manga Bird in Wonderland) collaborated with my great-great aunt Fanny to build a hospital in Srinigar. Then I discovered that Fanny's sister Annie wrote a children's book about Japan.

Just recently I've been reading Recollections of a Happy Life by the botanist Marianne North, who travelled to Japan in 1875. And who should pop up in the early pages but dear old Uncle George Butler, initially in his capacity as a headmaster and latterly as a family friend?

[My father] was born in 1800, and when a mere child of eight years old was sent to Harrow to fight his way among his elders, and endure many a hard hour of bullying and fagging. But he always spoke with pleasure of those days at school, and his sorrows came more in the holidays at home. Years afterwards, when opposing the election of Mr. Brisco,* he used to say, it "vexed him to have to do so, as he could not help remembering how he (a big boy at Harrow) had interceded with the others to put little North on the top of the victims who were to be folded up in a press bed, he was so very small" (a mode of torture very fashionable amongst school bullies then).

My father stayed at Harrow till he was Captain of the school in Dr. Butler's house, and the old Dean** used to say jokingly in his latter years that he would never have been able to get married, if my father had not kept such good order in the school and given him time to go a-courting. His daughter was one of my first friends, and is my best friend still. (3-4)


* Musgrave Brisco, along with his brother Wastel Brisco, was a name to conjure with in nineteenth-century St Leonards.
** George became Dean of Peterborough.

I'm pleased to see Louisa, George's daughter, get a mention, because she's always been a cipher to me. It was she who went on to marry Francis Galton, which I think must have been a hard row to hoe, for various reasons, although the impression I get from this book is that they were a happy couple. They pop up here and there throughout, in kindly guise: Galton also helped regularise North's spellings on Indian and Javanese place names. I suppose none of them knew what would become of eugenics the following century, and I doubt they would have approved, but still... Knowing that connection makes me revisit North's assessment of the Japanese:

The Japanese are like little children, so merry and full of pretty ways, and very quick at taking in fresh ideas; but they don't think or reason much, and have scarcely any natural affection towards one another. Everybody who has lived long among them seems to get disgusted with their falseness and superficiality.


I mean, even under the kindest reading this hasn't aged well, but in the shadow cast by eugenics it looks quite a lot worse.