Thomas Henry Huxley A Character Sketch

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Excerpt I INTRODUCTORY The object of a full-dress biography is to present as complete a picture as may be of a man and his work, the influence of his character upon his achievement, the struggle with opposing influences to carry out some guiding purpose or great idea. With abundant documents at hand the individual development, the action of events upon character, and of character upon events, can be shown in the spontaneous freedom of letters, as well as in considered publications. But this little book is not a full-dress biography, although it may induce readers to turn to the larger Life and Letters, in which (or in the Aphorisms and Reflections of T.H. Huxley) facts and quotations can be turned up by means of the index; it is designed rather as a character sketch, to show not so much the work done as what manner of man Huxley was, and the spirit in which he undertook that work. It will not be a history of his scientific investigations or his philosophical researches; it will be personal, while from the personal side illustrating his attitude towards his scientific and philosophical thought. II EARLY DAYS Thomas Henry Huxley was born ten years after Waterloo, while the country was still in the backwash of the long-drawn Napoleonic wars. It was a time of material reconstruction and expansion, while social reconstruction lagged sadly and angrily behind. The year of his birth saw the first railway opened in England; it was seven years before electoral reform began, with its well-meant but dispiriting sequel in the new Poor Law. The defeat of the political and aggressive cause which had imposed itself upon the revolutionary inspiration of freedom strengthened the old orthodoxies here. Questioning voices were raised at their proper peril. Thomas Henry was the seventh child of George Huxley and Rachel Withers, his wife. He was born on May 4, 1825, at half-past nine in the morning, according to the entry in the family Bible, at Ealing, where his father was senior assistant-master in the well-known school of Dr. Nicholas, of Wadham College, Oxford. The good doctor, who had succeeded his father-in-law here in 1791, was enough of a public character to have his name parodied by Thackeray as Dr. Tickleus. "I am not aware," writes Huxley playfully in an autobiographical sketch, that any portents preceded my arrival in this world; but in my childhood I remember hearing a traditional account of the manner in which I lost the chance of an endowment of great practical value. The windows of my mother's room were open, in consequence of the unusual warmth of the weather. For the same reason, probably, a neighbouring bee-hive had swarmed, and the new colony, pitching on the window-sill, was making its way into the room when the horrified nurse shut down the sash. If that well-meaning woman had only abstained from her ill-timed interference, the swarm might have settled on my lips, and I should have been endowed with that mellifluous eloquence which, in this country, leads far more surely than worth, capacity, or honest work, to the highest places in Church and State....
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