GUEST POST BY D. E. MEREDITH - AUTHOR OF 'DEVOURED.'
Photograph of Alfred Russell Wallace, courtesy of The Wallace Fund
I started writing almost by accident. I was between contracts, had builders in the house making a terrible racket and as an escape from the din, I suppose, picked up a book about a more enticing world altogether.
The book was a slim little travelogue written by Alfred Russel Wallace and called 'The Malay Archipelago'. It describes his fascinating adventures in the steaming jungles of Borneo during the 1850s, as he classifies birds and butterflies while conducting taxidermy on the hoof.
Collection of butterflies - courtesy of the Wallace Fund
Not for nothing was this book Joseph Conrad’s favourite bedside reading. Conrad was apparently never without a well-thumbed copy of this diary which provides an amazing window into the mind and times of one of the world’s greatest Nineteenth Century naturalists.
But doesn’t that accolade go to another? Who the devil is this man, Russel Wallace? - I hear you cry. And yes, it is true to say that history has not been kind, with Russel Wallace's contribution to science having long been over-shadowed by his more famous contemporary, Charles Darwin.
But it was Alfred Russel Wallace, not Darwin, who was an inspiration for my book 'Devoured', which launches this week in the UK and which, in addition to looking at the birth of forensics, has a strong evolutionary theme.
Birds of Paradise, courtesy of the Wallace Fund
In “Devoured” we meet Professor Adolphus Hatton and his trusty French morgue assistant, Monsieur Albert Roumande. Together, they work out of a seedy basement in St Bart’s hospital, cutting up cadavers for Scotland Yard in the very early days of forensic science. During their first case, we meet an array of other quintessentially Victorian characters, many of whom verge on the outlandish, and many of whom are collectors of flora and fauna, just like Alfred Russel Wallace.
At the beginning of the story, a rich patron of the Sciences has been brutally murdered amidst her vast collection of ammonites, butterflies and tribal masks. Meanwhile, a series of letters has gone missing, sent from the depths of the Malay Archipelago and penned by a young ingénue collector, Benjamin Broderig.
Map of the Malay Archipeligo
Throughout the novel, these two stories merge - one in Victorian London, a Human Awful Wonder of God with the constant thrum of industrialisation - the other from the depths of a jungle on the other side of the world, a wonder where nature shimmers and whirs. And that’s where Alfred Russel Wallace makes his own cameo appearance - playing chess in a remote mountain lodge whilst discussing evolutionary theory with my character, Benjamin Broderig.
But who was this butterfly man? And why does he matter to us?
The following biography is concise, but I think it clearly shows why few men in history have inspired my respect and imagination quite like Alfred Russel Wallace.
Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, courtesy of The Wallace Fund
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) was one of the 19th century's most remarkable scientists. He was an intrepid traveller and one of the greatest collectors of flora and fauna the world has ever seen.
It was Wallace who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and he came up with the idea of the process of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin in 1857 (for which he got a measly footnote in The Origin of the Species), but he also made very many other significant contributions, not just to biology, but also to subjects as diverse as glaciology, land reform, anthropology, ethnography, epidemiology, and
Wallace is regarded as THE pre-eminent collector and field biologist of tropical regions of the 19th century. Wallace was also a vocal supporter of spiritualism, socialism, and the rights of the ordinary person. Where Darwin was upper class, well connected and married to a Wedgewood, Wallace was from a poor background and hunted down rare and exotic species all around the world, quite literally to pay the rent and support his extended family. But he was no less a genius, for it. He was actively engaged with many of the big questions
and important issues of his day.
For more on Alfred Russel Wallace go to: http://wallacefund.info