Connecting the scattered archipelago

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By | From the Collections

Stating the obvious: when you write someone a letter, you don’t keep it.  These days, e-mail or word-processing give us the chance to keep a complete record of the correspondence we send out, but for much of human history a letter would exist in a unique copy, held not by its writer but by the person receiving it.  It took effort, or special equipment, to maintain copies of your outward correspondence: either someone laboriously writing out a second copy, or something like the letter-books we find in the Hodgkin archive (PP/HO), which create a carbon copy as one writes.  Businesses would need to make this effort, to document their activities, but most private individuals did not.  Typically, then, correspondence by an individual ends up scattered in the papers of a large number of people and, if their stature merits it, in the fullness of time deposited across a large number of archives.


Image from Wallace’s “The Malay Archipelago”, 1869

For this reason, collected editions of correspondence have long been published, bringing together the widely scattered letters of significant individuals.  The internet allows us to push this principle further: now collected correspondence can be accessed easily from the desktop of whoever needs it, rather than confined to an expensive, short print-run printed edition.  Most importantly, it can be updated the moment a new letter comes to life, surfacing into the public domain from private hands.  (Previously the only way this could be done was to produce supplementary volumes bundling together several years’ new discoveries: for instance, our Elizabeth Gaskell letter, MS.7141, was not known when Chapple and Pollard produced their 1966 edition of her letters and had to wait for the 1997 update.)

Recent years have seen several major projects to bring correspondence by major individuals together and make it available online.  The Natural History Museum has been working for some years to assemble the correspondence of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) and yesterday, 24th January 2013, saw the website Wallace Letters Online launched formally.  Wallace travelled extensively, first in the Amazon and then in the Far East: his observations fed into his large work on The Malay Archipelago (1869), a work that combines scientific observation and vivid travelogue (the image of the soup-plate sized spiders that liked to build webs at head-height across jungle tracks, and the difficulty of getting bits of their sticky web-fibres out of one’s full Victorian beard, sticks particularly in the mind!).  His observations led to an extensive correspondence with other naturalists that means groups of his letters are scattered like an archipelago in more than 100 repositories (including, of course, the Wellcome Library).  Most famously, of course, he corresponded with Charles Darwin: the fact that Wallace, at that time out in Sarawak, had arrived independently at the concept of natural selection, pushed the notoriously cautious Darwin into announcing his thoughts at last, the two men’s ideas being presented jointly at the Linnean Society in summer 1858.

Image from Wallace’s “The Malay archipelago”, 1869

Wallace’s public profile to date has been chiefly as a walk-on character in the Darwin story, but there is much more to him than that: he arrived at natural selection by a different route to Darwin and brought his own perspectives, in particular during the period after the Origin of Species was published when science began to get to work on its implications for the history and development of mankind.  He deserves attention and study: this valuable new resource, bringing together over 4000 letters, will make travelling in the scattered archipelago of his correspondence far simpler and is a major contribution to the history of nineteenth-century science.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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