This month’s letter was written was written by Wallace to his good friend Edward Bagnall Poulton (1856–1943) on 28 May 1889 and it is a letter that reveals much about Wallace’s character. The main reason for Wallace sending Poulton this letter was to inform him he had declined an honorary D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil Law) from Oxford University which he had been informed of by Professor Price. Wallace writes:
"You will probably be surprised and disgusted to hear that I have declined it."
He gives his reasoning for declining the D.C.L. to Poulton as a "profound distaste for all public ceremonials" and says that attending such a ceremony would be "positive punishment". He explains that health problems, work commitments and moving to a new cottage in Parkstone, Dorset all mean he is unable to "rush away to Oxford" to receive the honorary degree.
Wallace’s language may seem quite ungrateful to what is in reality a huge honour which reflected his reputation in the wider academic community, but I think this is a good example of how humble and in a way dismissive Wallace was about his achievements in the academic world. In all of his extensive scientific work he didn’t need honours bestowed on him from institutions or societies; he was more interested in using his work to educate others.
He ends his letter to Poulton by writing; "really the greatest kindness my friends can do me is to leave me in peaceful obscurity, for I have lived so secluded a life that I am more and more disinclined to crowds of any kind."
And that, you may think is the end of that little story. Not so, however. Sadly, we don’t have Poulton’s reply to this letter but we do have the next letter Wallace sent to Poulton on 2 June 1889. It’s obvious from Wallace’s first paragraph that Poulton has tried to convince Wallace to accept the honour and whatever he wrote obviously worked as he writes,
"I am exceedingly obliged by your kind letters, and I will say at once that if the Council of the University should again ask me to accept the degree to be conferred in the Autumn as you propose, I could not possibly refuse it."
Although somewhat a reluctant acceptance, it is at least an acceptance. Wallace goes on to write, in a typical self-deprecatory fashion,
"I really feel myself too much of an amateur in Nat[ural] Hist[ory], and altogether too ignorant (I left school - a bad one - finally, at 14) to receive honours from a great University. "
When I first read this sentence, it truly astounded me to think that Wallace saw himself as merely an "amateur". Education or not, Wallace did so much to change our view of the natural world; he was a visionary of his age. Later letters to Poulton in November 1889 discuss arrangements for the D.C.L. ceremony which was officially awarded to him on 26th November.
Whilst researching this blog, I came across a passage in Wallace’s autobiography My Life, volume 2 (p. 201-202) which recorded the event. He wrote,
"In the autumn of this year the University of Oxford did me the honour of giving me the honorary degree of D.C.L., which I went to receive in November, when I enjoyed the hospitality of my friend Professor E. B. Poulton."
No mention is made in his autobiography of his initial refusal of the honour or of not feeling worthy enough for such an accolade and this is one the reasons why the letters are so important to the study of his life. They give a more honest representation of emotions and opinions. Of course, I’m sure he wouldn’t lie in his autobiography but one could infer after reading that passage, Wallace was nothing but delighted at such an honour when initially that couldn’t be further from the truth. Either that or he simply forgot he was very wary about accepting the D.C.L. in the first place!
Wallace wrote extensively to Poulton and you can read the letters here. If you don’t already, then follow the Library and Archives on twitter, where we’re tweeting weekly about Wallace as part of the Wallace100 celebrations. Also watch out for the next instalment of Letter of the Month in June.
Caroline Catchpole, Wallace Correspondence Project