By Alice Marples
When thinking about famous figures in the history of science, it can sometimes be easy to forget that they were not working in isolation. A lot of recent research has focused on exploring the domestic contexts of scientific production, and paints a picture of kitchen table-top experiments and hoards of curious visitors mucking up the carpet. Men of science were the heads of households, supported (and, likely, just about tolerated) by their families and servants, who were often called in to help.
Yet, when I first began reading through Sloane’s correspondence, I was still surprised by the extent to which wives and children featured in the letters. The broad geographical shape and intellectual form of the international Republic of Letters, linking scholars who had often never met, necessitated a certain contractual form of conduct in epistolary exchanges: elevated, polite and very, very formal. Though the letters in Sloane’s collection are polite, the business discussed within them flows easily from formal to familial, with the knowledge exchanged alternating between the scientific and the social.
John Smybert, The Bermuda Group (1728-1739), Yale University Art Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The first letter from John Ray (1627-1705) – a naturalist-parson and patron of Sloane’s, easily the single person with whom he corresponded the most – concludes his discussion of the state of the scientific community with the request that Sloane should come visit Ray in Black Notley, as he and his wife would love to see him. There is a great deal of affection communicated through these letters, giving the impression that Sloane was very much part of the furniture within the Ray household.
Sloane’s increasingly long absences as he became busier and more successful as a physician and collector are mourned by Ray, his wife, and their daughters. After a relatively big gap in their communication in which Sloane is almost entirely taken up with administering to the rather-troublesome Lady Albermarle and her frequent health issues, we have this from Ray:
Monday last I received your kind letter attended with a rich Present of sugar to my Wife: They were both very gratefull & acceptable…. You have so highly pleased & obliged my Wife, that she is much in commendation of your generosity, & returns you her humble service & hearty thanks; wishing that you were here to partake of some of the effects of your kindnesse.
This present of sugar to the Ray family to make up for his absence was one which Sloane returned to again and again:
My little family are, I thank God, at present all in health…. We often tast of your kindnesse, & as often remember you, & talk of you. My wife salutes you with the tender of her most humble service. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 256)
Certainly lots of letters were written by current or future members of the Royal Society on account of the health of their family, such as Sir Godfrey Copley’s wife or William Sherard’s mother. Similarly, Sloane’s wife is present in many of the letters, with doctors, botanists and lords courteously asking after her whenever she is ill.
But networks built by demonstrable medical expertise and social power did not exist within a void. They were supplemented by personal connections maintained through everyday exchanges among friends and associates, and their families, all of whom were present within the learned community. For example, Sir Godfrey Copley felt compelled to beg on behalf of his wife that Sloane “send her the reciept of Making Bacon like that of Westphalia.” (Sloane MS 4036, f.188)
Wives swapped housemaids, passed on recipes and recommendations, and actively sought positions for friends and servants through the epistolary exchanges. Sons began working for individuals and companies after being recommended to them by those who knew their parents. Daughters were introduced to improving elder ladies, and written about fondly in letters between fathers. All these interactions appear in the letters as part of the scientific and scholarly information. These letters offer rewarding traces of domestic life, friendship, the role of women in patronage, and the familial world of natural history.
Sloane existed at the centre of a world-wide network of letter-writers, yet it is important to remember that often Sloane’s correspondence was not quite the same sort of exchange as that of the virtuous Republic of Letters. Time and again, there is evidence within the letters of the personal, informal and integrated worlds of families and friends behind this polite language and professions of worthy enterprise.
On this note, I leave you with the warm but exasperated postscript written along the edges of Sir Arthur Rawdon’s letter to Sloane, dated 30th March 1692:
My wife has made me open my letter agen to tell you that she is much troubled that you should write word that you were afraid the cause of my silence was that you had disobliged either her mother or her, she hopes you have a better opinion of them. (Sloane MS 4036, f.115)
Sloane was sometimes so deeply involved with the extended families and friends of his correspondents, that even his patron’s mother-in-law (assisted by his wife) was able to tease him.