Samuel Wilberforce

Huxley and Wilberforce at Oxford and Elsewhere

The Oxford Debate 1860In an amusing piece published for the Westminster Review in 1907, David Wilson provides readers with a “fanciful sequel” to the Oxford debate of 1860. Entirely satirical, irreverent, and missed by most scholars who have discussed the topic,  Wilson begins by calling Oxford the “backwaters of the Universe.” These “collection of boarding-schools” are compared to “a stock farm with good fences, where foals and calves are fed and groomed and as far as possible kept out of mischief. From such a place while all goes well there is no news to be expected.” Nevertheless, some “adult visitors” occasionally “disturb the monotony of [its] adolescent existence.” He then goes on to repeat the traditional version of the “famous debate” between Huxley and Wilberforce, taken largely, he admits, from “the ‘Life of Huxley’ and the books.”

But then he turns to his “fanciful sequel,” comparing such stories to women: “they please best when they please by their intrinsic attractions.” I quote the story in full:

When Huxley died, he was agreeably surprised to find himself doing a journey in an electric railway underground, in a carriage better than the best Pullman cars but not unlike them, and just sufficiently filled to be pleasant. The train was incredibly fast, but went without a jolt. Only by feeling for it, so to speak, could he, when standing, discover a gentle wave of motion, which became imperceptible when he subsided into a chair. Before he could talk to any fellow-passenger, the train came to a stop. He got out with the others, and went through a long and spacious passage, bright with shining tiles and electric lamps. It was more like the nave of Westminster Abbey than any tunnel, and, long though it was, he had not ceased admiring it when he came out into what seemed to be an infinitely improved Crystal Palace, expanded into boundlessness. At any rate, the eye could see no bounds.

The light was bluish, but soft, abundant and agreeable. Circular fans were whirling above little round tables, at one of which he took his place and called for ice.

“I fear there must be some mistake,” he said to the smiling waiter, who stood rubbing his hands after fetching the ice-cream, and was asking what he wanted to drink.

“Mistake, sir?” asked the waiter, looking at the plate he had just put down.

“Oh, not in this; this is all right,” said Huxley, sipping, and looking again round the bustling scene, where every man and woman seemed to be cheerful and merrily employed. “What I fear is that some mistake has been made about my destination. The ticket I gave up at the door was for…” He paused.

“Hell, sir?” asked the waiter, briskly.

“Yes.”

“Then that’s all right; and even if it had been different, you could not have been better off anywhere than we are here.”

“But, but,” began Huxley, ” I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but in fact it was commonly reported and believed on earth that this place was,—well,—disagreeably warm.”

“Oh, to be sure, it used to be so, but so many scientific gentlemen have come down of late that we have now all the latest improvements, with additional advantages of our own. Besides, there’s nobody here against his will. You can extinguish yourself as easily as a candle, whenever you like. People stay here far longer than they used to do, and lots of those in the other place envy us now. I assure you that the Celestial Inspector who has just been down to look at our arrangements—they come regularly, you know, to prevent overcrowding and make sure the fires are equable—a mere excuse for an outing, I do believe—was saying to His Highness a few minutes ago—I heard it myself, I was taking him some liquor, as he felt thirsty in the heat of the furnace-rooms—I heard him say—and I don’t think it was politeness, for you know these people up there cannot make polite speeches, they have always to talk straight—so I’m sure he meant what he said, and says he: “I wish I could remain here altogether, you are so snug. The wet clouds on the way are not attractive.” Then His Highness said, “You cannot be afraid of sciatica, surely,” and they both laughed and laughed, and when they were done laughing, “It’s the company,” said the Inspector. “The company here would atone for any climate. It makes me hoarse to think of the eternal Hallelujahs, and these tiresome old women. They are in millions, like the sands of the desert, and every one of them thinks herself The Queen, and wants Jesus all to herself! It is as absurd and as monotonous as a lunatic asylum. Poor Jesus!” Look! There’s the Inspector passing now, sir,—not unlike yourself, if I may venture to say so.”

As everybody else was rising, in honour of His Highness and the Celestial Inspector passing, Huxley rose too, and the Celestial aforesaid happening to look round,—

“I hope to come back and see you another time, Huxley,” cried Wilberforce, for he it was! He waved his hand affectionately and smiled, as if he were alive again for a moment; and then as he looked elsewhere his countenanced gradually changed. Mephistropheles stood grinning sardonically while the sad Celestial turned reluctantly Heavenwards, and floated upwards and away with a look of constrained resignation on his features, an expression of infinite ennui, if that can be called an expression, which seemed to have become suddenly as unchangeable as the streak of the Milky Way.

 

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