Monday, June 23, 2008

Lappish lusciousness

I'm currently in a non-painful but slightly nerve-racking stage of novel-writing, one that's by now very familiar to me, in which I read a lot of books and glean from them some quantity of facts and sensibilities that will ultimately (sooner rather than later, I hope) make me ready to put all the books aside and plunge into the process of actually writing the actual book.

I'm still some days (weeks?) away from that stage, unfortunately, but I'm definitely reading some good stuff...

Here, I'm flagging some things from Lachesis Lapponica, or A Tour in Lapland, Now First Published from the Original Manuscript Journal of the Celebrated Linnaeus; by James Edward Smith, M.D., F.R.S., etc., President of the Linnaean Society, 2 vols. (London: White and Cochrane, 1811) that have nothing to do with anything I'm going to put in the novel but struck me as in one way or another rather enchanting and certainly blog-worthy:

1. I am just ridiculously in love with the language of eighteenth-century things! This opening description achingly nostalgically took me back to the language of the advertisements for stolen goods in 1710s and 1720s London which I borrowed for my first novel. There are all sorts of reasons why my academic specialty is eighteenth-century British literature, but some of them operate purely at the level of gut aesthetics, I find the words here utterly ravishing:
Having been appointed by the Royal Academy of Sciences to travel through Lapland, for the purpose of investigating the three kingdoms of Nature in that country, I prepared my wearing apparel and other necessaries for the journey as follows.

My clothes consisted of a light coat of Westgothland linsey-woolsey cloth without folds, lined with red shalloon, having small cuffs and collar of shag; leather breeches; a round wig; a green leather cap, and a pair of half boots. I carried a small leather bag, half an ell in length, but somewhat less in breadth, furnished on one side with hooks and eyes, so that it could be opened and shut at pleasure. This bag contained one shirt; two pair of false sleeves; two half shirts; an inkstand, pencase, microscope, and spying-glass; a gauze cap to protect me occasionally from the gnats; a comb; my journal, and a parcel of paper stitched for dying plants, both in folio; my manuscript Ornithology, Flora Uplandica, and Characteres generici. I wore a hanger at my side, and carried a small fowling-piece, as well as an octangular stick, graduated for the purpose of measuring. My pocket-book contained a passport from the Governor of Upsal, and a recommendation from the Academy.
2. A bit that made me laugh (in general, Linnaeus does not have an attractive personality, he is opinionated and irritable!):
. . . Here were three young birds and a spotted egg. Of these birds, one was as large as two fists, healthy and brisk, clothed all over with very soft long whitish feathers like wool. This we took away with us to the house. The other two were but half as large. The egg fell to pieces as I took it up, and contained only a small quantity of a thin watery fluid, the abominable smell of which I shall not venture to describe, lest I should excite as much disgust in my readers as myself.
3. Curiosities of the natural-historical sort:
Here was a woman supposed to labour under the misfortune of a brood of frogs in her stomach, owing to her having, in the course of the preceding spring, drunk water which contained the spawn of these animals. She thought she could feel three of them, and that herself, as well as persons who sat near her, could hear them croak. Her uneasiness was in some degree alleviated by drinking brandy. Salt had no effect in destroying the frogs. Another person, who for some years had had the same complaint, took doses of Nux Vomica, and was cured; but even this powerful remedy had been tried on this woman in vain. I advised her to try tar, but that she had already taken without success, having been obliged to throw it up again.
The editor is not very impressed with this account, and adds his own footnote:
Linnaeus writes as if he did not absolutely disbelieve the existence of these frogs, which were as much out of their place as Jonah in the whale's belly. The patient probably laboured under a debility of the stomach and bowels, not uncommon in a more luxurious state of society, which is attended with frequent internal noise from wind, especially when the mind is occasionally agitated. Yet the idea of frogs or toads in the stomach has often been credited. Not many years ago a story appeared in the Norwich paper, of a gentleman's servant having eaten toad-spawn with water cresses, which being hatched, occasioned dreadful uneasiness, till he brought up a large toad by means of an emetic; and this story was said to have been sworn before the mayor of Lynn, as if it had been really true.
4. Linguistic curiosities:
I was here told of a specific to destroy House Crickets (Gryllus domesticus), which consists of grated carrots mixed with arsenic. This they eat greedily, and are all infallibly poisoned.
Or, again:
We had not at this time tasted bread for several days, the stock we had brought with us being entirely exhausted. The rich milk of the reindeer was too luscious to be eaten without bread, and the ordinary or second-rate cheese occasioned such a degree of costiveness as I could no longer endure.

5. Most endearingly, on the Laplanders' relationship with their reindeer:
I could not help wondering how the Laplanders knew such of the herd as they had already milked, from the rest, as they turned each loose as soon as they had done with it. I was answered that every one of them had an appropriate name, which the owners knew perfectly. This seemed to me truly astonishing, as the form and colour are so much alike in all, and the latter varies in each individual every month. The size also varies according to the age of the animal. To be able to distinguish one from another among such multitudes, for they are like ants on an anthill, was beyond my comprehension.

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