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Ray Lankester to Sylvia du Maurier - 1890


Letter from Ray Lankester to Sylvia du Maurier, 30 March 1890.

[No original available.]


42, Half Moon Street,
Piccadilly, W
March 30th [1890]

Dear Sylvia,
Will you let me say that you have my warmest wishes for happiness in your engagement?
You have perhaps heard that I thought yesterday that your sister and the Priestleys had been hoaxing me on the subject on Friday night, as once they did Owen [his brother]. The uncertainty as to whether this had really happened or not ended in my sending a telegram, which was - I am afraid - not at all what I ought to have done.
Will you forgive my clumsiness in view of the fact that I was naturally not a little confused when instead of meeting you as I had expected, I was suddenly informed that you had taken a flight almost as long as that to the other world. I suppose I ought to have believed it, and at any rate to have restrained my curiosity. In fact, there is no sufficient excuse for me, and I can only ask you, for old friendship's sake, to overlook my mental aberration.
Fay [his sister] only returned from Felixstowe last night, and today showed me your letter to her. Had she not been away I should have been able to write you an appropriate letter of congratulation instead have one of apology.
Believe me, sincerely yours,
E. Ray Lankester

Ray Lankester, then 43, hardly a name today, I imagine, was one of the most brilliant scientists of the early 1900's; a sort of combination of, say, Julian Huxley and Sir Arthur Keith. An impression remains with me that he was supposed to have been rather a bow of Sylvia's before her engagement: it is hard to say whether this rather odd letter confirms that impression or not. There seems to have been quite friendship between the du Mauriers and Lankester families. His orphaned nephew, Felix Lankester, lived for several years as a boy with the Millars at their house near Boxmoor, being more or less a contemporary of Gerald Arthur's, but I think drifted out of the circle after the 1914-18 war.
We used to see a certain amount of Ray Lankester as children, and liked him. He became tremendously fat in later life, and his enormous bulk rather appealed to our juvenile fancies, as well as - in my own case at any rate - the kindly interest he showed in any curious stone or alleged flint arrowhead one fished out of one's pocket. He never married, and died, a justly respected figure in the world of biology, K.C.B., and honoured by most of the universities of Europe and America, in 1929.
There is a strange little double association, for me, between Ray Lankester and Jermyn Street. As a small boy he was kind enough to show me over the fossils and things - then for a brief space the passion of my life - in the Geological Museum which in those days stood in that street. And in the same street, late one night many years later when I had long lost touch with him, I saw his massive figure engaged in earnest conversation with an unmistakably professional-looking person whose interests, unless I sadly misjudged her, seemed most unlikely to embrace geology.

[AB: Edwin Ray Lankester (1847-1929) was a prominent Darwinian, a worshipful disciple of Huxley, a hotheaded selectionist, and a staunch opponent of Lamarckism. Invertebrate zoologist; along with Balfour, one of the few Anglophone phylogenetic morphologists. Coined the term "homoplasy" and opposed the theistic overtones of the term "homology." Heavily involved in founding of Marine Biological Association (1884). Mentioned in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" (1912). Lankester's father Edwin, a medical doctor, was a friend of Huxley's.
"A little reflection suffices to show that any given living form, such as the gorilla, cannot possibly be the ancestral form from which man was derived, since ex hypothesi that ancestral form underwent modification and development, and in so doing ceased to exist." (1891)]


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