Monday, October 10, 2011


One of the Most Ungregarious of Beings

George Wilson, The Life of the Hon. Henry Cavendish (London: Printed for the Cavendish Society, 1851), pp. 165-170 (footnotes omitted, ellipses in original):
A more eventless life, according to the ordinary judgment of mankind, than that of Cavendish, could scarcely be conceived. His character, however, was a very remarkable and interesting one, and I shall try to explain what its prominent peculiarities were. The most striking of these, at a first glance, was, a singular love for solitariness, and a reluctance to mix with his fellows, which I may perhaps best denote by saying, that Cavendish was one of the most ungregarious of beings. The following quotations from the writings of some of his more eminent contemporaries, who were well qualified to form an estimate of his disposition, will illustrate this, as well as most of his other characteristics.

Professor Playfair, of Edinburgh, visited London in 1782, and was frequently present at the meetings of the Royal Society Club, one of the very few places of comparatively public resort which Cavendish attended. The impression made upon Playfair is thus recorded:—

"Mr. Cavendish is a member also of this meeting. He is of an awkward appearance, and has certainly not much the look of a man of rank. He speaks likewise with great difficulty and hesitation, and very seldom. But the gleams of genius break often through this unpromising exterior. He never speaks at all but that it is exceedingly to the purpose, and either brings some excellent information, or draws some important conclusion. His knowledge is very extensive and very accurate; most of the members of the Royal Society seem to look up to him as to one possessed of talents confessedly superior; and, indeed, they have reason to do so, for Mr. Cavendish, so far as I could see, is the only one among them who joins together the knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, and experimental philosophy."

I have already quoted a reference to the same effect from Dr. Thomas Thomson. He further states of Cavendish:—"He was shy and bashful to a degree bordering on disease; he could not bear to have any person introduced to him, or to be pointed out in any way as a remarkable man. One Sunday evening he was standing at Sir Joseph Banks', in a crowded room, conversing with Mr. Hatchett, when Dr. Ingenhousz, who had a good deal of pomposity of manner, came up with an Austrian gentleman in his hand, and introduced him formally to Mr. Cavendish. He mentioned the titles and qualifications of his friend at great length, and said that he had been peculiarly anxious to be introduced to a philosopher so profound and so universally known and celebrated as Mr. Cavendish. As soon as Dr. Ingenhousz had finished, the Austrian gentleman began, and assured Mr. Cavendish that his principal reason for coming to London was to see and converse with one of the greatest ornaments of the age, and one of the most illustrious philosophers that ever existed. To all these high-flown speeches Mr. Cavendish answered not a word, but stood with his eyes cast down, quite abashed and confounded. At last, spying an opening in the crowd, he darted through it with all the speed of which he was master, nor did he stop till he reached his carriage, which drove him directly home."

Sir Humphry Davy, in addition to the eloquent eulogium passed on Cavendish, soon after his death, left this less studied but more graphic sketch of the philosopher amongst his papers:—"Cavendish was a great man, with extraordinary singularities. His voice was squeaking, his manner nervous, he was afraid of strangers, and seemed, when embarrassed, even to articulate with difficulty. He wore the costume of our grandfathers; was enormously rich, but made no use of his wealth. He gave me once some bits of platinum, for my experiments, and came to see my results on the decomposition of the alkalis, and seemed to take an interest in them; but he encouraged no intimacy with anyone....He lived latterly the life of a solitary, came to the club dinner, and to the Royal Society, but received nobody at his own house. He was acute, sagacious, and profound, and, I think, the most accomplished British philosopher of his time."

Lord Brougham gives the following account of his estimate of Cavendish's character:—"He was of a most reserved disposition and peculiarly shy habits. This led to some singularity of manner, which was further increased by a hesitation or difficulty of speech, and a thin shrill voice. He entered diffidently into any conversation, and seemed to dislike being spoken to. He would often leave the place where he was addressed, and leave it abruptly, with a kind of cry or ejaculation, as if scared and disturbed....He hardly ever went into society. The only exceptions I am aware of are an occasional christening at Devonshire or Burlington House, the meetings of the Royal Society, and Sir Joseph Banks' weekly conversaziones. At both the latter places I have met him, and recollect the shrill cry he uttered as he shuffled quickly from room to room, seeming to be annoyed if looked at, but sometimes approaching to hear what was passing among others. His face was intelligent and mild, though, from the nervous irritation which he seemed to feel, the expression could hardly be called calm."

Mr. W.H. Pepys gives the following interesting description of his interviews with Cavendish:—"The first time I saw him was at Sir Joseph Banks' house in Soho-square; it was a general meeting of men devoted to science. I was relating to Sir Joseph some experiments that I had been making with the voltaic battery, when I observed an old gentleman in a complete (faded violet) suit of clothes, and what was then termed a knocker-tailed periwig, very attentive to what I was describing. When I caught his eye he retired in great haste, but I soon found he was again listening near me. Upon enquiry I heard it was Mr. Cavendish, but at the same time was cautioned by Sir Joseph to avoid speaking to him as he would be offended, if he speaks to you, continue the conversation; he is full of information, particularly as to chemistry.

"I met him soon after at the Royal Society Club, and sitting very near him he commenced some enquiry upon what I had said at Sir Joseph's, which plainly showed he had remembered me. His speech was hesitating and excited, but he was very quick of comprehension."

Dr. Davy, who met Cavendish one or two years before his death, gives a similar account of his appearance and manners. "I well remember him, as he was in the habit occasionally, between 1808 and 1809, of coming to the laboratory of the Royal Institution, drawn there, no doubt, by the researches then in progress. His dress was that of the gentleman of the preceding half century. The frilled shirt-wrist, the high coat collar, the cocked hat, in brief, almost the court dress of the then and the present time. His appearance was, apart from his dress, nowise distinguished: of fair complexion, small, and not marked features, a feeble and somewhat hesitating voice. He was then aged, turned, I believe, of seventy; but though his body seemed infirm, his conversation and queries denoted quickness and acuteness, and undiminished vigour of mind, and that I think, was the impression on my brother's mind, who always held him, as his writings testify, in the greatest respect."

The following account of Cavendish is from one of our most accomplished chemists, who communicated it orally to Mr. Tomlinson, from whom I received it. "When I was a very young man—a new Fellow of the Royal Society—I always looked upon it as a great honour to be noticed by Cavendish, and so did the other young members of the society. We used to dine at the Crown and Anchor, and Cavendish often dined with us. He came slouching in, one hand behind his back, and taking off his hat (which by the bye he always hung up on one particular peg), he sat down without taking notice of anybody. If you attempted to draw him into conversation he always fought shy. Dr. Wollaston's directions I found to succeed best. He said, 'the way to talk to Cavendish is never to look at him, but to talk as it were into vacancy, and then it is not unlikely but you may set him going!'"

J.G. Children, Esq., was often in the company of Cavendish, and thus refers to his interviews with him; "I am now the Father of the Royal Society Club. I remember Cavendish well, and have often dined at the Crown and Anchor with him. When I first became a member of the club, I recollect seeing Cavendish on one occasion talking very earnestly to Marsden, Davy, and Hatchett. I went up and joined the group, my eye caught that of Cavendish, and he instantly became silent: he did not say a word. The fact is he saw in me a strange face, and of a strange face he had a perfect horror. I don't think I had been introduced to him, but I was so afterwards, and then he behaved to me very courteously. He was an old man when I joined the club, and was regarded by all as a great authority."

The most remarkable illustration, however, of Cavendish's excessive shyness is, perhaps, that contained in the following account of his reluctance to make his appearance at the soirées of Sir Joseph Banks, which he frequently attended. It was communicated by a senior member of the Royal Society to Mr. Tomlinson, from whom I obtained it: "I have myself seen him stand a long time on the landing, evidently wanting courage to open the door and face the people assembled, nor would he open the door until he heard someone coming up the stairs, and then he was forced to go in."

He was thus to appearance a misanthrope, and still more a misogynist. He was reported among his contemporaries, indeed, to have a positive dislike of women. Lord Burlington informs me, on the authority of Mr. Allnutt, an old inhabitant of Clapham, "that Cavendish would never see a female servant, and if an unfortunate maid ever showed herself she was immediately dismissed." Lord Brougham tells us that Cavendish "ordered his dinner daily by a note, which he left at a certain hour on the hall table, w here the housekeeper was to take it, for he held no communication with his female domestics from his morbid shyness."

I might multiply illustrations of Cavendish's extreme repugnance to encounter females, but two additional instances may suffice. At one time he was in the habit of walking in the neighbourhood of Clapham with methodical accuracy at a particular hour of the day. Two ladies, who watched his movements, and had observed the punctuality with which he reached the same spot at the same hour every day, took a gentleman with them on one occasion to catch a sight of the famous philosopher. "He was in the act of getting over a stile when he saw to his horror that he was being watched." He never appeared in that road again, and his walks in future were taken in the evening.

The following incident occurred at a meeting of the Royal Society Club, in the early part of this century, and was reported by one of the most accomplished Fellows of the Society to Mr. Tomlinson. "One evening we observed a very pretty girl looking out from an upper window on the opposite side of the street, watching the philosophers at dinner. She attracted notice, and one by one we got up and mustered round the window to admire the fair one. Cavendish, who thought we were looking at the moon, bustled up to us in his odd way, and when he saw the real object of our study, turned away with intense disgust, and grunted out Pshaw!"
Thanks to Eric Thomson for drawing my attention to Cavendish and his quirks.
J.J. Grandville, A Misanthrope,
with caption "Je n'y suis pour personne,"
i.e. "I'm not at home for any caller."

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