As Thomas Cristensen puts it in his introduction to Horace Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, the British art historian and man of letters was “about as odd as you would expect”, an exemplar of what Christensen calls a long-lived and somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and plain madness”. Walpole’s most well-known work, The Castle of Otranto, is considered the first gothic novel, though at the time of its publication it was passed off by Walpole himself as a translation from the Italian.
Clearly, Walpole had plenty of energy and a taste for imaginative high-jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote letters – volumes of letters, of all sorts. One of the most famous was written in 1765, when Walpole faked a letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau,who had fled persecution in Geneva and taken up residence in France. Supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, the letter offered Rousseau refuge-with-a-twist. “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted,” it said. Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, in England, as his paranoia increased, he suspected even his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.
When he wasn’t stirring up trouble or creating opaque, more-or-less disturbing narratives, Walpole continued the process of transforming Strawberry Hill into his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house. Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase. Writing in The Guardian prior to last year’s re-opening of the newly restored house, Amanda Vickery noted that Walpole “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi, for a guinea a tour.” Walpole even produced a guidebook to his own home, but eventually became weary of the traffic. “I keep an inn,” Walpole said. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court. Everyone will live in it but you.”
Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, a Holbein chamber evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white tiles on the floor, and modern oil paintings, china and carpets.” Clearly, Walpole was creating in Strawberry Hill a concrete analogue to his writing. ”Visions, you know, have always been my pasture,” he said. “Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.”
Michael Snodin, curator of last year’s exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum adds, “Walpole’s cultural legacy was to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting which still inspires us today. I suppose one of the take-home messages of the exhibition is, why not try it yourself?”
Despite his fixation on the house and its furnishings, much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” took place through language. Those lacking either the cash or the inclination to build a Gothic revival castle, collect old armor or write a gothic novel still can appreciate a word he invented and introduced into the lexicon: serendipity, a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.
Writing to his friend Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole said he’d created the word by forming it from the title of the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. In the story, the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Today the word “serendipity” is everywhere, although we tend to focus only on the first half of Walpole’s original definition: the apparently accidental nature of certain discoveries. But “sagacity” is important, too – the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts in order to arrive at valuable, albeit accidental, conclusions.
Serendipity is a commonplace in science. Silly Putty, Scotchgard, cellophane, rayon and Saran Wrap are serendipitous discoveries. So is penicillin, and so is the microwave. Some scientists are happy to report such findings. Others shy away from any mention of “lucky breaks”, perhaps feeling it diminishes their own contributions.
One of the most famous cases of serendipity in the laboratory is recounted in The Case of the Floppy-eared Rabbits. Published by Bernard Barber and Renée C. Fox in the September, 1958 issue of The American Journal of Sociology, its abstract tells the tale:
Two distinguished medical scientists independently observed the same phenomenon in the course of their research: reversible collapse of rabbits’ ears after injection of the enzyme papain.
One went on to make a discovery based on this serendipitous or chance occurrence; the other did not. Intensive tandem interviews were conducted with each of these scientists in order to discover similarities and differences in their experiences with the floppy-eared rabbits.
These interview materials are analyzed for the light they shed on the process of scientific discovery in general and on the serendipity pattern in particular.
What the abstract doesn’t make clear, of course, is the practical result of all this: meat tenderizer. The same substance that flopped the bunnies’ ears – papain – soon showed up on the grocers’ shelves as the active ingredient in Adolph’s, a staple of kitchens and restaurants for decades.
Not only scientists make serendipitous discoveries, of course. We make them ourselves in the course of daily life. We may not go on to invent meat tenderizer or Scotchgard, but there’s still a good bit of fun to be had in turning up instances of what amounts to six degrees of informational separation. John Barthes has it right when he says in his extraordinary retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.”
Take African violets, for example. I’ve been obsessed with African violets recently since I took in my mother’s as foster plants. They’d stopped blooming for her, they weren’t putting on new leaves and generally they appeared as though they were willing to die, if only they could summon the energy.
“Let me take them home,” I said. “I’ve got more light, and I’ll remember to water them. Maybe they’ll do something. It can’t get much worse.” So home they came.
The first thing I did was very nearly kill them myself. I wasn’t used to having them around, and I forgot to water them. Then, I overwatered and got water on the leaves. African violets don’t like to have water on their leaves, and mine were not happy.
Eventually, I found a rhythm and they perked up. When they began to bloom, I discovered I have at least five colors and three varieties. I’d never seen a white violet or a ruffled “double” pink. When a rich, burgundy bloom with the texture of velvet began to open, it was so compelling in its beauty I began to search out information about these plants I’d always considered a bit of a snooze.
When I discovered their scientific name is Saintpaulia, I couldn’t believe it. While the name recalls a certain apostle, a half-buried-in-snow Minnesota city and a lesser German beer, it was first and foremost a reminder of Santa Paula, California, home to one of my favorite blogging companions who’s affectionately known as “SP”. For weeks, everytime I saw SP’s initials, I thought of my flowers. Every time I looked at the flowers, I thought of SP.
In fact, the genus is named after Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire (1860–1910), District Commissioner of Tanga province in Tanzania (then Tanganyika). He discovered the plant in 1892 and sent seeds back to his father, an amateur botanist in Germany. Somewhat earlier, two British plant enthusiasts, Reverend W.E. Taylor and Sir John Kirk, collected and submitted specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but their specimens were incomplete and it remained for father and son von Saint Paul-Illaire to popularize them.
Today, even as Saintpaulia increasingly are threatened in the wild, information about the lovely plant abounds on the internet. Grocery and drug stores sell them in their season and videos about how to propagate and care for them are freely available. But most delightful of all is that for the first time in my life I’m able to remember the scientific name of a pretty plant, and I remember it solely because of my association with a California blogger.
Now, I ask you – how serendipitous is that?