When I discovered that a recent photo had captured a fading sunflower petal taking to the air, the image seemed too delightful and too improbable not to share — so I included it on Lagniappe in a post titled “Summer’s Flight.”
Reader Derrick Knight‘s reference to the ‘serendipitous’ nature of the image brought a smile, especially since his use of the word was exactly right. ‘Serendipity,’ a word coined by one of Derrick’s countrymen in the 1700s, refers to something quite different from coincidence or luck, and its history is as interesting as the experiences it seeks to define: experiences which include the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the odd as odd can be.
Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined serendipity, seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes Walpole as an exemplar of a particular British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness, and just plain madness.”
Beyond question, Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When not busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters. One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau — presumably written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France — was a fake.
Purported to have been written by King Frederick of Prussia, the letter offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick promised, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”
Apparently never suspecting Walpole’s authorship, Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume had sent it; in time, the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.
When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, which he deemed a “Gothic mousetrap” of a house. Like most collectors, he wanted others to admire his treasures, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.
Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.” Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “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, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china, and carpets.” Some postulate that Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a visual analogue to his writing. As Walpole himself once said:
Visions always have been my pasture. 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 the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, once suggested that Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.
Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
In his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, John Barthes makes the point that,”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 in the process.”
But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s ‘serendipity’ was far more than lost bearings or accidental discovery. Sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous, or irrelevant facts — was equally important. Seeing what others have missed is one thing. Realizing what we’ve seen is quite another; it may require time, and patient thought.
This much is certain. A willingness to lose our bearings now and then, and an ability to incorporate accidental or unexpected encounters of any sort into the narrative of our lives, adds vibracy and interest to our days. Two and a half centuries later, Walpole’s most important legacy for our constricted and fearful time may be his conviction that the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the remarkably odd are to be celebrated rather than feared.