A.S. Byatt loves Darwin

“I love Danes. By the way, how do you pronounce Lysgaard?”

I have just finished my lecture, when I hear the words. The location is Christ’s College in Cambridge. The occasion; a conference on the perception of Darwin around Europe. I have told the story about the international fundraising for the commemorative statue at the Natural History Museum in London following the death of Darwin in 1882. Accompanied by enthusiastic cheers, it was placed in the Central Hall in 1885, removed in 1927 and now in celebration of the Darwin anniversary in 2009, it has been moved from the humiliating spot in a café back to its original location, so that Darwin once again can gaze upon the great diplodocus and the many visitors of the museum with his serious marble stare. 

The fundraising campaign in 1882 generated a lot of attention in the British papers that followed the contributions from the different countries closely. In Sweden, more than 2000 individuals had participated in collecting money. And it was all kinds of people who contributed – “from a bishop to a seamstress” – it was repeated again and again. The Swedes collected almost £400 out of the total £4.500 worldwide. The Finnish contributed £94. The Swedes and the Finnish were celebrated as heroes. No one mentioned the Danes and their measly £40.

But I should not feel bad continued the confident and energetic woman with the bright vivid eyes who had now placed herself in front of me. “I love Danes”, she repeated. She is A. S. Byatt, the 72 year old author of among others Angels and Insects, Possession: A Romance, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman. Generously, she brushes aside the Danish ‘Jantelov’ as the Danish national characteristic. “It is all about humour, helpfulness, and capability”, she explains. “That is the image I have of the Danes. You should hold on to that”. Her translator Claus Bech are among her favourite Danes and clearly also her favourite translator. This is not a matter of common courtesy. Byatt may be incredibly kind and forthcoming but she is always tough and uncompromisingly honest.

On this day however, the Danes are not the only ones getting a declaration of love from Byatt. Shortly after, she captures everyone’s attention from the lectern. She was supposed to talk about how Darwin had inspired her to write Angels and Insects. But once she began thinking about it, she realized that Darwin had always been with her. The scientific explanation and the knowledge of natural history mean everything. And Darwin is at the centre of it all.

“For me the natural scientist is a hero”, we are told during a fascinating and head spinning tour of Byatt’s narrative universe with the author herself acting as the guide. There is an array of quirky stories, funny anecdotes, and sharp points served with an impressive knowledge of literature, art, and science. We are all completely consumed. Not only is A.S. Byatt one of Britain’s greatest living writers. She is also an excellent storyteller.

A little while later, we are all to be photographed with the new Darwin statue at Christ’s College. A Chinese colleague wants a picture of me and Darwin. Byatt moves in and asks if she should be in the picture as well. I say “of course” and we all smile at the photographer. Everyone except my colleague who wants a picture without Byatt. “I don’t want anyone in my pictures that I don’t know”, she whispers. Fortunately, the picture of Byatt, Darwin, and the Dane has been taken. Both Darwin and I are in very good company.

A Norwegian colleague interrupts and asks if I know how much Norway contributed to the fundraiser following Darwin’s death. I do not. “Well….” he ponders, “if I know my countrymen it was probably no more than 5 cents.”

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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