Palliser and Paley

William Paley died in 1805, and there’s no reason that his shade should be haunting me. And yet he appears even in my leisure reading. I recently finished Charles Palliser’s novel Rustication (2014). On the flap copy, the Guardian is quoted as describing Palliser as “our leading contemporary Victorian novelist,” which is not exactly a fair description, actually. Yes, Palliser’s first novel, The Quincunx (1989), was a Dickensian pastiche of sorts—its hero John Mellamphy tries to discover his identity and claim his inheritance amid a byzantine set of legal considerations, like David Copperfield meets Bleak House—and his fourth novel, The Unburied (1999), perhaps indebted more to Wilkie Collins and M. R. James than Dickens, shows a similar mastery of Victorian suspense and plotting. But Palliser is also a fan of unreliable narrators and ambiguous subtexts: he’s a postmodernist in Victorian drag.

Anyhow, I knew what I was in for when I started reading Rustication. The year is 1863, and the narrator, a seventeen-year-old named Charles Shenstone, has returned home in disgrace from Cambridge University: sent to the country—rusticated—for offenses that are only gradually revealed. At home, his recently widowed mother and his sister are behaving strangely, and anonymous letters filled with accusations and threats are circulating through the neighborhood. All very suspenseful, of course, but what is of interest for the present purpose is his diary report of a conversation with a neighbor:

We then discussed—well, Mr Fourdrinier did most of the talking—the following subjects: the controversy over the age of fossils; Paley’s Evidences and the absurdity of his arguments in defence of Bishop Ussher’s chronology of the Creation which put the date at 4004 B.C.; Ockham’s razor which dispenses with irrelevancies and the consequent redundancy of any notion of a Creator (videlicet the recent work of Mr Darwin).

Palliser is often praised for the extensiveness of his research: the reviewer of The Quincunx for The New York Times, for example, wrote, “Mr. Palliser’s re-creation of this period is absolutely convincing, his dialogue never jars, his command of details never falters.” But here, alas, I think that he has faltered. The part that rings true is the name-dropping. Even though Shenstone was a dissolute and presumably inattentive student, he surely would have known about Paley and heard about the 1859 publication of the Origin. The rest of it, however, is implausible in the extreme.

What is “Paley’s Evidences”? Paley wasn’t a one-trick pony—I almost typed “Pony wasn’t a one-trick paley” there—and Natural Theology (1802) wasn’t his only book. There was also The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), the book whose analogy about property won him the epithet “Pigeon Paley” and (supposedly) lost him a bishopric; Horae Paulinae (1790), his most original book, which argued that the Pauline epistles and the Acts of the Apostles are mutually corroborative; and A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), as mentioned in Rustication. As always laudably clear, Paley explains his purpose at the start of the Evidences:

The two propositions which I shall endeavour to establish are these:

I. That there is satisfactory evidence that many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.

II. That there is not satisfactory evidence that persons professing to be original witnesses of other miracles, in their nature as certain as these are, have ever acted in the same manner, in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and properly in consequence of their belief of those accounts.

You might wonder why Paley would be interested in discussing the age of the earth in the course of defending the idea that the witnesses to the miracles of the New Testament were uniquely reliable. And you would do well so to wonder, because he wasn’t. Neither Ussher’s name nor the totemic date of 4004 BC appears in the Evidences; there’s no mention of the age of the earth at all. The closest he comes to discussing it is in dismissing the “Indian chronology” that “computes eras by millions of years, and the life of man by thousands,” but he does so on the grounds of the lack of evidence of historical claims about “ages long anterior to the existence of credible history, or written language.”

It is of no avail to suppose that Natural Theology was intended. As Norman Sleep observed in Reports of the NCSE back in 2009, Paley seems to have assumed that the earth was young in Natural Theology, but he did not insist on it. In rejecting Erasmus Darwin’s protoevolutionary account in which “appetencies” produce evolution by the inheritance of acquired changes, for example, Paley is at least willing to grant the possibility of millions of years for the sake of argument:

A piece of animated matter, for example, that was endued with a propensity to fly, though ever so shapeless, though no other, we will suppose, than a round ball to begin with, would, in a course of ages—if not in a million of years, perhaps in a hundred millions of years (for our theorists, having eternity to dispose of, are never sparing in time)—acquires wings. (emphasis in original)

That is not especially surprising, Sleep explains, since Paley wrote largely before geology became a science: “Next to nothing was known about geological time. … Although James Hutton’s old-earth geology was published in 1788, John Playfair’s popularization Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth did not appear until 1802 along with Paley’s work. The Geological Society of London was founded after Paley’s death[,] in 1807.” And so on.

Not all of that passed through my mind when I read Shenstone’s report of his conversation with Fourdrinier, to be sure; I think that I mumbled, “No, that can’t be right” to myself, marked the page, and continued. Palliser is a tricksy author, of course, and it occurred to me that perhaps it was a clue to a future surprise. Perhaps the error about Paley was deliberate on Palliser’s part, indicating that the author of the diary entry was not Charles Shenstone—who would have known better—but his long-lost twin sister Charlotte Shenstone, abducted (like Adam Smith) as a child by gypsies, raised in a mysterious convent on the Continent by a silent order of nuns, and now back to substitute the real codicil to the Shenstone will, with consequences that will rock the crowned heads of Europe, and forging entries in her gadjo brother’s diary as part of her complicated scheme. Spoiler: no, I think that it was just a mistake.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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