Bust of John Passmore Edwards

The Autobiography of John Passmore Edwards

Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties


When I was about twelve years of age, the only London periodical that came into the village was the Penny Magazine, published by Charles Knight, and that was taken in by my father. I well remember the number that contained a biographical sketch with portrait of John Hunter. The article began somewhat in this way -"John Hunter, the greatest anatomist of modern times." I asked my mother the meaning of the word "anatomist," and she told me to consult the dictionary. I did so, and got a little wiser. I had to go to the same source to know the meaning of the word "modern." I read on and on, with the dictionary as tutor, and got sufficiently interested in the subject to feel boyish flutterings of ambition to become known and useful in some way myself. From that time-1835-to the present-1905-I have nurtured a similar desire, which time does not wither nor changing circumstances modify.

Books in my father's house were few, and fewer still in most of the houses in the village; and the books within reach were more theological than interesting. When I got a year or two older, and managed, by putting pennies together, to save a shilling or two, I occasionally walked from Blackwater to Truro-six miles-to buy, at a second-hand bookshop, the best, or what I thought the best, books my slender means would allow. Having read of Locke and Newton as great names linked in fame, I resolved to buy and read their works. The first I managed to pick up was a second-hand copy of Newton's Optics, which I read as I best could, and was just as wise at the end as I was at the beginning of reading it. I was more fascinated with the fine title, Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding. This I could not get at second hand, and had to order it through the old pensioner who supplied the Penny Magazine. After reading Locke's Essay I found myself almost as much at sea as when trying to follow Newton in analysing sunlight. This double disenchantment assisted to chasten my zeal in the pursuit of knowledge and to limit my reading to humbler themes.
My father rather discouraged than encouraged reading, and particularly in the daytime. On winter evenings the room in which the family mostly lived was lighted by a single candle, similar to what miners used underground. Such candles in those days required frequent snuffing, but they rarely got it. I, however, by aid of such light, managed to read while others were talking or moving about; and hundreds and hundreds of times I pressed my thumbs firmly on my ears until they ached, in order to read with as little distraction as possible. In this way I managed frequently to entertain myself and pick up fragments of knowledge. These recollections of early days, fresh and vivid as those of yesterday, have encouraged me in after years to promote the public library movement, so that poor boys and girls, as well as men and women, may enjoy educational or recreative advantages denied to many during the early and middle parts of the last century. I have in several instances, when building public libraries, provided reading-rooms for the special use of boys.

At school there was only one room for boys and girls, and I fell deeply in love with a schoolgirl. There was no doubt about it. For a year or two before I left school, and a year or two after, she was "the goddess of my idolatry." In consequence of helping her mother at home, she generally came to school late, and I was much more interested in watching the door to see her enter than attending to my lessons. I wrote her love-letters, some of which she received, and others were never sent, because I stood in fear of her big brother, who threatened to thrash me if I wrote to his sister. Sometimes I picked the best and largest strawberries I could find in my father's garden, folded them neatly in cabbage-leaves, and walked round her father's house at evening times in the hope of seeing her; and when I did, and was sufficiently fortunate to give her the strawberries, I went home more in love than ever. But I made little or no impression, and for a good reason: she was a year and a half older than I was, and loved another who was about a year and a half older than she was. I nevertheless did my best, and made the most of myself to win favour. On Sundays I took little stones in my pocket to chapel, and put them under the heels of my shoes when I stood up to make myself look taller. I also made myself a young, cunning, and not very scrupulous diplomatist, and used all the means within reach, or that I was capable of inventing, to sow suspicion and produce dissension between my adored one and my rival. But I made no progress, and the result was my unrequited affection gradually decayed, and left me none the worse for the consuming ordeal through which I passed.

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe-waters with his wing.

April 18, 2005
Acknowledgement of contributions and  copyright
© Dean Evans 2003