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In December 1771, some five months after the Endeavour had returned to England, Joseph Banks took up his pen to write a long letter.
‘My Dear Count’, he began, ‘the abstract of my Voyage, which I have so long promis’d you, I at last begin to write’.
This letter was the most complete account of his adventures in the Pacific that Banks ever committed to paper, and as neat a précis of sailing on Cook’s first voyage as one could hope to read. It was sent to the dashing French noble Louis-Léon-Félicité de Brancas, Comte du Lauraguais (1733–1824), who was then living a few blocks away in Cavendish Square. Lauraguais was one of the most extravagant figures of the age and a scientist of some note, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable participant in the discussions hosted by Banks and Daniel Solander at Soho Square.
Very little has been published on Lauraguais, who now seems destined to be remembered as the lover of one of the greatest stars of the Paris opera, Sophie Arnould. He lived to be 91, not only surviving the Terror but living long enough to see the Bourbon Restoration, and in his long life he was, by turns, a soldier, a courtier, a chemist, a playwright, a horse-fancier, a book-collector, an economist, and much else besides.
It is barely exaggerating to say that stories accumulate around the Comte too fast to be fact-checked, whether it is the rumour that he poisoned his own horse in an attempt to fix a match race around the Bois de Boulogne, the story that he once had a more staid rival for Arnould’s affection arrested for attempted murder (on the grounds that it was physiologically possible to die of boredom), or the report that he had dissected one of his dead coachmen as an experiment.
One of the most adroit pen-portraits of the Comte was written by Erasmus Darwin, who had known the Comte since 1766. Darwin described the French nobleman as a man of science who ‘dislikes his own Country, was six months in the Bastille for speaking against the Government’ and ‘loves every thing English’. On reflection, Darwin added, ‘I suspect his Scientific Passion is stronger than perfect Sanity.’
Banks could not have guessed it as he sent his letter, but he had unwittingly launched an enduring bibliographical mystery. With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to guess what happened next: capitalising on the fact that Banks was the toast of London, Lauraguais — not known for missing the main chance and a confirmed pamphleteer — soon went to a printer with a view to publishing the letter.
Given that an anonymous and rather sensational account of the Endeavour voyage published a few months earlier had already been a bestseller, there can be little doubt that a book published under Banks’ name would have sold the doors off. Of course, the publication never came off: it was being set up by the printer when Banks, as he wrote, ‘seized the impression and burn’d it’.
The story of this thwarted publication might well have been lost were it not for an important group of papers held in the Library since the 1930s. The Library holds the original handwritten letter Banks sent to Lauraguais; a remarkable — and slightly bonkers — companion letter in French by Lauraguais regarding the scientific discoveries made on the voyage, which the Comte clearly intended to publish as a supplement to the letter; and the neatly printed proof of the letter itself, with neither title page nor any other preliminary pages.
Even in this fragmentary state, it is possible to see that the book being planned by Lauraguais would have been a slim but attractive quarto. In 1989 the Library acquired a significant postscript to the story with the purchase from Sydney booksellers Hordern House of a short letter by Lauraguais in which he begged Banks to allow the book to go ahead, a plea which fell on deaf ears.
The abandoned book is a small but important part of the story of the dispersal of the Banks papers, a treasure-trove of manuscripts and letters which was passed around between various descendants and possible biographers for over 60 years after the death of Banks in 1820, right up until the British Museum flatly declined their purchase in 1884.