Patricia Fara

The Green-Fingered Lothario

The Multifarious Mr Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, the Natural Historian Who Shaped the World

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In the opening sentence of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield arrests his readers’ attention by declaring defiantly that ‘the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like … and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but … that stuff bores me’. Toby Musgrave might disagree. The first chapter of his new biography of Joseph Banks, The Multifarious Mr Banks, opens with a sentence packed with information: ‘A son was born on 13 February 1743 at 30 Argyll Street in Soho, London to William (1719–61) and Sarah Banks (1719–1804), both then aged twenty-four.’ Following a detour back to 1334, Musgrave next elaborates on Joseph’s privileged childhood, which sounds even more lousy than Caulfield’s: ‘cruelty and brutishness was dished out’ but he was ‘neither cowed nor broken’.

Musgrave is a garden historian and his chief interest lies in Banks’s experiences as a seafaring botanist, which he relates with exemplary thoroughness. Halfway through this book, Banks is still only thirty; his final twenty years are allocated fewer than twenty pages. In contrast with some depictions of Banks, the explorer appears here as a jovial scion of the Establishment, blessed with a cheerful, friendly temperament, though Musgrave admits that he had a ‘roving eye’ and sometimes ‘behaved like a cad’.

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