The Multifarious Mr Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, the Natural Historian Who Shaped the World by Toby Musgrave - review by Patricia Fara

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’.

The inheritor of a fortune, Banks joined James Cook’s three-year world tour by paying for a berth on his ship, HMS Endeavour. He antagonised the crew by taking on board vast crates of equipment and collecting thousands of plants. Drawing heavily on Banks’s own journals, Musgrave provides a finely detailed

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