August 04, 2020

The dark side of curiosity

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Elsa Hart’s new historical mystery, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, takes place in the competitive, high-class and high-stakes arena of Enlightenment-era collectors: wealthy men fascinated by the new science of naturalism who spent fortunes to acquire samples of flora, fauna and minerals from around the world. In this essay, she shares why this world made the perfect setting for a murder mystery.

Picture a tourist at the end of an overscheduled afternoon, limping from a blister on a sandaled heel (the dictionary at the end of the guidebook doesn’t include the word for bandage), sweating into clothes that have stretched out after days of wear, determined to cram one more experience into an overfull mind before the sites close. This is how I imagine the Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm when, on a tour of England in 1758, he visited the home of the collector Hans Sloane. Kalm poured his impressions of the day into a rapturous account of insects preserved in glass boxes, rare books lining walls from floor to ceiling, gemstones arranged in drawers and numerous objects from mummies to corals to snuffboxes. He lamented that he hadn’t had enough time to see everything.

In the early 18th century, before public museums became national projects in England, private collections like that of Hans Sloane were popular among those who could afford them. English ships were sailing ever farther from English shores and returning with plants, animals and objects never before seen on the British Isles. These same ships transported enslaved people and advanced colonial agendas across the world. In addition, profits from slavery contributed to the wealth that enabled collectors to amass as much as they did. Hans Sloane, for example, married into a fortune made from sugar plantations in Jamaica. Over the centuries, many of the objects from these collections have been lost or destroyed, but those that remain carry a legacy of exploitation and cruelty with which the museums and educational institutions that display them must reckon.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

Imagine a cabinet of curiosities and you may think of occult amulets and toothy skulls believed to be those of ancient dragons. The collectors of the early 1700s were still attracted to objects that provoked wonder and suggested forbidden magic, but after a century of turmoil in England, collections were beginning to serve a new purpose. To some thinkers of the time, they offered a means of putting the world in order. When the Scottish ship’s surgeon James Cunningham traveled to China in 1696, he received instructions on the proper methods for collecting and preserving plants, and was asked to procure not only striking and unusual specimens, but “the most common grass, rush, moss, fern, thistles, thorns, and vilest weeds.” The organized repositories that resulted from this systematic collecting would play an essential role in modern Western scientific inquiry. The reason that Pehr Kalm didn’t have time to see the whole of Sloane’s collection was that he spent part of the afternoon at a desk, squinting through the thick glass of a specimen jar to count the scales on the belly of a snake. It was a task assigned to him by his patron, Carl Linnaeus, whose species categorizations would become the foundation of the scientific naming system used today.

My own path to the world of the 18th-century collectors began when I was doing research for my first book. The letters James Cunningham sent from China helped me conjure a fictional English botanist blundering through the Chinese borderlands. They also introduced me to the collectors who waited eagerly for Cunningham’s crates of specimens to arrive in England. These collectors and the coterie of naturalists, apothecaries, artists and charlatans in which they operated, inspired The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

I knew that I wanted to write a mystery. I have an abiding attraction to this genre that explores malevolent, chaotic, evil human impulses within a tight storytelling structure of puzzles and patterns. And my research into the lives of the collectors gave me ample material with which to build a tale of murder. The same curiosity, knowledge and dedication that inspires the best collector can become the obsessiveness, arrogance and unscrupulousness that corrupts the worst. It was a competitive community prone to feuds and betrayals. The death of one collector was an opportunity for others to scavenge an unprotected collection, and in some cases absorb it entirely into their own. It was also a controversial community. In the eyes of conservative Protestants, collecting represented an impious dedication to the vulgar and the strange. To some members of the nobility, collecting was just another tasteless attempt by the newly wealthy to rise in the ranks of society. Periwigged gentlemen complained in coffee houses, calling Sloane a “Master of Scraps” and deriding his collection as a “knickknackatory.”

In The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, the crime takes place during a tour of a collection. This was an idea that came from my research. I wondered, as I pictured the exhausted traveler Pehr Kalm tallying the scales of the cobra specimen, what a lone researcher separated from a group might have glimpsed through an open door. Perhaps he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see. And as I thought about the other visitors wandering the rooms, disoriented and overwhelmed by the dense displays, I imagined how difficult it would be for them to recall the day’s order of events. What a happy circumstance for a murderer that would be.


Author photo by Virginia Harold.

Elsa Hart

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