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Senior Correspondent

You have probably had the experience while shopping of stumbling upon the perfect necktie or coffee pot only after you have bought and paid for another. The phenomenon is well known to writers as well. Indeed, it is something of a rule of thumb that a researcher will find the perfect ornament for his argument only after he has made it. In a recent talk at the American Philosophical Society I touched briefly upon the catastrophes that befell London in 1665 (the Plague year) and 1666 (year of the Great Fire). These events launched an epidemic of apocalyptic terror among the general populace, and an orgy of superstition that one would more easily attribute to the Age of Savonarola than to that of Newton. (See, after buying of course, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, p. 53.)

My personal home library, though considerably downsized, is still too large for the space available, and far too many of my books must be double parked, as it were. The truth is that I no longer remember where many of my “back row” volumes are stored. Last week when I took down some volumes of Browning for blog-related purposes, I found lurking behind in the dark recess my long-missed set of the principal works of T. H. Huxley, the Victorian biologist, and a great scientific popularizer of his day. His ferocious defense of the theory of evolution earned him the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog.” He also coined the concept of the intellectual “agnostic.” The book I plucked out was the first volume of his Collected Essays (1892), with the general title Method and Results, and the first essay within it (not counting a brief but most interesting autobiography) is entitled “On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge.” It happens to be a talk or “lay sermon” first delivered in the year 1866, and Huxley seized the opportunity of the date — precisely two centuries following the London disasters alluded to in my first paragraph — to emphasize the progress made by the scientific mind in freeing itself from superstition. How elegantly some plundered sentences from Huxley might have stiffened my own much less competent talk.

But that was only the beginning of what I got from stumbling upon one of my own books. In recent months I have been in close touch with my old Oxford friend Andrew Seth. Andrew is now a writer of books in the field of business history, a subject on which he may be presumed to know whereof he speaks, as he is a retired CEO of one of his nation’s business giants, Unilever (Britain). The founder of the vast commercial empire of which Unilever Britain is but one modern fiefdom was William H. Lever (1851-1925), who in one of his lesser roles unifies the disparate, not to say incoherent, elements of my story so far. My own edition of the works of “doubting” Thomas Huxley once belonged to this man.

I have no memory or where or when I bought them. I can see from my bookplate that they came into my library in the 1970s, but it is the bookplates that were already in the volumes that are of interest. Lever’s career, while extraordinary, in one sense typifies the biographical pattern of a number of Anglo-American captains of industry. "Rags-to-riches" overstates it, but points in the right direction. He was born in Bolton, in the north of England, the son of shopkeepers.  (Like Margaret Thatcher’s parents, they ran a modest grocery store). With a brother he founded a firm, imaginatively called Lever Brothers, that after a while gained an international strangle hold on the soap market. The rest is history. There can be few twentieth-century lives in the Anglo-American world that Lord Leverhulme didn't touch. I retained from my childhood years none of the wonderful old Irish ballads my grandfather used to sing — strange versions of “Barbara Allen” and “The Golden Vanity” among them — but my head is still cluttered with a pre-television soap jingle written by the Lever Brothers’ ad men:

Singin’ in the bathtub, singin’ for joy,
Singin’ the song of–Life-Boy.*
Singin’ in the bathtub, cuz I know
Life-Boy really stops B. O.

William Lever was a serious practicing Christian, a business innovator, and a Liberal politician. The photograph at the head of the essay shows him in the ceremonial regalia of the Mayor of Bolton — that office being one of dozens of civic responsibilities he undertook at various times. He was something of a utopian social reformer. He became one of the most munificent philanthropists of the twentieth century. The continuing good works of the Leverhulme Trust are of a kind and scope that Americans perhaps more easily associate with the Carnegie, Ford, Guggenheim, and Mellon Foundations — among numerous others.

The career of Lord Leverhulme — Hulme being the family name of his wife — can be traced through the bookplates in my volumes of Huxley. There are three of them — the first on the inner board, the second and third on the recto and verso of the fly leaf. He began (1) simply as W. H. Lever, Thornton Manor, Thornton Hough, Cheshire. But when he was knighted in 1911 he naturally recorded his new style (2): Sir W. Hesketh Levert, Baronet. He came up with a fine cock-a-doodle-doo heraldic device and a suitable Latin Motto: Mutare Vel Timere Sperno — I disdain to change course or be fearful. When he was elevated to the peerage (3) a couple of elephants with Tudor rosettes joined the rooster, for the former humble Mr. Lever was now a Viscount, “Baron Leverhulme of Bolton-le-Moors.” For the past several decades, the book has been back in the hands of commoners (4), and any commoner with his own printing press can make his own baronial bookplate.

It says something about British culture that a soap baron would amass a splendid general library, or that one of his modern successors should take up the writing of business history in his retirement. I am not sure one would find many parallels in this country. 

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