At Mentone.—I [1/2]
Constance Fenimore Woolson
Short Fiction, Travelogue, Serial
Darwinism, Scientific Practitioners, Utilitarianism, Anti-Scientism, Climatology, Health, Palaeontology, Archaeology, Human Species, Ancient Authorities, Prehistory, Stratigraphy, Aesthetics, Botany, Taxonomy
The female narrator, Jane Jefferson, reflects that the small party who together visit the French Riviera resort of Mentone were 'formed not by selection, or even by the survival of the fittest (after the ocean and the Channel), but simply by chance aggregation' (189). One member of the party, the boorish Professor Mackenzie, is described as being a 'perfect statistics Niagara' and 'really Cyclopean in his information', and he insists that 'facts [are] always much more impressive to a rightly disposed mind' than mere 'legends' (198). After being told of Mentone that 'Dr. Bennet, the London physician, may be called its real discoverer, as Lord Brougham was the discoverer of Cannes', the Professor begins 'discoursing upon the climate' of the Mediterranean resort, explaining that 'It is very beneficial to all those whose lungs are delicate' and 'checking off the different classes on his fingers' (200). When the party visit the 'Bone Caverns' in the red rocks of the coast, the youthful and sarcastic Innes observes that 'Troglodytes [...] lived here, clad in bear-skins, and their voices are said to have been not sweet. See Pliny and Strabo. The bones of their dinners left here, and a few of their own [...] have now become the most precious treasures of the scientific world, equalling in richness the never-to-be-sufficiently-prized-and-investigated kitchen refuse heaps of the Swiss lakes' (205–06). The Professor, however, 'overhearing something of this frivolity' emerges from the caves 'covered with dust, but rich in the possession of a ball and socket joint of some primeval animal', and announces to the assembled company that 'In 1872 a human skeleton, all but perfect, a skeleton of a tall man, was discovered in the fourth cavern, surrounded by bones which prove its great antiquity—which prove, in fact, almost beyond a doubt, that it belonged to—the—Paleolithic epoch!'. The rest of the party, though, 'gazed stupidly enough [...] into the cave [...] with only the vaguest idea of "Paleolithic's" importance' (206), and the Professor, 'overcome by such crass ignorance', is forced to explain 'in a spiritless voice' that the 'bones surrounding the skeleton were those of animals now extinct—animals that existed at a period heretofore supposed to have been before that of man; but by their presence here they prove him a contemporary, and we therefore know that he existed at a much earlier age of the world's history than we had imagined'. A member of the still unimpressed party suggests that 'You might have a necklace made, with [...] the flints below as pendants', at which Innes remarks, 'And label it prehistoric; it would be quite as attractive as preraphaelite'. (207) Later, the narrator expresses her admiration for the variety of fern called Capillus veneris which grows in profusion in Mentone, but she notes that 'unthinking people say of them that they are "so common they become weeds"' and proposes that the 'phrase should be suppressed by a society for the cultivation of good taste and the prevention of cruelty to plants' (209).
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