Punch,  50 (1866), 143.

The Sceptical Beauty; or, A Drama or Doubt



Drama, Drollery

Relevant illustrations:



Philosophy, Reason, Education, Laboratories, Analytical Chemistry, Instruments, Faith, Gender, Human Development, Periodicals, Reading

    The initial letter forms part of an illustration showing a blindfolded cherub sitting at a chemical laboratory bench on which rest bottles and a balance. Beneath the bench lie a mortar and pestle, while near the cherub sits a large basket labelled 'D. Cupid Esq. F.R.S. Illusions (For Analysis)' and which appears to contain ground chemicals. The extract comes from the North British Review (this is probably a reference to Hutton 1866) and describes Thomas H Huxley's argument that scepticism is the 'highest of duties' and that 'all faith' is 'blind' when based 'on any kind of authority but that of scientific experience'. The extract concludes by criticizing Huxley's argument: the writer speculates what it would be like for a women to doubt 'whether she ought to love till scientific habits of mind had verified the credentials [of a suitor]!'. Punch believes it can imagine this situation and presents a short drama which seeks to expose the inappropriateness of Huxley's argument, not least in the problems encountered during courtship. It is set in an 'elegant drawing room' where a young lady, Isabel, sits reading. Her scepticism is obvious from the moment when she has to verify whether her mother has gone out by saying to herself: 'The carriage is certainly gone, and I may accept the evidence of my eyes, the double reflection of the retina, uniting into one image'. She is soon greeted by her lover Augustus whose impassioned attempts to win Isabel's hand in marriage contrast with her cold scepticism, not least toward Augustus's myriad arguments for his suitability as her husband. For example, when Augustus asks whether he is punctual, Isabel replies, 'Yes [...] allowing for the variation of ordinary watches'. Later, Isabel doubts whether Augustus's father is genuinely rich, surmising that his beard is 'probably dyed'. Despite Augustus's assurance to the contrary, Isabel continues her sceptical approach and warns him that he has 'hardly examined his toilette table', while the 'absence of colouring fluid might only show that he is dyed at the hairdressers'. She proceeds to question Augustus's other grounds for believing his father to be rich, by doubting the conclusiveness of Augustus's remarks that he had been with his father to the bank 'and seen him take the dividends [of his shares] on £90,000'. Later, when Isabel asks for further proof that Augustus loves her, Augustus replies, 'have I not said and sworn it a hundred times', an answer which Isabel thinks 'unworthy' of a 'pupil' of Huxley. Augustus grows so exasperated by her scepticism that he offers one final proof that he is 'a man to be trusted'—that he is a 'regular and diligent student of Punch'. This finally makes Isabel declare herself to be his, although her 'own character as a Huxleian' makes her seek proof of this and question him on the 'contents of his last six numbers'.

© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020

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