I have just come across a book review by a critic who had read the book in question, unlike Evelyn Waugh who did not approve of reading a book before writing about it on the grounds that to do so might prejudice the reviewer. The writer liked the book but said its references demanded of the reader what he called a “world class” education. He pointed out that such an education, which he fortunately had, practically has disappeared.
He was right about that, but I do not want to address why this has happened because the subject lacks the necessary insignificance. But he reminded me of how the typical curriculum now deprives the student of the joy of genuine trivia. I don’t mean pedantry and computer nerdishness, but solemn high irrelevancies. Some of the greatest crimes against culture in modern times have been the result of striving for relevance; only a genuine passion for irrelevance can repair this in time for the next millennium.
Without such information, the imagination will never experience the thrill of those curiosities that throughout the course of history have been the tonic of sober men and the elixir of those less sober.
So for the sake of a theme, I should use these columns to explore the strange interworkings and parallels by which the threads of human events have been worked in the woof and warp of history that produce that fantastic tapestry known as “coincidence.” One risk is that from time to time this actually may slip into significance. Lord Byron hinted at that in Don Juan: “A ‘strange coincidence,’ to use a phrase / By which such things are settled now-a-days.”
Even though our national system of education has collapsed, I think I am safe in assuming that any schoolboy knows that in 1719 Prince Augustus of Saxony married a dwarf. Or at least Archduchess Maria Josepha was so short that she was thought to be one. St. John Neumann was so short that he was chosen to hold the book up to the eye level of Pius IX as the pope defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He was the same height as St. Ignatius Loyola and St. John Vianney and James Madison (who weighed exactly one hundred pounds). Little more than five feet tall, these men still were about four inches taller than St. Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria.
But getting back to Augustus and Maria Josepha, a strange coincidence consists in the fact that their marriage, which was to be so sadly shadowed by the second Silesian War, took place as the Welsh smelting industry was launched in Swansea.
Speaking of Wales (a principality rarely mentioned in today’s theological journals), it is an interesting coincidence that the Prince of Wales was not the first brave heart to wed a Lady Diana Spencer. In 1768 a Lady Diana Spencer was married to Topham Beauclerk, Dr. Johnson’s friend and an illegitimate descendant of King Charles II.
And while the world knows that Henry Morton Stanley, a Welshman, found David Livingston, a Scot, at Ujiji in Central Africa in 1871, few are aware that Stanley also retrieved Edward Schnitzer, a German, at Kavalli in 1888. To compound the wonder, the same Schnitzer was killed by Arabs in 1892 near a waterfall named for Stanley.
So Wales is a blessed cornucopia of coincidence.
The Prince of Wales’s uncle, Lord Snowden (a title homophonic with the highest point in Wales), refined a lens for portrait photography and also designed the Penguin House at the London Zoo. The coincidence here lies with his sister, the countess of Rosse in Ireland, a collateral descendant of the man who perfected the speculum of the reflecting telescope and whose fourth son designed the snow chains used for automobile tires, which were used on one of the first expeditions to photograph penguins in Antarctica.
I make no apology for going off on a Welsh tangent. The romance of that noble land should serve to remind us of those facts far stranger than fiction, knowledge of which is fast disappearing from our schools, and the study of which can raise us above the mire of the merely banal to the heights of the genuinely arcane.