Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand

“Moby Dick” represents three things to Malcolm:

We are, here, concerned with the most epicene of those three.

Like the eponymous whale, the book is a ginormous thing; and it doesn’t take easily to pithy quotation. When we drive, at length, to Chapter 104 [of 135!]: The Fossil Whale, we get this:

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

And so to today’s [London — better put that in Malcolm, especially after yesterday’s effort] Times, which makes the connection in the obituary of John Chichester-Constable, “46th Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness”:

John Chichester-Constable was the heir to a Yorkshire estate which famously houses the remains of a 58½ft-long sperm whale that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

“Famously”, maybe; but it’s news to Malcolm. It shouldn’t have been for two good reasons:

1. (as that obit. notes) it’s actually in the book, in Chapter 102, A Bower in the Arsacides, to be precise:

There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales. Likewise, I have heard that in the museum of Manchester, in New Hampshire, they have what the proprietors call “the only perfect specimen of a Greenland or River Whale in the United States.” Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale, but of moderate size… 

Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities—spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan—and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side. Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.

2. It also appeared in the Guardian obituary, complete with photographs, published nearly a month ago, which Malcolm overlooked:

John Chichester-Constable, who has died aged 84, was heir to Burton Constable, a splendid though crumbling pile in the flatlands of east Yorkshire. His greatest achievement was the restoration of this house, which is filled with extraordinary objects assembled by his ancestors – not least the skeleton of a sperm whale that was described in Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick.

The largest house in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Burton Constable is a romantic compendium, substantially Elizabethan but remodelled in the 18th century, set not far from the fast-eroding coastline of the North Sea. It is over this bleak strand, from Flamborough to Spurn Point, that the Seigniory of Holderness, a title held by the owners of Burton Constable, extends an eccentric fiefdom: the right – elsewhere ceded to the monarch – to “royal fish”. Any whale, dolphin, sturgeon or porpoise cast up on these shores (which have a long history of cetacean strandings) becomes the property of the lord paramount – of which Chichester-Constable was the 46th.

Thus, when a 58ft male sperm whale was found on the beach at Tunstall in 1825, Sir Thomas Constable sent his steward, Richard Iveson, to claim it as a gigantic addition to his cabinet of curiosities. Relieved of its blubber, it was articulated on a metal stand in the grounds, alongside an avenue of trees. And there, over the decades, it slowly rotted and rusted into the earth, awaiting its rediscovery. 

About the only mystery is how both obits use a remarkably-similar photograph, without acknowledgement in either case —

Burton Constable Hall is, all that apart, a rather fine place.



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Filed under Britain, fiction, films, Guardian, leisure travel, Literature, London, reading, Times, Yorkshire

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