Thursday 18 April 2013

Character Profile: James Forbes

Professor James David Forbes

"What gives the work of James Forbes its epic character is neither the glaciers, nor the laws of them, but the discovery of those laws; the methodical, truthful, patient, valiant battle between man and Nature, his final victory, his wresting from her the secret which had been buried for ages in the ice-caves of the Alps, guarded by cold and fatigue, danger and superstitious dread."

In this article I'd like to introduce my readers to a character who has gradually increased in importance for me over the past year and a half. I first learned about Forbes while reading the excellent book Killing Dragons by Fergus Fleming, and in the months since I have systematically hunted down every scrap of information I could find about this remarkable man.

James David Forbes was born in 1809 to a noble family, a native of Edinburgh and a Scot through and through. Forbes was of that charmed generation which saw Britain ascend from the chaos of war and enter a new era of technological supremacy: an era of opportunity for those with money and power. He was a sickly child ever since birth, and his early years were marked by several tragedies which affected his world view. His mother died in 1810, his older brother William in 1826, and his father in 1827. Consequently he was a solitary individual who made no friends until well into adulthood.

He studied for a legal career, and while his singularly brilliant mind allowed him to excel with relative ease, his heart was not in the work. Since childhood he had kept journals of scientific notes, almost compulsively, in a manner reminiscent of Isaac Newton. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1825 (at the age of only 16!) to study the law, but worked simultaneously at his scientific studies and anonymously published a number of papers on natural philosophy. He abandoned his legal interests in 1830 and embraced a life of science. By 1827 he was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and in 1833, at the astonishing age of 24, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy. His shyness disappeared and he became a self-assured, confident academic who lectured for half the year and went off on adventures for the other half.

Until his health gave out, Forbes never stopped. His character was simply relentless, as irresistible as the glaciers he devoted his life to studying. I am in awe of the amount that he achieved, from groundbreaking research on the polarisation of thermal radiation to the invention of the seismometer, from the first accurate maps of the Alps to the foundations of modern glaciology.

He first visited the Alps in 1826, and on subsequent visits, notably his epic campaign of 1842, he carried out a grand series of experiments intended to determine the truth behind the question of why do glaciers move at all? Until Forbes came on the scene, glaciers were shrouded with ignorance and folklore, poorly understood and shoddily studied. Forbes spent an entire summer on the Mer de Glace, Chamonix, taking measurements and subjecting himself to the most brutal extremes of mountain weather in the name of science.  He was also the first British explorer to summit a virgin Alpine peak (the Stockhorn above Zermatt) and was capable of walking thirty miles a day for a week across the roughest terrain. He did all this before the invention of modern mountaineering equipment, safety techniques, or even maps.

In short, his deeds were legendary.

His book, published in 1843, is a marvel of science and a worthy adventure story in its own right. In Travels Through the Alps of Savoy Forbes compares himself to his spiritual forebear, the great explorer H.B. de Saussure, and describes the almost mythical lengths he was willing to go to in order to discover the truth behind Alpine glaciation. Forbes' travels occurred over a decade before the celebrated Golden Age of Alpine exploration, and yet when we read his book we sense that his labours made that era possible.

This relentless pattern of work and Alpine exploration took its toll on his health, and after his marriage to Alicia in 1843 he suffered an attack of gastric fever that nearly killed him. He struggled against chronic illness for the rest of his life and would never again regain his former strength. In 1846 he returned to the Alps but was too weak to climb, and his doctors prescribed complete rest for his annual six month vacation. Needless to say, his active personality rebelled against the sentence of peace and quiet, and in 1847 and 1848 he conducted a geological campaign in the Western Highlands. In 1848 Forbes explored the north face of Ben Nevis. He was probably the first man to turn a scientific eye to the mountains of Lochaber and Glencoe.

When the Alpine Club was founded in 1857, Forbes was the first honourary member. He maintained a keen interest in the Alps but never again climbed: "My heart remains where my body can never be. My yearnings towards the home of my youth and towards the Swiss Alps are much on a par: both homesickness." He died in 1868.

Forbes' entire life is full of interest, but in my fiction I have chosen to focus on the mid to late 1840s when he was pining for the mountains and starkly aware of his own mortality. I see Forbes as a tragic figure, looking back to his great days of 1842 and afraid that he will never again have such an adventure as his health deteriorates.

I hope you'll all get to know James Forbes a little better over the coming months!

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