Undaunted, Banks intended joining Cook’s second voyage, but he had become somewhat puffed up by fame, and the intemperate demands he made to accommodate him led to his staying behind. A short trip to Iceland, his last expedition, was a poor substitute. In order to cover Banks’s many subsequent occupations and interests, Musgrave abandons his chronological approach after the Iceland trip, proceeding instead thematically. This doesn’t altogether work, as many distracting cross-references in the text acknowledge.
In this book, which is published to coincide with the bicentenary of Banks’s death, Musgrave claims to ‘take a new look at this compelling gentleman’. But what is new here? By concentrating on Banks’s foreign travels, The Multifarious Mr Banks harks back to an older era and glosses over much recent scholarship (listed in the bibliography) that stresses the effects of Banks’s administrative schemes after his return. In content, this biography resembles the one by Patrick O’Brian (1988), who enjoyed the advantage of bringing a novelist’s verve to his narrative. Banks is a fascinating character, of undoubted historical importance, and much remains to be uncovered about his life.
Joseph Banks was the most famous man in England when, in 1771, aged 28, he returned from circumnavigating the world with Captain James Cook aboard Endeavour. Yet now he is all but forgotten, and even in his lifetime he was denigrated and lampooned. Toby Musgrave’s illuminating biography suggests reasons for that, including jealousy. For young Banks was among the 300 or 400 richest men in the realm. Descended from generations of semi-literate, but prosperous Yorkshire squires, he inherited a huge annual income and the family estate at Revesby in Lincolnshire, with 340 acres of deer park and gardens.