The Great Hippocampus Question
Some years ago, I found an obscure pamphlet in the Bodleyan regarding this burning debate of the Victorian Era. It was not penned by one of the great protagonists in the matter. Neither of the brace of Charles's, Darwin or Kingsley, could have read the tract, since it appeared to have been written in 1896, some 14 and 21 years after their respective deaths. Indeed, this scholarly appraisal of the matter had been written, if its authenticity comes not into question, by a certain Professor Parsifal Horsefield. It was a short paper, no more than twenty sheets, hand-written on vellum. Perhaps the good Professor Horsefield felt that its appeal would not extend beyond a very few academics. The title page, or at least the date and location noted upon it, suggested that Horsefield had spent some time at the alma mater of Kingsley himself. There were no records to be found of any Horsefield being in employment at Magdelene College, and one could only assume that he had availed himself of a sabbatical from some other hall of academe, in order to produce his paper.
Horsefield's paper was not in truth a scientific treatise. Rather, it was a critique of Kingsley's satire on the Great Hippocampus Question, in the children's novel, The Water Babies. Or, it seemed to me, an involved and serpentine argument that Kingsley's satire would have been much more mordant, had he used as the cypher for the Hippocampus, not the River Horse, but the Sea Horse. Horsefield seemed to have the required rigour of many literary critics; certainly there was no faulting his logic that indeed there was a modicum of humour to be found in the coincidence of the genus Hippocampus and the area of the brain whose presence in all primates was in dispute. He was also quite correct to point out that whilst a Sea Horse might indeed fit into the cerebellum of both a human and any of the higher primates, a River Horse would not.
Furthermore, Horsefield appeared to take issue with Kingsley's rendition of Professor Ptthmllnsprts's mode of speech, with particular regard to the vulgate 'ain't'. Indeed, Horsefield claimed personal acquaintance with Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Owen, upon both of whom Ptthmllnsprts's character was based, and that he had never once in his life heard either of them say 'ain't.'
The final page of the learned treatise consisted of a rewritten version of the passage in question from Kingsley's novel. Horsefield had changed it according to the misgivings expressed in the preceding pages of his paper. For me it was a resounding success, if Horsefield's aim had been to remove any last trace of humour and humanity in the writing. Besides, the idea of a hippopotamus in the brain is inherently much more diverting.
On an occasional basis, I made desultory enquiries about the mysterious Professor Horsefield but could find no record of his ever having held any academic post. It was with some surprise that, when I was researching my own paper: 'Science in the Victorian Novel: Christianity in Retreat', I came across the name Parsifal Horsefield. If this were the same fellow, it seemed that he had spent some time as a very junior editor at J M Dent & Company from 1889 to a time unspecified. I don't doubt that he made a very fine and discerning editor.