If the young man my mother and Mr. Stevens mentioned comes, he can bring them. I shall write to Mr. Stevens about the terms on which I can take him. I am, however, rather shy about it, having hitherto had no one to suit me. As you seem to know him, I suppose he comes to see you sometimes. Let me know what you think of him. Do not tell me merely that he is “a very nice young man.” Of course he is. So is Charles a very nice boy, but I could not be troubled with another like him for any consideration whatever. I have written to Mr. Stevens to let me know his character, as regards neatness and perseverance in doing anything he is set about. From you I should like to know whether he is quiet or boisterous, forward or shy, talkative or silent, sensible or frivolous, delicate or strong. Ask him whether he can live on rice and salt fish for a week on an occasion—whether he can do without wine or beer, and sometimes without tea, coffee or sugar—whether he can sleep on a board—whether he likes the hottest weather in England—whether he is too delicate to skin a stinking animal—whether he can walk twenty miles a day—whether he can work, for there is sometimes as hard work in collecting as in anything. Can he draw (not copy)? Can he speak French? Does he write a good hand? Can he make anything? Can he saw a piece of board straight? (Charles cannot, and every bit of carpenter work I have to do myself.) Ask him to make you anything—a little card box, a wooden peg or bottle-stopper, and see if he makes them neat, straight and square. Charles never does anything the one or the other. Charles has now been with me more than a year, and every day some such conversation as this ensues: “Charles, look at these butterflies that you set out yesterday.” “Yes, sir.” “Look at that one—is it set out evenly?” “No, sir.” “Put it right then, and all the others that want it.” In five minutes he brings me the box to look at. “Have you put them all right?” “Yes, sir.” “There’s one with the wings uneven, there’s another with the body on one side, then another with the pin crooked. Put them all right this time.” It most frequently happens that they have to go back a third time. Then all is right. If he puts up a bird, the head is on one side, there is a great lump of cotton on one side of the neck like a wen, the feet are twisted soles uppermost, or something else. In everything it is the same, what ought to be straight is always put crooked. This after twelve months’ constant practice and constant teaching! And not the slightest sign of improvement. I believe he never will improve. Day after day I have to look over everything he does and tell him of the same faults. Another with a similar incapacity would drive me mad. He never, too, by any chance, puts anything away after him. When done with, everything is thrown on the floor. Every other day an hour is lost looking for knife, scissors, pliers, hammer, pins, or something he has mislaid. Yet out of doors he does very well—he collects insects well, and if I could get a neat, orderly person in the house I would keep him almost entirely at out-of-door work and at skinning, which he does also well, but cannot put into shape….
Your affectionate brother,
(From Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1 (of 2), by James Marchant, as found at Project Gutenburg. Beetle image from The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Wallace, as found at Wikimedia Commons)