Darwin among the Gentry

Adrian Desmond

  • The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vol. I: 1821-1836 edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith
    Cambridge, 702 pp, £30.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 521 25587 2
  • The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea by Ronald Clark
    Weidenfeld, 449 pp, £14.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 297 78377 7

In a world where dockers vote Tory and Cambridge graduates become KGB colonels, predicting class behaviour is a chancy business. Let me conjure up a still more incongruous example. Conceive a manor-born gentleman, with a private fortune exceeding £30,000 in the 1840s, respectably Whig and with a family dislike of fierce radicalism. He is Cambridge-educated and until recently a prospective parson. Now consider the times. The pauper presses are screaming for democratic concessions. Owenite unions are threatening the Church Establishment and gentrified privileges, using a levelling Lamarckism to make their point. In 1839 the century’s most serious working-class insurrection breaks out. On any social-interest theory, how could the gentleman, recently returned from a privately-financed circumnavigation, as companion to Castlereagh’s nephew, sit down in 1837-9 and devise a mechanistic theory of organic transmutation?

The gentleman of course was Charles Darwin. And the magnitude of the problem is highlighted by the publication of the first volume of his meticulously-edited Correspondence. This eagerly-awaited collection of letters, copiously annotated and with a plethora of social detail, promises to transform the Darwin industry. Not that the industry needs a cash injection. The publication of Darwin’s Transmutation Notebooks in the 1960s, Notebooks on Metaphysics and Morals in 1974 and Red Notebook in 1979, means that students already routinely tackle Darwin’s day-to-day theorising through the crucial 1837-9 period. No Victorian’s daily thoughts have been picked over so precisely by a squad of scholars. So much is published that a managerial meta-industry is already springing up to collate and correlate. Yet the more esoteric these studies become, the easier it is to lose sight of the other Darwin: the member of the minor Shropshire gentry, stock-investor and sportsman-naturalist.

The Correspondence promises to rectify this. Here Darwin emerges cossetted in a world of wealthy Whiggism. The new letters reveal profuse details on the social mores of the ‘noble Houses of the Forest, Bliss Castle & Darwin Hall’ (nicknames for the Owen, Wedgwood and Darwin estates), allowing precise assessments of his attitude towards the Church, politics and nature. From such material must come new social reconstructions of Darwinism. The want of a definitive correspondence has been much felt. The Victorian Life and Letters is covered in historiographical cobwebs. Like Huxley’s, it served its ideological purpose a century ago in securing the bourgeois Darwinian hegemony. Today the demand is for exact details of Darwin’s political, social and class attitudes: we need to understand the precise way his evolutionary strategies locked into a Whig Malthu-sian world-view.

The letters cover Darwin’s Shrewsbury boyhood, Edinburgh and Cambridge student days, and Beagle voyage. It was a world of abundance; only the wealthy, with the workhouses about to go up, could write (as his sweetheart Fanny Owen did): ‘what a horrid disgusting thing money is – I hate the name of it – dont you – it is for vulgar souls – not Beetle Hunters.’ We get a glimpse of Cambridge high life: the gluttony and gambling – swans for the eating, Van John all night, with ‘the Dr’ picking up the tabs. Darwin laughed modestly at the paralysis of his faculties through inertia, but the image of enforced idleness at Christ’s is misleading. There was riding (his horse came up too), but more important he was addicted to the gentrified craze of the age – beetle mania. A fanatical attention to the minutiae of beetle classification was to serve many a curate well in his comforting affirmation of Paley’s ‘happy nature’. Darwin was to employ it differently. Still, taxonomic precision was an unlikely legacy of gentrified indolence.

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