Learned Insane

Simon Schaffer

  • The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 588 pp, £25.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 571 19647 0

Soon after his 70th birthday, Charles Darwin sat down to compose a Life of his grandfather Erasmus, poet and sage of 18th-century Lichfield, brilliant physician, mechanical inventor, incorrigible heretic and evolutionist.[*] The biography was a mix of piety and polemic. Erasmus Darwin’s fate, his chronic diseases, strenuous urging of social and organic progress, and posthumous obloquy, were too close for comfort to his grandson’s hopes and fears. Charles tried judicious product differentiation, contrasting his own mature biological views with those of the Enlightenment theorist of progressive development, combined with warm praise of the liberal materialist optimism of the 18th-century intelligentsia. The exercise failed, at least within the Darwin family circle. Charles gave the manuscript of his essay to his pious daughter Henrietta, who promptly struck out long passages on sex, irreligion and prejudice. She excised, for example, this passage: ‘His energy was unbounded. But he was unorthodox, and as soon as the grave closed over him, he was grossly calumniated. Such was the state of Christian feeling at the beginning of the present century; we may at least hope that nothing of the kind now prevails.’ The hope was vain. When Darwin’s biography was printed it lacked all but the most rudimentary expressions of Enlightened doctrine. Now Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a collective biography of Erasmus Darwin and his extraordinary group of Midlands friends, announces its aim as the recovery of the repute and reality of their visionary milieu of science, industry and art from Romantic contempt and the ‘icy evangelicalism’ which followed.

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[*] The Life of Erasmus Darwin, by Charles Darwin, is available in a new edition, edited by Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge, 172 pp., £17.50, October 2002, 0 521 81526 6).