Small Special Points

Rosemary Hill

Queen Victoria reigned for 64 years, causing two and a half generations to be lumped together as ‘Victorians’. Had she died in 1870, rather than in 1901, it would be easier to see how little those generations had in common. Approaching the mid-point of the reign, in 1864, the historian J.A. Froude noticed that already ‘from the England of Miss Austen to the England of Railways and Free-trade’ the change was ‘vast’. ‘The world moves faster and faster … the temper of each new generation is a continual surprise.’ By 1901 surprises had included the invention of the telephone, two Boer Wars and the trial of Oscar Wilde. ‘Temper’ is an elusive quality, but from the early 1870s it was shifting. The last three Victorian decades were different, more doubtful and more divided, than the vigorous High Victorian years. From the world of Landseer and Dickens to that of Henry James and Whistler, what Charles Darwin elsewhere called the ‘tone’ of mind had changed.

Darwin turned 69 in February 1878. He felt that ‘large & difficult subjects’ were now beyond him and that ‘considering my age … it will be the more prudent course … to use my remaining strength in studying small special points.’ These were chiefly botanical and contributed to his last major publication, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. Published in 1881 shortly before his death, it was one of Darwin’s bestselling works, an illustration of the considerable consequences such ‘small special points’ might have. As he wrote in the characteristically self-effacing preface, ‘the subject may appear an insignificant one, but we shall see that it possesses some interest; and the maxim de minimis non curat lex [‘the law does not concern itself with trifles’] does not apply to science.’ Nor does it apply to history. In the letters of a single year, both to and from Darwin, edited with consummate scholarship and a nice sense of balance in the footnotes, which illuminate without overwhelming the text, the small points build into a picture. Darwin himself appears in close-up from the intimate angles of everyday life, while through the correspondence the changing temper of the times reverberates. At the humdrum end of things is the typewriter, which becomes a leitmotif as Darwin vents his exasperation as he attempts to get to grips with it. Soon, he and his son Francis make elaborate arrangements to offload the ‘printing machine’ on the ecstatically grateful zoologist Carl Gottfried Semper, who then uses it to write back to Darwin entirely in capital letters. But the large questions are never far away. Evolution itself and the working out of evolutionary theory pervade the letters as they pervaded the age.

For most of 1878 Darwin was at home in Down House in Kent, observing his onions, his bean radicles and the ‘seedling plants’ that ‘at present are my delight’. He was particularly interested in their response to external stimuli. ‘Should you ever be able to observe a sensitive Mimosa whilst it [is]raining hard & is hot weather,’ he told the German naturalist Fritz Müller in a postscript, ‘I shd. be very grateful.’ The sleep of plants was another line of inquiry that he shared with Francis, to whom many of these letters were written. ‘Porliera went beautifully to sleep in my study & awoke well early in the back & obscure part of my study,’ Darwin reported to him in July. In December he ordered a siren from the Royal Institution to try the effect of sound on the seedlings. Delivery was complicated owing to ‘the bulk [that] arises from the bellows’, as John Tyndall, the Institution’s professor of natural philosophy, explained.

In such peaceful pursuits, surrounded by his family and struggling, though less than in some years, with the mysterious illnesses that had dogged him for decades, Darwin conformed to the image of the ‘Hermit of Down’, or rather ‘der erleuchtete [enlightened] Eremit von Down’ as his German admirer Carl Kraus called him. Darwin struggled with German, finding the Gothic script all but impenetrable. He was often obliged to struggle, however, for those whom Kraus described as ‘ihrer stillen Verehrer’ – ‘your silent admirers’ – were anything but silent. Letters poured into Down House from across the world, expressing in various terms Kraus’s opinion that ‘it is a pleasure, a joy, to be a contemporary of Darwin whose name shines radiantly over our century.’ The 28-year-old geologist S.B.J. Skertchly confided that he had learned On the Origin of Species by heart at the age of 13. Darwin sent him a signed copy. He was unusual among scientists, as the chemist Raphael Meldola remarked to him, in having seen his ideas ‘take root & flourish in [his] own time’. More than that, he was liked. Among scientists perhaps only Stephen Hawking has given his admirers such a strong feeling that they knew him personally. Strangers wrote with random queries, such as why do pigeons fly in circles, and anecdotes of animal behaviour: R.M. Middleton of West Hartlepool explained how he had managed to house-train his parakeet. Not all the letters were answered, but an impressive number were. Darwin was remarkably patient. Only once, on a letter from the Prague-born astronomer Anton Schobloch, who wanted to know ‘how is it possible, that there are hemaphrodits’ [sic] did he go so far as to write ‘fool’ at the top in blue crayon.

Darwin disliked controversy. He avoided direct criticism of theories with which he disagreed. His modus operandi, which he found reason to restate several times in 1878, was to publish ‘what I believe to be the truth, without contradicting others’. Despite which, controversy rings through the letters. For all that they took root in his own time, Darwin’s ideas did not, as historians of science sometimes imply, burst onto the scene, shattering the Victorians’ complacent worldview and sweeping civilisation on towards modernity. While Skertchly and his generation had grown up with Darwinism, Darwin’s own contemporaries had not, and although his name was known throughout the Western world, he was not admired everywhere as he was in Germany. The French set their face against him, repeatedly refusing to elect him to the Académie des sciences. In August 1878 they finally caved in, by which time it was too late for Darwin to be flattered, or even much interested. As George Bentham, a former president of the Linnean Society, wrote to him, it was the French, not Darwin, who should be congratulated for finally coming to their senses. Bentham also suggested that the academicians had only been pretending to object to Darwin’s arguments, as presented in the pronouncement attributed, implausibly, to the academician Armand de Quatrefages, ‘Comment voulez-vous que nous choisissons un homme qui dit que nous sommes descendus des singes?’ (‘How can we choose a man who says we’re descended from monkeys?’)

Bentham thought this was a cover for chauvinism, that the French were piqued by the fact that ‘you an Englishman … have succeeded where all the speculations of their own Lamarck had failed.’ In other words, the Académie had preferred to look stupid rather than unpatriotic. In Greece there was no doubt that fierce resistance to evolutionary theory arose from the offence it gave to religious and social orthodoxy. Theodor von Heldreich wrote to Darwin from Athens enclosing a copy of a journal which included a translation of Darwin’s ‘Biographical Sketch of an Infant’, published the year before in Mind. In it Darwin revisited notes he had made about the development of his eldest son, William Erasmus, as a baby. He observed William much as he did his seedlings, assessing the effects of external stimuli in an attempt to distinguish between reflex and learned response: ‘On the seventh day, I touched the naked sole of his foot with a bit of paper, and he jerked it away, curling at the same time his toes.’ It was biography in the literal sense, writing from observation about a life form. Heldreich explained to Darwin that this first translation of any of his work into Greek, undertaken by a young Cretan doctor, Meliarakès, had not been without risk. It required considerable ‘moral courage’ for Meliarakès openly to support such a scientific approach to humans in a country ‘still under the rule of dogmatism’.

At home Darwin came under fire from Edward Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and a leading figure in the Tractarian Movement. Pusey preached a sermon, which he then published, in which he not only attacked evolutionary theory, but impugned Darwin’s motives, accusing him of using science merely as a vehicle for his hostility to Christianity. On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was, he alleged, written ‘with a Quasi Theological not with a scientific object’ and with a view ‘to overthrow the dogma of separate creations’. Henry Ridley, a young botanist at Exeter College, wrote anxiously to Darwin asking for clarification. Unfortunately, he explained, Pusey’s sermon had ‘made a great impression on undergraduates, & must have given them an entirely wrong view of the case’. Darwin, as usual, declined to be drawn into a public dispute: ‘I have never answered criticisms excepting those made by scientific men.’ The sermon did not, he felt, deserve his or anyone else’s attention, but he sent a private letter to Ridley in which he said what was transparently true: that On the Origin of Species had not been written ‘with any relation whatever to theology’, though a rider suggested that something in Pusey’s sermon, if not the argument, had touched him: ‘I may add that many years ago when I was collecting facts for the Origin, my belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr Pusey himself.’

Pusey was nine years older than Darwin, who returned from the voyage of the Beagle in 1836, the year before Victoria’s accession. Theirs was the generation that made the Victorian age. But they were Georgians by birth. They could never have the pure enthusiasm of the teenage Skertchly memorising On the Origin of Species. Whichever intellectual path they took would involve a painful parting of the ways. Darwin’s twenty-year delay in publishing Origin is attributed in part to his fear of hurting his wife, Emma. As an orthodox Anglican she believed in the Last Judgment, ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. This difference between them is sometimes misrepresented as ‘silly woman holds back genius.’ She had written to Darwin before they were married that she feared his growing religious scepticism would ‘be a painful void between us’ and that death would thus divide them. It was in the event a remarkably happy marriage. In 1878 Darwin was still reflecting, in a letter to a newly engaged friend, that ‘a good wife is the supreme blessing in this life & I hope … that you will be as happy as I have been in this respect.’ He kept Emma’s letter, writing in the margin: ‘when I am dead, know that I have many times kissed and cryed [sic] over this.’


On the Origin of Species was launched on a wave of popular interest in evolution about which opinion was divided but not generally hostile. It was 15 years since Robert Chambers had caused a sensation with the anonymous publication of his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria, and in his novel Tancred, where it features as The Revelations of Chaos, Disraeli parodied both Vestiges and the craze it started. Lady Constance comes away, as many readers did, with a general impression that it explains everything and nothing:

what is most interesting, is the way in which man has been developed. You know, all is development. The principle is perpetually going on. First, there was nothing, then there was something; then – I forget the next – I think there were shells, then fishes; then we came – let me see – did we come next? Never mind that; we came at last. And the next change there will be something very superior to us, something with wings. Ah! that’s it: we were fishes, and I believe we shall be crows. But you must read it.

Darwin, however, winced at Chambers’s ‘bad’ geology and noted that his zoology was ‘far worse’.

In On the Origin of Species Darwin trod a delicate path between theological orthodoxy and his scientific conclusions. By making no direct reference to human beings, he allowed his readers to retain a belief that mankind was not part of the animal kingdom but was, as set down in Genesis, created in the image of God with an immortal soul to have dominion over the rest of creation. To achieve this balance Darwin was obliged, as the historian Janet Browne has pointed out, to struggle with his vocabulary. He did not use the word ‘evolution’ because in 1859 it meant principally ‘the unfolding of hidden embryological structures’. Instead he talked of ‘descent with modification’. The verbal ambiguities sent readers off in all directions, many of which Darwin had not foreseen. He was as much a product of his age as they were, and from the surviving manuscripts of the work, Browne concludes that ‘it is not clear … how far he was even aware of the full extent of the difficulties.’

The mood of the 1850s and 1860s was vigorous. Muscularity, ‘reality’ and ‘go’ were the admired qualities in art, in science and in life. Problems were there to be solved. Railway companies driving cuttings through the landscape split open dramatic rock strata. Geology and fossil-hunting were crazes, seaside holidaymakers collected shells and fished in rock pools. The world was immanent with new realms of knowledge, and as the meaning of ‘evolution’ shifted towards what was soon called Darwinism, the older meaning still haunted it. From his home in Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, James Bateman corresponded with Darwin in the course of constructing his Geological Gallery, which opened to the public in 1862. In it the phases of biblical creation were illustrated with geological specimens and fossils in bays labelled ‘Day One’, ‘Day Two’ etc. Neither Bateman nor many of his contemporaries believed in the literal truth of Genesis, but this metaphorical account of ‘development’ as the slow unfolding of God’s creation could hold together science and religion. The churches of the High Victorian years glowed and bristled with inset marble and polished minerals. In 1868 William Butterfield was commissioned to build Keble College, Oxford. Named for John Keble, one of the instigators of Tractarianism, it was the architectural apotheosis of the Oxford Movement, its banded brick and stone the embodiment of a vision of developing creation, albeit known in some quarters as the ‘ham sandwich style’. At the opposite end of the Anglican spectrum, the evangelical Christian socialist Charles Kingsley found in On the Origin of Species a parallel with his own idiosyncratic theory of ‘related moral and physical evolution’.

Gradually, however, the implications became clearer, and for some much harder to bear. One sad early case was the naturalist Philip Gosse, the father of Edmund Gosse, who was known in the 1850s as the bestselling author of The Aquarium, which started yet another popular craze – for keeping fish. Gosse was a devout member of the austere Nonconformist Plymouth Brethren. Just before On the Origin of Species appeared he published Omphalos, in which he argued that God had put the fossils in the rocks to suggest a history for the Earth, as he had given Adam a navel, even though he had never been an embryo. The book made him a laughing stock. It was career suicide, compounded in 1866 by a supplement, Geology or God: Which? Poor Gosse continued to publish. A Year at the Shore of 1865 is illustrated with his own delicate drawings of sea creatures and shells, their banded, speckled surfaces like fragments of Butterfield churches, a stubborn testament to the beauty of what Gosse believed to be divine creation. In 1871, however, with the publication of The Descent of Man, the game was up: the implications of Darwinism were no longer avoidable, nor did Darwin avoid them. Humanity was part of the natural world, its product not its purpose. ‘Evolution’ shuffled off its earlier meaning, with its implications of growth and improvement. In 1864 Herbert Spencer had removed some of the ambiguity of On the Origin of Species by recasting its subtitle ‘The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’ as the pithier ‘Survival of the Fittest’. Science declared that there was no plan, evolution did not mean progress – merely adaptation. Life was a fight for existence. ‘The faith & the tradition which made strong men of our fathers are going,’ Butterfield wrote. ‘There will shortly … be nothing left for us to believe in but ourselves, and that faith … is comfortless.’ He spoke for many contemporaries. Ruskin had long since heard the clinking of the geologists’ hammers ‘at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses’, and Henry James, who met Ruskin in 1869, thought he looked frightened, ‘scared back by the grim face of reality’. Ruskin and Darwin knew and liked each other. They first met in 1837, soon after the return of the Beagle. Ruskin recalled that they ‘got together and talked all evening’. By the time they met again in 1868, Ruskin had become a prominent antagonist of Darwinism and what he characterised as the ‘deliberate blasphemy of science’, but once again they fell into friendly and ‘animated talk’.

In Darwin’s relationship with Ruskin, as in his marriage, the dilemma of a generation is poignantly on show. Ruskin had come to believe that since 1871 a ‘plague-wind’ had been blowing through the world and through the mind of humanity. In 1878 the fissures in his worldview became unsustainable and on 28 February he suffered a complete mental breakdown. ‘Mere overwork or worry, might have soon ended me,’ he later wrote, ‘but it would not have driven me crazy. I went crazy about St Ursula and the other saints – chiefly young-lady saints.’ That was part of it. He was also facing a charge of libel for writing that Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold flung ‘a pot of paint … in the public’s face’. Darwin, whose temperament and health combined to make him dislike leaving home, visited Ruskin in Cumbria in 1879, and again in 1881.

By 1878 Darwinism and all that it implied were inexorably heading towards scientific acceptance. ‘There is almost complete unanimity amongst Biologists,’ Darwin wrote to Ridley, ‘tho’ there is still considerable difference as to the means.’ There was considerable difference too in the responses of the wider public. The diverging paths of the spiritual and the scientific were represented in Darwin’s own family. On the one hand, his cousin Francis Galton, later the founder of eugenics, was considering what the survival of the fittest would mean in relation to humans. What about the unfit? In May, Galton sent Darwin a set of composite photographs of violent criminals intended to show typical physical characteristics. His article based on them appeared in Nature that same month. The opposite reaction to the loss of a personal god was a more general theory of ‘the beyond’. The last decades of the century were misty with ectoplasm and theosophy. Darwin’s brother Erasmus reported that their niece Effie, an enthusiast for séances, had concluded her report on the spirit writing she had witnessed with ‘I know Uncle Charles would rather believe he did it himself in a dream than that it was done by the spirits.’

As the year drew to a close, Darwin wrote to the evolutionary biologist George Romanes, one of those among the rising generation who still struggled to hold together science and Christianity. He had sent Darwin his book A Candid Examination of Theism, published under the name of Physicus. Darwin had read it, he reported, with ‘very great interest’ but found the argument unpersuasive on the side of science. Writing as devil’s advocate, he put the case that might be set out by a theologian: ‘You have no right to say that you have “demonstrated” that all natural laws necessarily follow from gravity … If you say that nebulous matter existed aboriginally & from eternity … you seem to me to beg the whole question.’ Darwin’s integrity and consistency shine out from his letters. In 1878 his guiding principle was still as it had been when he wrote to his sisters from the Beagle: ‘It appears to me, the doing what little one can do to encrease [sic] the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can in any likelihood pursue.’