Selected Letters of Charles Darwin

Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1822-1859
Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870

Frederick Burkhardt, Samantha Evans + Alison Pearn (editors)

Cambridge University Press 2008
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Offering selections by the founding editor of the comprehensive Darwin Correspondence Project, Origins and Evolution make the best starting point for anyone wanting to sample Darwin's letters. Scores of books on Darwin have been published in the last few years, for the various anniversaries, but this pair stands out among them.

Origins runs from childhood letters at age twelve through to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. This includes some dramatic material: the family debate in 1831 about whether Darwin should join the Beagle, letters written from the Beagle itself, and the response to Wallace's bombshell in 1858.

"My dear Father
I am afraid I am going to make you again very uncomfortable. — But upon consideration, I think you will excuse me once again stating my opinions on the offer of the Voyage. — My excuse & reason is, is the very different way all the Wedgwoods view the subject from what you & my sisters do."

Other letters reveal details of Darwin's family life, his relationships with colleagues, his network of correspondents, and the way he cajoled people of all kinds into helping him. His research in this period was dominated by work on barnacles and the variety of threads involved in the development of his species theory.

"I want especially to know whether herons or any waders (we have no ponds hereabouts) or water-birds when suddenly sprung have ever dirty feet or beaks?"

Evolution continues with letters from the decade following the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin's personal life in this period was much less dramatic, since he hardly moved from Down House, with only occasional trips within south-east England. He was, however, part of an international network of scientists exploring the implications of his ideas and defending them against critics.

"My dear Huxley ...
I had letter from Oxford written by Hooker late on Sunday night, giving me some account of the awful battles which have raged about 'species' at Oxford. He tells me you fought nobly with Owen, (but I have heard no particulars) & that you answered the B. of O. capitally. — I often think that my friends (& you far beyond others) have good cause to hate me me, for having stirred up so much mud, & led them into so much odious trouble. — If I had been a friend of myself, I should have hated me. (how to make that sentence good English I know not.) But remember if I had not stirred up the mud some one else certainly soon would. — I honour your pluck; I would as soon have died as tried to answer the Bishop in such an assembly. Was Owen very blackguard? H. says that the Bishop turned me into ridicule & was very savage against you. — I hardly like to ask you to write, for I know how you are overworked; but I shd rather like to hear a bit about the battle."

The correspondents who feature here include key allies and supporters such as Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russel Wallace, Asa Gray, and Ernst Haeckel, as well as other scientists and people from all levels of society. Darwin corresponded widely as he collected data for his work, on facial expressions, variation under domestication, and so forth. There are fewer family letters in this volume, but it reveals the seamless intermingling of the scientific and the personal with his closest friends.

"My dear Fox
I am rather uneasy about you. When you wrote from Hampstead, you spoke uncomfortably about your health & as you have had at various times so many illnesses I should very much like to hear how you are — If you have strength & inclination, but not without, tell me what you can about the great magpie marriage that I may quote your account. What I call sexual selection as applied to birds has turned out to be an everlasting subject, & I am still at work on it."

Evolution has two improvements over Origins. The useful notes to each letter, explaining terms and references, now follow each letter immediately instead of being consigned to the end of the book. And, more importantly, letters to and not just from Darwin are included, giving us a better feel for the exchange of ideas and the to-and-fro of intellectual engagement, and for the emotional and social relationships involved.

[from Alfred Russel Wallace]
"It will give me very great pleasure if you will allow me to dedicate my little book of Malayan Travels to you, although it will be far too small and unpretending a work to be worthy of that honour. Still I have done what I can to make it a vehicle for communicating a taste for the higher branches of Natural History, and I know that you will judge it only too favourably."

The editors provide occasional short "link comments" between letters to help place them in their biographical context. Reading Darwin's letters is not a replacement for a biography — and the better biographies include extensive quotations from letters — but is an obvious next step for anyone who has read one and wants to know more, or wants to immerse themselves more fully in the period.

February 2011

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%T Origins
%S Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1822-1859
%Y Selected Letters of Charles Darwin
%E Burkhardt, Frederick
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2008 [1996]
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521898621
%P 253pp

%T Evolution
%S Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870
%Y Selected Letters of Charles Darwin
%E Burkhardt, Frederick
%E Evans, Samantha
%E Pearn, Alison
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2008
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521874120
%P 308pp