Jane Ridley

The self-promoting recluse

‘If Charles Darwin had spent the first half of his life in the world of Jane Austen, he now stepped forward into the pages of Anthony Trollope.’ Thus Janet Browne begins what must at times have seemed an almost impossible task: how to write an interesting book about the second half of Darwin’s life.

When this book opens, Charles Darwin is 49. On his desk sits an unwieldy pile of papers, the unfinished manuscript of the interminable book on the origin of species which he has been working on for longer than he cares to admit. At Down House in Kent, Darwin lives comfortably on a private income, but this retiring gentleman scholar and paterfamilias is no slouch. From the intellectual factory of his study he churns out a flood of correspondence – 14,000 letters have survived – seeking information from a vast network of correspondents and processing their answers. Then, one morning through the letter-box thuds a package from the Indonesian jungle. The sender is Alfred Russell Wallace, a lesser naturalist and specimen-hunter whom Darwin barely knows, and the package contains a paper which weirdly anticipates the conclusions that Darwin has already reached in his own slow-moving life’s work on evolution.

Darwin’s life, writes Janet Browne, was never the same again. Torn between his gentleman’s duty to recognise that Wallace had got there before him and his competitive urge to claim the theory as his own, tortured by the illness and death from scarlet fever of an infant son, Darwin vacillated. He consulted his scientist friends, Lyell and Hooker, who decided what to do on his behalf. Papers by both Darwin and Wallace were presented at a meeting of the Linnaean Society which neither scientist attended, but Darwin’s paper was given priority.

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