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  • Written by Janet Browne
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Charles Darwin

The Power of Place

Written by Janet BrowneAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Janet Browne


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: May 18, 2011
Pages: 608 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79368-3
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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In 1858 Charles Darwin was forty-nine years old, a gentleman scientist living quietly at Down House in the Kent countryside, respected by fellow biologists and well liked among his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. He was not yet a focus of debate; his “big book on species” still lay on his study desk in the form of a huge pile of manuscript. For more than twenty years he had been accumulating material for it, puzzling over questions it raised, trying—it seemed endlessly—to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Publication appeared to be as far away as ever, delayed by his inherent cautiousness and wish to be certain that his startling theory of evolution was correct.

It is at this point that the concluding volume of Janet Browne’s biography opens. The much-praised first volume, Voyaging, carried Darwin’s story through his youth and scientific apprenticeship, the adventurous Beagle voyage, his marriage and the birth of his children, the genesis and development of his ideas. Now, beginning with the extraordinary events that finally forced the Origin of Species into print, we come to the years of fame and controversy.

For Charles Darwin, the intellectual upheaval touched off by his book had deep personal as well as public consequences. Always an intensely private man, he suddenly found himself and his ideas being discussed—and often attacked—in circles far beyond those of his familiar scientific community. Demonized by some, defended by others (including such brilliant supporters as Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker), he soon emerged as one of the leading thinkers of the Victorian era, a man whose theories played a major role in shaping the modern world. Yet, in spite of the enormous new pressures, he clung firmly, sometimes painfully, to the quiet things that had always meant the most to him—his family, his research, his network of correspondents, his peaceful life at Down House.

In her account of this second half of Darwin’s life, Janet Browne does dramatic justice to all aspects of the Darwinian revolution, from a fascinating examination of the Victorian publishing scene to a survey of the often furious debates between scientists and churchmen over evolutionary theory. At the same time, she presents a wonderfully sympathetic and authoritative picture of Darwin himself right through the heart of the Darwinian revolution, busily sending and receiving letters, pursuing research on subjects that fascinated him (climbing plants, earthworms, pigeons—and, of course, the nature of evolution), writing books, and contending with his mysterious, intractable ill health. Thanks to Browne’s unparalleled command of the scientific and scholarly sources, we ultimately see Darwin more clearly than we ever have before, a man confirmed in greatness but endearingly human.

Reviewing Voyaging, Geoffrey Moorhouse observed that “if Browne’s second volume is as comprehensively lucid as her first, there will be no need for anyone to write another word on Darwin.” The Power of Place triumphantly justifies that praise.

From the Hardcover edition.



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.

Victorian Britain seemed to be at peace with itself as political agitation at home and memories of the Crimean War and Indian uprising gave way to relative stability in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Free trade and carboniferous capitalism pushed ahead as the great manufacturing industries of the nation boomed. In the grand houses of London, Viscount Palmerston picked up his silk hat to become prime minister in 1857, followed in short order by Lord Derby in 1858, and then Palmerston again in 1859, while Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, and Richard Bright stalked the wings impatient to transform the face of party politics. Cathedral cities hummed with religious controversy; books and magazines poured from the presses; the newly affluent took tours and holidays; and a whole army of clerks, civil servants, bureaucrats, bankers, and accountants was called into being to administer the fresh commercial horizons that accompanied the emerging empire, as India, China, Canada, South America, and the Antipodes increasingly fell under British economic domination. Steam technology was the hero of society. At that time Britain possessed two-thirds of the world's capacity for cotton factory production and accounted for half the world's output of coal and iron, an unmatched degree of industrial preeminence. The length of railway track snaking across the countryside doubled from 1850 to 1868. Lawn-mowers, water-closets, gas lights, iron girders, encaustic tiles, and much, much more were available to those who could afford them. Although Queen Victoria and her ministers were soon to encounter complex foreign affairs in Garibaldi's Italy and painful consequences from the Civil War in the United States of America, the ethos of "improvement" prompted significant developments in domestic housing, health, education, communications, dress, and manners. "The genius of England is universally admitted to be of an eminently enterprising and speculative character," declared the magazine Once a Week.1 Confidence soared. Social boundaries shifted.

Even so, the contradictions at the heart of Victorian life were more obvious than ever. Fraud, filth, overcrowding, poverty, death, and violence were a fact of life in the urban slums. Rural communities had lost in a decade more than 40 percent of the male workforce to industrial, colonial, and military demands and bleakly faced another round of agricultural depression and distress. The nation's religious faith, although never coherent, was fracturing into fervour or dissent. While many from the ruling ranks of society turned a blind eye to these issues, a remarkable array of novelists, statisticians, medical men, radical divines, and social activists were starting to reveal the squalor alongside prosperity and discovering the interesting in the ordinary. In time, parliamentary leaders would open their minds to a second round of political reform in the nineteenth century, egged on by the high sense of purpose, moral earnestness, doctrines of self-help, and appreciation of decorum that characterised the emerging middle classes. From real-life Westminster to imaginary Barchester and back again, Trollope easily captured in his novels this sense of the personal and parochial. But life was not simple even for those whom Lord Salisbury called "persons of substance." These mid-century years were not so much an age of equipoise as framed by social and political contrasts. It was an age of capital, labour, complacency, and faith; at the same time, an age of cities, misery, change, commerce, deference, and doubt.

In among the contrasts stood the unobtrusive figure of Charles Darwin. Supported by a family fortune derived from the Industrial Revolution, Darwin was content to become a thoroughly respectable Victorian gentleman. He put away his Beagle shotguns, cast a discerning eye over his investments, and began to participate in the growing sense of national prosperity. He had no need to seek employment. Like many others in his circle he was free to pursue his interests, in his case a magnificent obsession with natural history.

In 1858 he was forty-nine years old, a steady and likable individual, "one of the kindest and truest men that it was ever my good fortune to know," said Thomas Henry Huxley. His scientific status was already secure, although he had not yet revealed his theories about species to anyone other than a few close friends. His Origin of Species was yet to come. His personal position was equally secure. He was married and comfortably settled with his wife, Emma, and their children in a country house in the village of Downe, in Kent, near enough to the attractions of the metropolis but a world away from its problems. For years now he had been troubled by continued ill health-"being ill was normal." Yet his home at Down House was the safe harbour he sought for the end of his personal voyage. "Few persons can have lived a more retired life than we have done," he wrote with undisguised pleasure. "My life goes on like clock-work and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it."2

In fact Darwin was far more sociable than his words allowed. In London, his friends were clever and influential, a cosmopolitan mix of university professors, authors, manufacturers, government officials, landowners, and politicians; here and there a baronet or a literary lady or two, a few old comrades from his time on the Beagle, and a clutch of intelligent nieces ready to discuss the latest concerts or exhibitions. Whenever he went to town, he sought out the company of his older brother Erasmus, pleasantly fixed in his bachelor ways, and his cousins Fanny and Hensleigh Wedgwood, all living close to each other on the outskirts of Bloomsbury and forming the hub of an extended circle of intermarrying Wedgwoods and Darwins.3 Darwin had married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839. Other cousin marriages among the clan drew the generations together.

Erasmus hosted dinner parties for him, gossiped, and kept parcels until his arrival. If Darwin was alone he would stay overnight and meet his old friend the geologist Sir Charles Lyell or some other scientific colleague for breakfast-meetings which he valued for keeping in touch and maintaining his intellectual momentum. Otherwise, he would bring Emma and the youngest children up for the pantomime or trips to the dentist. They would stay with Fanny and Hensleigh and see their other relatives visiting from the shires.

His country friends were no less pillars of the community. Darwin welcomed the soothing rhythm of local affairs, always willing to discuss the state of the weather or his poor health with neighbours, organise parish charities, and sympathise with John Innes, the resident vicar, over difficult young curates or problems with the village school. Every so often, a little debate about church doctrine with Innes made his strolls around the country lanes agreeably lively. Innes was just the kind of relaxed clergyman that Darwin himself might once have become if the voyage of the Beagle had not intervened. "I do not attack Moses," the naturalist remarked affably to him, "and I think Moses can take care of himself."4 At Downe Darwin took on duties as a local magistrate, an occupation at the heart of provincial life in which law-abiding, landowning gentlemen like himself imposed fines on poachers or issued licenses for keeping pigs.

This society was reassuringly sedate. Darwin and Emma regularly met Sir John Lubbock, mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society, and his son John, a young naturalist, who lived a few miles away at High Elms. They enjoyed the company of the Bonham Carters, in a neighbouring village, and George Ward Norman, a director of the Bank of England and country gentleman of Downe. Every so often they invited weekend guests from London, sending a horse and carriage to the nearest railway station to pick up visiting groups. Joseph Hooker, the assistant director of Kew Gardens, and Thomas Henry Huxley, the biologist and writer, were particular friends. Somewhat surprisingly for a period in which the prevailing motifs were industrialisation, social movement, urban expansion, and religious dissent, Darwin's parish was utterly secluded, almost a relic of a former age in its social structure and restricted occupational patterns. The long trip to the railway station made it seem further away from modernity than it really was. Downe village was small, no more than five hundred people in the 1861 census, and relatively stable considering its proximity to growing suburban centres like Bromley and Maidstone. The national post office had altered the spelling from Down to Downe early in the 1840s, a change that Darwin resolutely ignored when addressing letters. Twenty years later the population had increased by only fifty. Falling readily into the provincial swing of things, he unashamedly called himself a "Farmer" in Bagshawe's Directory. A Wedgwood niece tartly observed after one of these weekend parties, "We have enough dullness in the family & plenty of virtue-a little vice would make a pleasant variety."5

Yet underneath the mild exterior, Darwin's mind teemed with ideas-daring and unusual proposals that he hesitated to put before the world. He had balked at disclosing his theories before they were ready, fretting anxiously over his work, doggedly probing every crevice of the evidence, building up a tightly packed argument that he hoped would protect his scheme from at least some of the intense criticism he knew it would provoke. Ever since returning from the Beagle voyage in 1836, some twenty-two years before, he had believed that living beings were not created by divine fiat. From that time on, he had sought an alternative explanation that would depend on natural processes rather than on God's direct action.

He had found it in Thomas Malthus's Essay on the principle of population, an economic principle of checks and balances that Darwin applied to the survival rates of animals and plants and called "natural selection." Since then he had focused his energies on documenting the origin of species by these natural means, "slaving away" in private. Only recently, in 1856, Charles Lyell had pressed him to get on and publish, and in that year Darwin began writing a long manuscript intended for future publication. "I have found it quite impossible to publish any preliminary essay or sketch," he confided to another friend, "but I am doing my work as completely as my present materials allow without waiting to perfect them." This unfinished manuscript on natural selection already ran to 250,000 words, comprising eleven chapters of a probable fourteen, a great pile of paper on his study table that he ruefully called his "big book on species." He knew it was his life's work, before which everything else faded into irrelevance.6

As Darwin now conceived it, natural selection operated on living beings as if it were a statistical necessity, a law of nature stripped of any divine influences, invincible, predominant, and fierce, relentlessly honing animals, plants, and humans in the struggle for existence. His theories had no room for biblical teachings about Adam and Eve or the Garden of Eden. Organisms either adapted or died. His vision of nature had moved far beyond the cosy notions that fortified most Victorians, views about the perfect adaptation between animals and plants and their environment that, for many, mirrored the social stability they thought they saw around them. "Every class of society accepts with cheerfulness that lot which Providence has assigned to it," Palmerston optimistically declared. He might almost have gone on to include animals and plants. Darwin, on the other hand, saw the natural world as a constant competitive struggle for survival.

Much of the lasting fascination of Darwin's life story surely lies in the relationship between this prolific inner world of the mind and the private and public lives that he created for himself. His power of analysis was outstanding; his creative imagination remarkable. As a biologist, his distinctive gift was to envisage all living beings not only in their relations to one another but also in their relations to the places in which they lived and to the unfolding sequence of time. He would become one of the most famous scientists of his day, a Victorian celebrity whose work even in his own lifetime was regarded as a foundation stone for the modern world, not least for the manner in which he changed the way human beings thought about themselves and their own place in nature. And yet he liked to be a countryman, pottering around his garden. He was an invalid plagued by disorders that probably fed on his intense intellectual activities. He was a husband, father, friend, and employer, as well as a naturalist, author, and thinker. To explore what sort of person he was adds significantly to the evaluation of his part in history-or, putting it round another way, to know something of Darwin and the way he operated explains a good deal that might otherwise be perplexing about the scale of his achievement and the revolution in thought that customarily bears his name. The manner in which his daily life interlocked with his theories and with his public role as the author of On the Origin of Species brings to light a long and unexpectedly eventful life story.7

The Origin of Species was to dominate the second half of his life. Where Darwin had once voyaged on the Beagle through new oceans of thought, he now turned his mind towards writing and publishing, towards being an author. The events surrounding the book's publication were exacting enough. Afterwards Darwin would emerge as a remarkable tactician-a man who prefered to remain behind the scenes but a canny and dedicated publicist for all that. The strategic effort that he put into disseminating his views was intense. As has long been clear, the Darwinian revolution was neither completely Darwinian nor completely revolutionary,8 and there was no steady march towards the publication and approval of his ideas. The recasting of contemporary scientific horizons was hardly carried out by him alone, and what would pass for "Darwinism" was never a monolithic structure. The chronicle of Darwin's mature years was in fact to be the story of how he negotiated the reception of his Origin of Species, and this in turn would comprise a web of will-power, strategy, conflict, the loss of friends, disappointment, pleasure, ruthless determination, and great personal exertion set within larger currents of scientific and social transformation-a story at root about the making and validating of new scientific knowledge. The project was immeasurably enhanced by his producing a book at a time when the publishing industry was expanding and review journals were enjoying rapidly diversifying audiences. He benefitted from the public support of his friends, many of whose careers progressively interwove with his own. His book closely meshed with major transformations in nineteenth-century thought and came to symbolise the fresh perspective. What could it have been like to be Darwin during what would come to be called the Darwinian revolution?

From the Hardcover edition.
Janet Browne|Author Q&A

About Janet Browne

Janet Browne - Charles Darwin

Photo © Rikke Claeson

Janet Browne trained as a biologist, took her Ph.D. in the history of science, and has served as associate editor of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. She is the author of several books and many scholarly papers. She is professor in the history of biology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London and is currently president of the British Society for the History of Science.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

Q: Why did you choose to write about Charles Darwin?

A: I first decided to write about Darwin back in the 1970s when I moved from zoology into history and thought that I could combine the two areas by studying him as a great hero figure in biology. Since then I have found lots of reasons to think carefully about what being a hero might actually mean, but I am still certain that he was one of the most important figures to help make our modern world. He changed the way we think about ourselves and yet was one of the most accessible, modest and friendly of men.

The idea of a biography came when I first encountered Darwin's letters in the archives at Cambridge--and not just Darwin's letters but also those of his friends and relatives, and particularly a wonderful series of funny, warm, and endearing letters from his wife Emma and the children that stretched across the entire Victorian period. These were still in the original envelopes and bundled up in the old wicker picnic basket where they had been put by Darwin's daughter after her parents' deaths. The letters opened up an unexplored world to me. Emma Darwin lived with science just like Darwin did. His children participated in his researches. And Darwin himself was revealed as a domestic man, fond of his family, who liked to spend time in his greenhouse or listening to novels read aloud by his womenfolk. Of course he was an incisive and brilliant thinker, and the letters showed these traits with force. The letters also documented his painstaking analysis of the natural world and the care with which he brought his theory of evolution by natural selection to completion.

But what the collection really suggested to me was the possibility of writing about Darwin in the round, of integrating his science and his achievements together with his disappointments and pleasures in life. I wanted to paint him in full social context, as a living thinking person, with friends and family and passions, who used this social context to help create and establish an extraordinary theory. As I worked, it became increasingly important to me to show that science is done by people. Scientists do not work in isolation. Their results sometimes occur by happenstance. They often have trouble getting into print. They complain about prejudice and 'the establishment.' Their friends tease them. Enemies emerge from the shadows. In Darwin's case an indefinable illness came to haunt him. Three of his ten children died. As the controversy over The Origin of Species raged, he retreated into his garden to study orchids. In the end, he became a scientific celebrity, wickedly caricatured in the popular press. So my biography is ultimately about how science got made and accepted in Victorian times--and what it might have been like to be Darwin.

Q: When you were doing your research, did you come across anything about Darwin--his character, his interests, his work habits--that truly surprised or amused you?

A: The thing that most amused me doing my research was finding letters with forged signatures. It turned out that they were dictated by Darwin to his wife or daughters when he was too ill to write them himself. The women learned to forge his signature but that did not stop Darwin sometimes adding at the bottom in his own handwriting that it was a 'miserable forgery'.

Another amusing moment came with one of Emma Darwin's letters when she describes Darwin's visit to a Royal Society soiree in London in 1866. He had been ill for a long time, seen no one for ages, and had grown a beard because he was bored with shaving. At the soiree no one recognized him. She said Darwin had to introduce himself, even to his oldest friends.

One anecdote is very revealing of his character. Late in life he went to hear John Burdon Sanderson give a talk on insectivorous plants, a project that had emerged out of some of Darwin's own work. Darwin went behind the scenes to have a word with Sanderson before the talk and then emerged to take his seat in the audience. He heard a huge burst of clapping and looked round to see who had come in. It was only then that he realized that it was him.

Q: As you recount in The Power of Place, Darwin was moved to finish and publish his "big book on species," as he called it, when he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a theory of natural selection that was in many respects identical to his own. Do you think that Darwin's reaction to the crisis precipitated by Wallace's letter reveals something crucial about Darwin's character? What role did Wallace (or other scientists) play in the shaping of The Origin of Species?

A: The manner in which both Darwin and Wallace dealt with their sudden, unexpected relationship reflects well on both men's characters. The evidence suggests that each man was at first shocked, possessive, and reluctant to give up his individual credit. So it was impressive that they behaved so honorably towards each other. Darwin certainly behaved badly in not telling Wallace about a joint publication in a journal until after it took place. But Wallace also saw that joint publication would give his work a kudos that he had previously never dared hope for. They both realized that cooperation served them best in the end. The episode reveals Darwin's ability to overcome his own emotions for the sake of maintaining the contemporary gentlemanly ethos of science. His relationship with Wallace after this was always warm, touched with admiration at his achievement and the originality of his untrained mind. Wallace was, after all, the only other man to create evolutionary theory, Darwin's alter ego, as it were. Darwin said that he never liked to differ from Wallace. It made him anxious. But they did, especially over the origin of mankind's mental abilities.

Q: Darwin was vigorously attacked, both by churchmen and by other scientists, and often ridiculed in the popular press. But he also had his champions. Who were Darwin's biggest supporters? enemies? Whose work did Darwin admire?

A: Darwin's biggest supporters were like the four musketeers in Dumas' novel--young and old, English and American. Thomas Henry Huxley vigorously defended Darwin on the question of ape ancestry. Charles Lyell explored the geological history of early mankind. Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, supported Darwin in the botanical world, while Asa Gray at Harvard took on the American defense, in particular opposing the great Louis Agassiz who hated Darwin's theory. Darwin said that he was lucky to have friends like these.

Q: Darwin was a very private man, but his theory thrust him into the public eye. How did he (and his family) react to all of the attention?

A: Darwin's children had to share their Sunday lunch with a succession of famous and infamous visitors who came to see their father. There are lots of stories in the archive about the family working as a team to keep these visitors satisfied and Darwin's reputation secure. Edward Aveling, the communist, came to ask whether Darwin was an atheist. Others were amusingly keen, as the children said, to pay devotions at Darwin's shrine. One young German did not utter a word, only to burst into tears when he left.

Soon after The Origin of Species was published, Darwin came across his son Leonard, then a schoolboy, trying to read it. Father bet son that he would never finish it . . . and to his regret won.

This book pays more attention than any other to the female members of Darwin's family. It shows how his wife Emma, and his daughter Henrietta, participated in his scientific work, supported him with editorial and proofreading tasks, and joined his growing group of scientific friends and supporters. The book shows that science is far from a solitary achievement. Instead there are hidden circles of participation that do not usually get recognized in the final printed record. And it also shows that Darwin's womenfolk were not the theological policemen of popular legend, constantly on the alert to expunge any atheistical tendencies. Emma Darwin read the proofs of The Origin of Species, for example, and argued with her husband, not about God, but about commas.

Q: You discuss the seemingly interminable illness that plagued Darwin for pretty much his entire adult life. What effect did his illness or, for that matter, other "personal matters," like the deaths of his children, have on his work?

A: Darwin's illness will never be definitively diagnosed, and this perhaps is the point that all historians would like to make. I certainly think that his illness was a 'real' thing, but that it was so closely tied up with his own view of himself and the controversies raging about his work that even he could not have distinguished physical disorders from psychosomatic symptoms. It certainly dominated his life. He found it increasingly important to escape to health cures and water-cure establishments where he could find the relaxation he never allowed himself at home. And to a large extent, being ill helped him avoid responsibilities and unwelcome calls on his time. Like one of Anthony Trollope's characters, he found that it was sometimes very convenient to be sick.

Q: You've devoted many years to researching and writing the two volumes of Charles Darwin's life. What's next for you?

A: It's a little bit like losing a close personal friend. No more human biographies for me. I thought, like Darwin, I would turn to plants and write about their histories.

From the Hardcover edition.



"Continuing where Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) left off, the British science historian completes her brilliant two-volume biography . . . A richly detailed, vivid, and definitive portrait with not a word wasted: the best life of Charles Darwin in the modern literature."
 --Kirkus Reviews

From the Hardcover edition.

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