Thursday, 24 March 2011
A voyage round Charles Darwin
His home and interior lives have almost as much to fascinate us as the five years he spent travelling the globe on the HMS Beagle (pictured above at Tierra del Fuego by the ship's artist, Conrad Martens). What's not to love about Charles Darwin, unless you happen to be a creationist? Sensitive, kind, scrupulous in both his professional and private capacities, an optimist despite personal tragedies ('according to my judgment, happiness decidedly prevails'), a careful master of the most lucid prose and above all a man human enough to admit that Homo sapiens might not be best equipped to understand 'the mystery of the beginning of all things', which is why he was 'content to remain an Agnostic'.
The religious question is set out with all his customary clarity and humanity in a few vital pages of his 1876 'Recollections', helpfully included in the Darwin reader which has been my bible in recent months. But to learn even more about the man in all his wonderful variety, I can't recommend too strongly the selective biography written by his great-great-grandson Randal Keynes. I've been wanting to read it since being so very moved by the film which took it as a basis, Creation, a subtle masterpiece which hasn't as yet had the acclaim it deserved (being banned in large parts of the USA didn't help). The title of the book has gone through various metamorphoses, from the infelicitous Annie's Box to Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution and now plain Creation.
Which will do, though the emphasis still remains on the heartbreak of his ten-year-old daughter Annie's death at Malvern in 1851. Keynes nevertheless manages to weave in all the major events and writings, giving them just enough space and context (we learn about everything from the Victorian attitude to the afterlife, the philosophy of Hume and the darker side of society to children's novels and bathing devices).
Daguerreotypes clearly didn't do the Darwin family's simian features a favour - nobody ever looks relaxed or happy in them, and clearly Annie's smile lit up a room. What I find most touching of all about Darwin's many depressions after losing her is that in 1863, virtually unable to move and watching the tendrils of a plant growing in his study, this most articulate of men could hardly string a sentence together. And yet, in speechless grief at the death of his beloved Joseph Hooker's daughter, he did manage after weeks to pen a note: 'My dear old friend, I must have pleasure of saying this. Yours affect[tionatel]y C. Darwin'.
We all know the cruel reductionism of the press when difficult and complex ideas first lodge in the consciousness of the general public. Yet of course Darwin's did, and continue to do so, with scientists agreeing that even his unprovable hunches turn out to have been correct. On the Origin of Species really is that miracle of miracles, a scientific study to be read and understood by everybody - perhaps in that respect only Freud is comparable, another master writer - not least because as David Damant reiterates, Darwin spent so many years long polishing its prose and taking care with how he communicated what he had to say.
And I do love the man from everything I read, not least because of the big and happy family full of offspring who don't seem to have had a harsh word for him later in life. Zooming down the wooden staircase slide at Down House, always being welcomed into papa's study and having the wonders of nature painstakingly explained wouldn't have been a bad childhood. But thank God child mortality rates aren't what they used to be. In this privileged land, at any rate.