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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.51 Frederick Holder 'Life and Work'

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A popular biography of Darwin for young readers by the American naturalist Charles Frederick Holder, published in 1891, sought to present him as ‘an example to the youth of all lands’ (p. v). Thus ‘our hero’ was shown to have been both an ardent nature lover and a skilled sportsman, nobly courageous when ‘maligned and attacked’. The more problematic aspects of his theories were quickly passed over. Indeed the first twelve chapters of the book are exclusively about Darwin’s carefree youth and about his discoveries and exploits on the Beagle voyage, with incidents chosen from the Journal of Researches; and this emphasis is reflected in the attractive drawings by Meredith Nugent that illustrate the story. We see Darwin ‘finding a vampire bat biting a horse’ in Chile, ‘shooting at a condor’ in Patagonia, punting along the Santa Cruz river in pursuit of some swimming rheas, and ‘testing the speed of an elephant tortoise’ in the Galapagos  – ‘To show the strength of the animal, he states that he frequently stood upon the back of one and struck it’ until it threw him off. In these scenes the youthful Darwin looks like an American frontiersman or a British army officer on safari, gun in hand, recalling the plucky explorers and big-game hunters in boys’ adventure stories of the time. However, Nugent’s frontispiece to Holder’s Life and Work strikes a different note. Titled ‘Darwin and the squirrels’, it alludes to a passage in Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters that describes the family’s happy memories of the ‘Sand-walk’ at Down. It was there that Darwin, in later life, took his daily exercise. ‘Sometimes when alone he stood still or walked stealthily to observe birds and beasts. It was on one of these occasions that some young squirrels ran up his back and legs, while their mother barked at them in agony from the tree.’ Behind the untroubled figure of the great scientist in his familiar cape can be seen a distant view of Down House amid its trees and gardens, with smoke rising from the chimneys. Affectionate intimacy with nature is complemented by the ideal domesticity of a landed family, as it was in bestsellers of the day like Eliza Brightwen’s Wild Nature Won by Kindness (1890), which similarly provided glimpses of her own mansion amid park scenes and sketches of animals. In this contrast between the frontispiece and the South American scenes in Holder’s book, two contradictory aspects of the Victorians’ relations with nature are held in tension. It is interesting in this connection that the squirrel incident was also quoted by the author of an article titled ‘Boyhood of Charles Darwin’ in The Boy’s Own Paper in 1893, as showing how ‘wild things trusted him’: Darwin had relinquished the shooting enthusiasm of his younger days, from a growing awareness of the animal suffering it entailed.   

  • physical location Cambridge University Library and copies elsewhere, including the British Library 

  • accession or collection number Misc. 7.89.1136 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of images Meredith Nugent 

  • date of creation 1891 

  • computer-readable date 1891-01-01 to 1891-12-31 

  • medium and material pen drawings reproduced by photographic process 

  • references and bibliography Charles Frederick Holder, Charles Darwin: His Life and Work, in the ‘Leaders in Science’ series (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891): frontispiece and illustrations facing pp. 32, 52, 78 and 108. These loosely relate to Darwin’s narrative in the Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of the Beagle round the World, under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, 1845), pp. 22, 90, 182, and 384. Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an Autobiographical Chapter, 3 volumes, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1887), pp. 115-6. Revd John Vaughan, ‘Boyhood of Charles Darwin’, The Boy’s Own Paper, 15:743 (8 April 1893), pp. 443-4. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 145. 


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