Sex sells!

A sheet of butterfly wings sent to Darwin from Brazil in 1871 (DAR 242: 58); it will be reproduced as a plate in volume 19 of the Correspondence

I hear that Ladies think it delightful reading, but that it does not do to talk about it, which no doubt promotes the sale.


In 1871 Darwin published Descent, his long-awaited book on human evolution, and all 2500 copies of the first printing sold immediately with a further 5000 printed in the course of the year.  The full title is On the descent of man and selection in relation to sex, which may have had something to do with its success.


We have just sent volume 19 of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, to press and are all very glad to see it go.  Our biggest volume to date, it is also one of the meatiest, containing more than 800 letters Darwin wrote and received in 1871 – the exceptionally large number reflecting both the intense interest with which Descent was received, and the importance of Darwin’s network of correspondents to the final flurry of activity for his next book, The expression of the emotions in man and animals.   Here are some other highlights:


I believe Mr Mivart to be a thoroughly honourable man: but he was educated as a lawyer . . .

The zoologist St George Jackson Mivart’s critique of the theory of natural selection, On the genesis of species, appeared at almost the same time as Descent. Darwin found his criticisms deeply unfair, and was further distressed by Mivart’s hostile review of Descent in the Quarterly Review: ‘He makes me the most arrogant, odious beast that ever lived.’  Darwin corresponded directly with Mivart but also expressed his growing indignation in letters to others, charting the deterioration of their relationship – a rare case of Darwin taking personal offense.


‘I care for nothing in the world except. laughing. crying grinning pouting &c. &c’

Once Descent was published, Darwin continued his work on Expression, which he had once hoped to include as a chapter in Descent. By this time he was selecting photographs and woodcuts for inclusion in the book (the photographs were produced by the new heliotype process, which for the first time made a photographically illustrated book relatively affordable), as well as discussing fine details of physiology with colleagues in Britain and Europe.


It is great news about Henrietta’s marriage . . .

1871 was also a significant year for Darwin’s family: his eldest daughter, Henrietta, married Richard Buckley Litchfield, whom she met only that year, after a brief engagement. Darwin fretted at the idea of Henrietta’s leaving home – she had been an immense help to him as an editor as well as a daily companion. ‘Several reviewers speak of the lucid vigorous style etc.— Now I know how much I owe to you in this respect, which includes arrangement, not to mention still more important aids in the reasoning’, Darwin wrote to her after the publication of Descent.  Henrietta’s short but intensely personal journal of the months leading up to her marriage is published in this volume for the first time.


Horace, Darwin’s youngest son, passed his first examination at Cambridge University in December, and planned to study mathematics and science. In his letter of congratulations, Darwin became philosophical:


‘I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things . . .  — Many men who are very clever, —much cleverer than discoverers, —never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for the causes or meaning of everything which occurs.’


We look forward to seeing the book in print, and meanwhile are already well into the letters from 1872; we’ll be writing about some of our favourites here.

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