Charles Darwin is to be replaced on the £10 note by Jane Austen! Today (25 July) there are pictures of the new design in the press. So would Darwin have been disappointed that a naturalist has been usurped by a writer of popular novels? Before we take umbrage on his behalf, let’s look at the evidence.
Darwin was an enthusiastic devourer of novels. He wrote in his Autobiography:
A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.’
He did keep a couple of reading notebooks and although the vast majority of titles are scientific, they include a little poetry, some Shakespeare and a few novels. You can find out more about these notebooks at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/what-darwin-read.
Darwin notes that in 1840 while staying at Maer, the family home of his wife, Emma Wedgwood, he read Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey (DAR 119: 9b).
Emma’s sisters were close readers of Jane Austen. As Darwin prepared for his voyage round the world, Charlotte Wedgwood wrote to him about Fitzroy, the commander of the Beagle, ‘I am delighted that you have fallen in with a Captain Wentworth—’ and tells him the following anecdote:
Miss Julia Mainwaring came here today to intreat some of us to go & help her to entertain a party of officers today she being the only lady— nobody would go but Emma, who when she found she could not get Fanny to go & keep her in countenance had great scruples lest she should appear too Lydiaish, however by going rather early she hoped she should appear to be staying with Miss Julia, rather than come express to meet the officers.
So Charlotte reckoned that Darwin knew Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, and indeed he wrote to his own sister, Caroline, ‘Love to Susan and tell her I will not take Persuasion, as the Captain [FitzRoy] says he will not read it, & there is no danger of my forgetting it’; and to his sister Catherine, ‘When you read this I am afraid you will think that I am like the Midshipman in Persuasion who never wrote home, excepting when he wanted to beg: it is chiefly for more books; those most valuable of all valuable things’.
And what about Emma? Darwin’s sister, Susan, wrote:‘Your letter has been read very often over to Papa (like Mrs. Bates)’.
Darwin assumed that his male friends were appreciative of Jane Austen, too. To Charles Whitley, a friend from Shrewsbury School, he wrote:
I do hope you will write to me. (“H.M.S. Beagle, S. American Station” will find me); I should much like to hear in what state you are, both in body & mind.— . . . if you are not a married man, & may be nursing, as Miss Austen says, little olive branches, little pledges of mutual affection.— Eheu Eheu, this puts me in mind, of former visions, of glimpses into futurity, where I fancied I saw, retirement, green cottages & white petticoats.—
As for Emma herself, she wrote:
so Goodbye my dear old Charley Tell me how you are. I do not like your looking so unwell & being so overtired when I come & look after you I shall scold you into health like Lady Cath. de Burgh used to do to the poor people.
A few weeks before their wedding she wrote to her fiancé:‘I am reading Mansfield Park which I find very suitable. Did you ever see such lovely weather. Write soon like a good boy for your letters are not thrown away upon me’.
So Charles Darwin and his sisters, and his wife Emma and her sisters, were all enthusiastic Janeites. But here is the last word from the younger generation, Darwin and Emma’s third son, Francis, who wrote to his sister, Henrietta, on 13 April 18 when they were in their 20’s:
I have just finished Sense & Sensibility what capital fun it is— it was so long since I had read one of her novels that I thought I didn’t like them— But how fearfully vulgar the people are— I suppose its true to nature but thanks good, commonplace worldly gentlemen & ladies are not so vulgar now
(DAR 210.2: 9).