skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Murray   21 September [1861]

Down Bromley Kent

Sept. 21st

My dear Sir

Will you have the kindness to give me your opinion, which I shall implicitly follow.— I have just finished a very long paper intended for Linn. Socy. (the title is enclosed)1 & yesterday for the first time it occurred to me that possibly it might be worth publishing separately, which would save me trouble & delay.— The facts are new & have been collected during 20 years & strike me as curious.2 Like a Bridge-water Treatise the chief object is to show the perfection of the many contrivances in Orchids.3 The subject of propagation is interesting to most people, & is treated in my paper so that any woman could read it. Parts are dry & purely scientific: but I think my paper would interest a good many of such persons who care for Nat. History, but no others. In a few days an artist is coming here to make from 20–30 small woodcuts.—4

As far as I can calculate the paper contains about 29,000 words; in small page with rather open type, about 205 words to page, I calculate the matter would make 131 page, but with division into chapter say at most 135 pages. So it would be a very little Book, & I believe you think very little books objectionable. I have myself great doubts on subject. I am very apt to think that my Geese are Swans; but the subject seems to me curious & interesting.

I beg you not to be guided in the least in order to oblige me, but as far as you can judge, please give me your opinion.— If I were to publish separately, I would agree to any terms, such as half risk & half profit, or what you liked; but I would not publish on my sole risk, for to be frank, I have been told that no Publisher whatever, under such circumstances cares for success of Book.— I would pay myself for all drawing on the wood, but not for cutting.— I shd. send rough M.S to be printed on Slips & would pay for extra corrections.— I shd require & pay for 30 or 40 copies.— But if this little Book were to fail, it occurs to me that it might injure sale of my future larger Books.— In fact I am utterly in doubt.— Please give me your impression.—5

My dear Sir | Yours sincerely | C. Darwin


CD began preparing his manuscript on the pollinating mechanisms of various species of orchids during his stay in Torquay in July and August (see ‘Journal’; Appendix II). As he states, he had always envisioned publishing the work in one of the journals of the Linnean Society of London.
CD described the history of his study of orchids in his Autobiography, p. 127: During the summer of 1839, and, I believe, during the previous summer, I was led to attend to the cross-fertilisation of flowers by the aid of insects, from having come to the conclusion in my speculations on the origin of species, that crossing played an important part in keeping specific forms constant. I attended to the subject more or less during every subsequent summer; and my interest in it was greatly enhanced by having procured and read in November 1841, through the advice of Robert Brown, a copy of C. K. Sprengel’s wonderful book, Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur. CD’s annotated copy of Sprengel 1793, dated August 1841, is in the Darwin Library–CUL. Michael Ghiselin points out that the account given above overlooks CD’s earlier interest in pollination biology that was perhaps stimulated by his reading of Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic garden (E. Darwin 1789–91). See Ghiselin 1984, pp. xvii–xviii. See also the reference to studying orchid fecundation in CD’s Questions & experiments notebook, p. 15 (Notebooks).
The ‘Bridgewater Treatises’ is the collective name given to eight works on natural theology published between 1833 and 1836 under the terms of a bequest made to the Royal Society of London by Francis Henry Egerton, the 8th earl of Bridgewater. According to Egerton’s stipulations, each author was to write and publish a treatise ‘On the power, wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation’. Several of the volumes became classic works in the apologetic writings of natural theology (EB; see also Topham 1993). For a discussion of Orchids as a treatise showing how organic structure could be explained on the basis of natural selection rather than divine purpose, see Ghiselin 1984.
George Brettingham Sowerby Jr prepared the illustrations used in Orchids (see Orchids, p. vi).


Autobiography: The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow. London: Collins. 1958.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1789–91. The botanic garden; a poem, in two parts. Pt 1. The economy of vegetation. London: J. Johnson. 1791. Pt 2. The loves of the plants. With philosophical notes. Lichfield: J. Jackson. 1789.

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Ghiselin, Michael T. 1984. Foreword. In The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects, by Charles Darwin. Facsimile reprint of the 2d ed. (1877). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

Sprengel, Christian Konrad. 1793. Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen. Berlin: Friedrich Vieweg.

Topham, Jonathan Richard. 1993. ‘An infinite variety of arguments’: the Bridgewater treatises and British natural theology in the 1830s. PhD dissertation: University of Lancaster.


Asks JM’s opinion on publishing his MS on orchids. It has new facts, and resembles a Bridgewater Treatise, but only those who care for natural history would be interested. Would share the risk.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Murray
Sent from
Source of text
National Library of Scotland (John Murray Archive) (Ms.42152 ff. 106–107)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3259,” accessed on 1 March 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9