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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Whitwell Elwin to John Murray1   3 May 1859

Booton Rectory | Norwich

May 3. 1859

My dear Murray,

I have been intending for some days to write to you upon the subject of Mr. Darwin’s work on the Origin of Species. After you had the kindness to allow me to read the Ms. I made a point of seeing Sir C. Lyell, who I understood had, in some degree, advised the publication.2 I had myself formed a strong opinion the other way, & I stated to him fully my conviction, & the grounds of it. When we had thoroughly talked the matter over Sir Charles considered that I ought through you to convey my impressions to Mr. Darwin himself. I should have thought this presumptuous & impertinent in me if I had not received from Sir Charles the assurance that Mr. Darwin would not consider it either the one or the other. Nevertheless I speak with diffidence, & am sorry that Sir Charles, who was just starting for the continent, could not, before his return, find leisure to correspond with Mr. Darwin on the question.

I must say at the outset that it is the very high opinion I have of Mr. Darwin, founded on his Journal of a Naturalist, & the conviction, amounting to certainty, of the value of any researches of his, which made me eager to get both him & his friends to re-consider the propriety of sending forth his treatise in its present form. It seemed to me that to put forth the theory without the evidence would do grievous injustice to his views, & to his twenty years of observation & experiment. At every page I was tantalised by the absence of the proofs. All kinds of objections, & possibilities rose up in the mind, & it was fretting to think that the author had a whole array of facts, & inferences from the facts, absolutely essential to the decision of the question which were not before the reader. It is to ask the jury for a verdict without putting the witnesses into the box. One part of the public I suspect, under these circumstances, will reject the theory from recalling some obvious facts apparently at variance with it, & to which Mr. Darwin may nevertheless have a complete answer, while another part of the public will feel how unsatisfactory it is to go into the theory when only a fragment of the subject is before them, & will postpone the consideration of it till they can study it with more advantage. The more original the view, the more elaborate the researches on which it rests, the more extensive the series of facts in Natural History which bear upon it, the more it is prejudiced by a partial survey of the field which keeps out of sight the larger part of the materials.

A second objection to the publication of the treatise in its present form, though of less weight than the first, is yet of some moment. The Journal of Mr. Darwin is, as you have often heard me say, one of the most charming books in the language.3 No person could detail observations in natural history in a more attractive manner. The dissertation on species is, on the contrary, in a much harder & drier style. I impute this to the absence of the details. It is these which give relief & interest to the scientific outline—so that the very omission which takes from the philosophical value of the work destroys in a great degree its popular value also. Whatever class of the public he wishes to win he weakens the effect by an imperfect, & comparatively meagre exposition of his theory.

I am aware that many facts are given in the work as it stands, but they are too often wanting to do more than qualify my criticisms. I state my views broadly & roughly. Mr. Darwin will understand my meaning as well as if I had spoken with nice precision.

Upon the supposition that my description of the work is correct Sir C. Lyell agrees in my conclusions & bid me say this when I wrote you a letter for Mr. Darwin to read. Sir Charles tells me that he feared that in his anxiety to make his work perfect Mr. Darwin would postpone indefinitely the putting his materials into shape, & that thus the world might at last be deprived of his labours. He also told me that another gentleman had put forward a similar theory, & that it was necessary that Mr. D. should promulgate his conclusions before he was anticipated. Influenced by these considerations Sir Charles urged the publication of Mr. D’s observations upon pigeons, which he informs me are curious, ingenious, & valuable in the highest degree, accompanied with a brief statement of his general principles.4 He might then remark that of these principles the phenomena respecting the pigeons were one illustration, & that a larger work would shortly appear in which the same conclusions would be demonstrated by examples drawn from the wide world of nature.

This appears to me to be an admirable suggestion. Even if the larger work were ready it would be the best mode of preparing the way for it. Every body is interested in pigeons. The book would be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom, & would soon be on every table. The public at large can better understand a question when it is narrowed to a single case of this kind than when the whole varied kingdom of nature is brought under discussion at the outset. Interest in the larger work would be roused, & good-will would be conciliated to the subsequent development of the theory in all its bearings. It would be approached with impartiality,—not to say favour, & would appeal to the large public which had been interested by the previous book upon pigeons,—which book would yet be complete in itself, & open to none of the objections that I have urged against the present outline. Indeed I should say of the latter that for an outline it is too much, & for a thorough discussion of the question it is not near enough.

I write this letter with the intention that you should forward it to Mr. Darwin.5 He must be good enough to excuse the crude manner in which I state my impressions. I am obliged to write as fast as my pen can move, or I should not be able to write at all. My sole object & desire is to secure his theory coming before the world in the way which will do justice to the extraordinary merit of his investigations, & procure him that fame which belongs to him. I am but a smatterer in these subjects. What I say has no sort of authority except so far as it may chance to recommend itself to Mr. Darwin’s own reason. The book on pigeons would be at any rate a delightful commencement & I am certain its reception would be the best stimulus to the prosecution of his subsequent work. I should hope if he inclines to this view that the preparatory volume could soon be got ready for the press.

Believe me | Most Sincerely yrs | Whitwell Elwin.

I have not quoted Mr. Darwins published work by its exact title. In fact the title has been changed, & I never now know either perfectly.6


Although CD had heard from Murray on 10 April that he had read the first three chapters and abided by his decision to publish the work (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 11 April [1859]), Murray decided to seek advice from his friend George Frederick Pollock and from Elwin (Paston 1932,p. 170). Elwin was the editor of the Quarterly Review (published by John Murray) and a close associate of Murray's. According to Murray’s biographer, ‘No important decision could be arrived at in Albemarle Street without the advice and approval of the Rector of Booton [Elwin]’ (Paston 1932, pp. 170--1). Pollock not only advised Murray to publish CD’s book but recommended that he print 1000 copies rather than the 500 Murray originally intended (Haynes 1916, p. 233).
Journal of researches. The second edition of this work was published by John Murray in 1845.
Charles Lyell had encouraged CD to demonstrate the theory of natural selection by publishing his data on pigeons. See Correspondence vol. 6, letter from Charles Lyell, 1--2 May 1856 and n. 10; see also Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 54--5.
The letter was sent on to CD. See letter to John Murray, 6 May [1859].
Elwin refers to Journal of researches, which was first published under the title Journal and remarks.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Haynes, E. S. P. 1916. Master George Pollak. Cornhill Magazine n.s. 41: 232–7.

Journal and remarks: Journal and remarks. 1832–1836. By Charles Darwin. Vol. 3 of Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. London: Henry Colburn. 1839. [Separately published as Journal of researches.]

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Paston, George. 1932. At John Murray’s: records of a literary circle, 1843–1892. London: John Murray.


Charles Lyell has asked WE to pass his opinions on the MS of Origin to CD via Murray. WE is convinced of the value of CD’s researches but "to put forth the theory without the evidence", as in the MS, "would do grievous injustice to his views". The omission of these facts reduces both the philosophical and popular value of the work, by virtue of its dryness.

Supports Charles Lyell’s suggestion that CD should first publish his observations on pigeons with a theoretical outline, for "[e]very body is interested in pigeons". Such a work would generate wider interest and be better understood. A subsequent, larger book would then be approached with impartiality "not to say favour" by a wider public.

Letter details

Letter no.
Whitwell Elwin
John Murray
Sent from
Booton Rectory, Norwich
Source of text
National Library of Scotland (John Murray Archive) (Ms. 42197)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2457A,” accessed on 1 March 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 7