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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin's life in letters


Charles Robert Darwin at various ages
Charles Robert Darwin at various ages
Cambridge University Library

If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow man, he ought to do what I am doing pester them with letters.

(Darwin to John Jenner Weir, [6 March 1868])

For all his working life, Darwin used letters as a way both of discussing ideas and gathering the ‘great quantities of facts’ that he used in developing and supporting his theories. They form a fascinating collection from many hundreds of correspondents, containing diagrams and drawings, personal observations, photographs, and even specimens. So many letters flowed in that Darwin had a habit of burning batches of old letters when he ran out of space, keeping only those from close friends and family, or those still useful for his research. From the early 1860s however, he tended to keep more of them and, despite later hazards, more than 8000 still survive in the main repository of his papers, the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library.

The core of the collection is the several hundred letters exchanged by Darwin and his closest friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, and given by Hooker to Francis Darwin after Darwin’s death. These letters provide both sides of an extended conversation that took place over more than forty years. Francis, who was editing his father’s letters for publication, appealed for other collections; some he was able to keep, but he also made many hundreds of copies of letters that he was only lent, adding these also to his archive.

The researchers of the Darwin Correspondence Project based in Cambridge University Library continue what Francis started by searching out, transcribing, and publishing complete texts of more than 15,000 known surviving Darwin letters, wherever in the world they are kept.  More continually come to light.   Written first as introductions to the volumes of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, the narrative of his life as revealed in his letters is being built up here year by year, another detailed episode being added as each volume is published.