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Darwin Correspondence Project

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Emma Darwin
Emma Darwin with Leonard Darwin as a child
CUL DAR 225: 93
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1837–1843: The London years to 'natural selection'

The seven-year period following Darwin's return to England from the Beagle voyage was one of extraordinary activity and productivity in which he became recognised as a naturalist of outstanding ability, as an author and editor, and as a professional man with official responsibilities in several scientific organisations. They are also the years in which he married, started a family, and moved to Down House, Kent, his home for the rest of his life. By 1842 he was ready to write an outline of his species theory, the so-called 'pencil sketch', based on a principle that he called ‘natural selection’. 

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Erasmus Alvey Darwin with Charles Darwin's sons
Erasmus Alvey Darwin with Charles Darwin's sons
CUL DAR 225: 40
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters,1870: Human evolution

The year 1870 is aptly summarised by the brief entry Darwin made in his journal: ‘The whole of the year at work on the Descent of Man & Selection in relation to Sex’.  Descent was the culmination of over three decades of observations and reflections on human ancestry, including the origin of language, mind, morals, and religious temperament. The year was otherwise coloured by controversies, including vigorous objections to the application of natural selection to humans from Wallace and St George Jackson Mivart.

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Darwin family at Caerdeon
Darwin family at Caerdeon, 1869 (from left, Henrietta, Francis, Leonard, Horace, Elizabeth)
CUL DAR 225: 72
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1869: Forward on all fronts

At the start of 1869, Darwin was hard at work making changes and additions for a fifth edition of  Origin. He may have resented the interruption to his work on sexual selection and human evolution, but he spent forty-six days on the task. Much of the remainder of the year was spent researching and revising chapters for  Descent, and gathering additional material on emotional expression. Yet the scope of Darwin’s interests remained extremely broad, many letters throughout the year touching on subjects such as South American geology, barnacle morphology, insectivorous plants, and earthworms, subjects that had exercised Darwin for decades.

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George Howard Darwin
George Howard Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 45
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1868: Studying sex

The quantity of Darwin’s correspondence increased dramatically in 1868 due largely to his ever-widening research on human evolution and sexual selection.Darwin’s theory of sexual selection as applied to human descent led him to investigate aspects of the structure and behaviour of other animals more extensively, and to further this programme, he re-established links with specialists who had provided assistance. Considerable correspondence was generated by the long-awaited publication of Variation in animals and plants under domestication. Having been advertised by the publisher John Murray as early as 1865, the two-volume work appeared in January 1868.

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Hypothetical sphinx moth
Hypothetical sphinx moth, illustration by T. W. Wood, Quarterly Journal of Science 4 (1867)
Q340:1.c.7.4
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1867: A civilised dispute

Charles Darwin’s major achievement in 1867 was the completion of his large work, The variation of animals and plants under domestication (Variation). The importance of Darwin’s network of correspondents becomes vividly apparent in his work on expression in 1867, as he continued to circulate a list of questions on human expression that he may have drawn up in late 1866. His correspondents were asked to copy the list and forward it to those who might best answer the questions, with the result that Darwin began to receive replies from different corners of the world.

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Charles Darwin on his horse, Tommy
Charles Darwin on his horse, Tommy
CUL DAR 225: 116
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters,1866: Survival of the fittest

The year 1866 began well for Charles Darwin, as his health, after several years of illness, was now considerably improved. In February, Darwin received a request from his publisher, John Murray, for a new edition of  Origin. Darwin got the fourth edition to the printers in July. Much to Darwin’s annoyance, however, publication was delayed by Murray, who judged that it would sell better if released later in the year. Darwin also completed the major part of what was to become Variation. Debate about Darwin’s theory of transmutation continued in 1866, with important commentaries appearing in France, Germany, and Italy.

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Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Darwin, photograph by William Erasmus Darwin, 1864
CUL DAR 225: 113
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1864: Failing health

On receiving a photograph from Charles Darwin, the American botanist Asa Gray wrote on 11 July 1864: ‘the venerable beard gives the look of your having suffered, and … of having grown older’.  Because of poor health, Because of poor health, Darwin corresponded little during the first three months of 1864, dictating nearly all his letters and having scientific papers read to him. In March, his health improved; he consulted William Jenner, physician to Queen Victoria, who prescribed radically different treatment to the five physicians Darwin had consulted in 1863. Darwin exclaimed to his close friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker: ‘Hurrah! I have been 52 hours without vomiting!!’. He continued his hybridising experiments and finished a couple of botanical papers, resuming work on the manuscript of Variation, the long-awaited sequel to Origin

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Down House hothouse
Down House hothouse, engraving from Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1883
Q900:1.c.2.25
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1863: Quarrels at home, honours abroad

At the start of 1863, Charles Darwin was actively working on the manuscript of The variation of animals and plants under domestication, anticipating with excitement the construction of a hothouse to accommodate his increasingly varied botanical experiments, and continuing a massive scientific correspondence. Six months later the volume of his correspondence dropped markedly, reflecting a decline in his already weak health. Although Darwin worried about the effect of the quarrels on public perceptions, his theory was gathering support in influential scientific circles. He struggled with leaf angles, fractions, diagrams, and shoot dissections.

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Darwin in letters, 1862: A multiplicity of experiments

1862 was a particularly productive year for Darwin. This was not only the case in his published output (two botanical papers and a book on the pollination mechanisms of orchids), but more particularly in the extent and breadth of the botanical experiments he carried out. While many of these remained unpublished for several years, they formed the foundation of numerous later publications. The promotion of his theory of natural selection also continued: Darwin’s own works expanded on it, Thomas Henry Huxley gave lectures about it, and Henry Walter Bates invoked it to explain mimicry in butterflies.  

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Robert FitzRoy
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw115429/Robert-FitzRoy-Fitzroy-Fitz-Roy?
Robert FitzRoy (Fitzroy, Fitz-Roy) by London Stereoscopic & photographic Company albumen print on card mount, early-mid 1860s, NPG x128426
mw115429
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Darwin in letters, 1821-1836: Childhood to the Beagle voyage

Darwin's first known letters were written when he was twelve. They continue through school-days at Shrewsbury, two years as a medical student at Edinburgh University, the undergraduate years at Cambridge, and the of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Letters exchanged with family and friends give a vivid picture of the social life of the Shropshire gentry of the 1820s and 1830s. In the earliest letters Darwin was already keenly interested in natural history. During the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Darwin’s letters convey the excitement and enthusiasm of a keen and careful collector let loose in a new and challenging land. 

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