Charles Darwin

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the acknowledgments to this study of Darwin, Janet Browne says she considered calling the work Darwin: Another Biography. Certainly it is, in one sense, yet another in the spate of books that have appeared in the closing decades of the twentieth century recounting the life and accomplishments of the influential scientist. What makes Browne’s work different, however, is her focus on the person behind the legend. This initial installment of what is projected to be a two-volume biography is quite promising. Browne believes that the Darwin known to the British public in his own century and to succeeding generations is a persona created as much by others as by himself. The questions she proposes to answer are important ones: How has the nineteenth century come to be known as “Darwin’s century”? Who is the elusive individual lurking behind the public persona and the almost mythic reputation that have masked the man for more than a century? More intriguingly, “What kind of a man could write Origin of Species and Descent of Man, then start watching worms?”

By far the bulk of this book centers on Darwin’s exploits aboard HMS Beagle, the ship sent by the British Navy to map the southernmost coastline of South America. The five-year expedition was undoubtedly the turning point in Darwin’s life, giving him the opportunity to view firsthand the almost imperceptible changes wrought in both the geology and the animal and plant life in a region little known by scientists of the century. Browne devotes nearly a third of Charles Darwin: Voyaging to recapitulating her subject’s seafaring adventures. Relying not only on Darwin’s journal and his letters to family and friends but also on independent accounts from others on the voyage or ashore at the various ports of call, Browne re-creates the journey step by step, adding her own insights about the importance of discoveries that would shape Darwin’s own future and that of natural science.

The final third of Browne’s work is given over to describing the two decades following the voyage, which Darwin devoted to writing about his findings and establishing his reputation as a leading scientist. The publication of his journal in 1839 made him famous; reviews were favorable, and though he did not realize significant financial reward, he became known both to the larger scientific community and to the general public. Wishing to avoid controversy, however, he worked painstakingly to document his belief that life had evolved gradually through a process of natural selection, a random operation not dependent on a benevolent deity. Others who surmised as much had raised the ire of even the most respected scientists of the day. Not wanting to be the target of hostile criticism, Darwin worked patiently and kept his thoughts largely to himself. Browne demonstrates the personal price Darwin paid for his silence, noting how he reacted when works such as Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation became instant best-sellers. The volume ends at the point when Darwin decides that he simply must publish his theory or be preempted by someone else.

Those familiar with other biographies of Darwin may find little new information in Browne’s volume. What she does better than previous biographers is reveal the man behind the myth, balancing descriptions of Darwin’s pursuit of scientific discovery with his adaptation to more mundane roles: son, student, friend, husband, father. One of the strengths of this biography is the portrait of Darwin as a typical young English gentlemen: a bit dissolute, unsure of his future, under the thumb of a domineering yet loving father.

Browne is good at ferreting out incidents in Darwin’s early life which help explain his character and his methods. For example, she notes how a sharp encounter in 1831 with Adam Sedgwick, an eminent scientist to whom the young Darwin turned for advice, “had a marked effect on his scientific practice. If nothing else, it warned him to hold his tongue: to keep his ideas quiet until sufficient evidence came in.” Without calling attention to them, Browne highlights many of the ironies that characterized Darwin’s early career—for example, his dislike for Professor Robert Jameson’s views on natural history, which led the young student to swear in 1827 “never as long as I lived to read a book on geology or in any way to study the science.”

On the personal side, Browne gives a sensitive account of Darwin’s reaction to the engagement of Fanny Owen, whom he had hoped to marry; she is similarly adept at describing his enigmatic response to his father’s death more than a decade later. Browne paints an equally sensitive portrait of Darwin’s courtship, as well as his life as a husband and father, humanizing her subject by highlighting his frustrations, his anxieties, and the deep satisfaction he received from his wife...

(The entire section is 2014 words.)