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...

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Charles Darwin

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Janet Browne’s CHARLES DARWIN: VOYAGING joins a growing list of scholarly life studies of the most controversial and influential figure in nineteenth century science. Concentrating on the person behind the legend, Browne tries to explain how this retiring, gentrified naturalist came to be the most influential figure of his age. The bulk of this book describes Darwin’s adventures aboard H.M.S. BEAGLE, whose five-year cruise carried him to remote regions of South America and the Pacific islands. Using a wide variety of primary sources, Browne re-creates the journey step-by-step, adding her own insights about the importance of discoveries that shaped Darwin’s views about the natural world and prompted him to brook the prevailing trend among scientists of his day, who were bent on reconciling science and religion.

Browne manages to balance the account of Darwin’s scientific activity with stories of his life as son, student, friend, husband, and father. She gives a sensitive account of Darwin’s love life, culminating in his marriage to first cousin Emma Wedgwood; she also humanizes her subject through portraits of his activities with his children. From her account, readers will gain a sense of the English gentry and English academic life, as well as a sound understanding of the importance of the British navy in promoting both scientific exploration and colonialism. They will also see how racial and class prejudices shaped the views of Darwin and his...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Charles Darwin

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995), the first volume of Janet Browne’s two-volume biography, was highly praised by several knowledgeable critics. That first volume centered on how the voyage of the Beagle transformed Darwin from a shiftless student into a focused naturalist with a talent for observation, experiment, and imaginative theorizing. In style and substance Browne’s second volume, which deals with Darwin’s transformation from a respected rural naturalist to a world-famous biologist, constitutes a complementary continuation of the story and themes she introduced in her first volume.

Unlike biographers who depict Darwin as an isolated recluse, Browne views him, through his family, friends, and fellow scientists, as very much a part of Victorian England and, through his immense correspondence, as very much a part of the world. Her perceptive use of the thousands of letters Darwin wrote freshens familiar stories and deepens the understanding of the origin and development of his ideas. Despite the ongoing spate of books on Darwin, Browne has discovered new things about the man and reinterpreted old things. Drawing on original documents, she has been able to situate Darwin and those who were important in his life in meticulously imagined social, political, and institutional settings.

The framework for her analysis in the second volume is tripartite. In part 1, “Author,” her main concern is with the events leading to the publication of Darwin’s great work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and with the subsequent controversies generated by the book’s publication. In part 2, “Experimenter,” she focuses on Darwin’s efforts, largely through his work on the variations of domesticated plants and animals, to provide extensive evidence for the truth of his ideas. In part 3, “Celebrity,” she details how Darwin became a world-famous scientist through his various publications and through his adroit use of correspondents, disciples, and the nineteenth century mass media (newspapers, magazines, and journals).

The pivotal part is the first, which shows how On the Origin of Species changed his life. Browne begins this part by setting the scene with Darwin comfortably ensconced in his large country house, loved by his wife Emma and their children, and cared for by a large staff of servants. By the late 1850’s Darwin had produced a number of scientific publications that had garnered for him a reputation as a skilled naturalist. Twenty years earlier, he had conceived the idea of natural selection, and he had begun writing a massive book to prove its validity. However, he was a perfectionist who wanted to overwhelm his readers with evidence. In 1856 his friend Charles Lyell warned him to publish a preliminary account of this theory to avoid some competitor preempting him, but Darwin was happy with his routine of leisurely fact-gathering and writing. With a large private income, he was under no pressure to publish, unlike his academic correspondents.

This state of affairs changed cataclysmically when Darwin received a letter and handwritten essay from Alfred Russel Wallace, who was then living and working on an island in the Dutch East Indies. His essay, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” described a mechanism for the genesis of new species that precisely mirrored the idea that Darwin thought was unique to himself. Darwin resolved the dilemma of what to do with Wallace’s article by following a suggestion of Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker: a presentation of both Darwin’s and Wallace’s work on natural selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society. However, since Wallace was separated from these scientists geographically (he was half a world away) and socially (he was neither well-born nor wealthy), it was easy for Lyell and Hooker to manipulate the situation in Darwin’s favor. Darwin did not attend the meeting because of the death of one of his children, and on learning what happened he felt shame and guilt because he assumed his work would be subordinated to Wallace’s, rather than vice-versa. When Wallace eventually heard from Darwin, he accepted good-naturedly what had been done, but the theory of natural selection would become known as Darwinism, not Wallaceism.

The emotional origin of On the Origin of Species was therefore in Darwin’s disappointment and guilt. His perfectionism and procrastination were now pushed to the side, and he distilled his piles of data into a book intended for a general audience. He wisely began it with domesticated plants and animals, since he realized that ordinary people were familiar with the creation of domestic varieties by breeders. Having convinced...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)