I don’t know about the rest of you, but in summer my reading tends to be of two types:
1. short, fluffy reading that can be digested in between other more pressing activities such as eating strawberries and swimming.
2. long weighty tomes that can be read while travelling, on lazy weekend afternoons, and at at the cottage.
This post is about a book that definitely falls into the second category: Vol. 1 of Janet Browne’s new(ish) biography of Charles Darwin.
When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book, her response was “but wasn’t his life kind of boring?.” And the answer to that is, kind of, except when it was not. Several extremely unboring things happen in this volume:
- Darwin goes to medical school at the University of Edinburgh during a period when professors did anatomy demonstrations using cadavers obtained through distinctly sketchy methods. He has a personal crisis, but not because of the cadavers
- Darwin travels around the world on the Beagle. Browne devotes a large portion of this volume to the trip, and describes life aboard the ship, and Darwin’s travels on land, in great detail. Turns out Darwin was seasick most of the time, and had to periodically “take the horizontal” while writing up his notes on the ship.
- During this voyage, Darwin shares the ship with three “Fuegians” that the captain, Robert Fitzroy, had captured in Tierra del Fuego on a previous voyage and brought back to England to be “civilized.” Browne’s description of what happened when they returned to Tierra del Fuego, along with a missionary intending to set up a mission, is really fascinating, and the whole episode, including the names given to the Fuegians, is just so bizarre. No wonder it shook up Darwin’s view of humanity.
- Darwin returns to England and marries his first cousin. Browne makes it quite clear that this was considered normal in his family, but I still think it’s weird.
- Darwin’s daughter Annie dies, possibly of tuberculosis.
Of course, I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention that quite a lot of boring events (or lack thereof) happen in this book as well. Browne, a historian of science who worked on his published correspondence, is focused on what is happening inside Darwin’s brain as the events of his life unfold. The reader receives Darwin’s education in anatomy, geology and physiology along with him, and puzzles through his ideas and theories as he reaches later life.
Browne does run into a problem that I suspect must be common to intellectual biographers: how do you deal with all that time spent in the library? Or, in Darwin’s case, in the reading room of his London club? Matters are not helped by the fact that just as Darwin’s evolutionary ideas start to get exciting, he takes an EIGHT YEAR time-out to study barnacle sex . Necessary, but a bit of a bummer on the narrative front. However, the pace of the biography picks up a bit towards the end of the first volume, and the reader is left hanging: what will happen when Darwin finally publishes???
I’ll let you know as soon as I finish the second volume. And while I know that nineteenth-century science doesn’t make for everybody’s idea of riveting beach reading, I’d really recommend this book!