In April 2022, two of Charles Darwin’s field notebooks (one containing his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch) made headline news all over the world. They had been missing from Cambridge University Library for almost twenty years despite extensive searches (see BBC report here) and the UL’s Librarian Dr Jessica Garner decided that these priceless objects had probably been stolen rather than misplaced. Following advice from the police and Interpol, a public appeal for help was launched. Almost two years later, all the CUL staff were delighted when the notebooks were safely, and anonymously, left outside the Librarian’s office in a pink gift bag. An excellent new University of Cambridge podcast discusses the mystery of the missing notebooks.
The notebooks are the pocket-sized stars of the exhibition, ‘Darwin in Conversation’ at the Cambridge University Library from 9 July – December 2022 (it will be in The New York Public Library from from April – July 2023). The exhibition comes at the completion of almost 50 years of the Darwin Correspondence Project, founded in 1974 and currently directed by James Secord and Alison Pearn. 2022 marks the last volume of the print edition going to press, and the thirty volumes will contain more than 15000 letters. In November 2022 all of these, with extensive contextual notes, have been made available to read free online as part of the Project’s vast digital archive.
Darwin’s most extensive correspondence was with his close scientific friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley, and letters were Darwin’s principal way of sharing his ideas with them and other scientists, especially after the first Origin of Species was published in 1859. (Darwin updated five further editions in his lifetime, ‘each edition taking those conversations forward’ as Alison Pearn has said). Letters also acted as his primary research tool and a way of seeking out information from the general public. During his lifetime Darwin corresponded with around 2,000 people around the world, in what biographer Janet Browne calls ‘an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence’ spinning outwards from his study in Kent. In Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003), she describes how Darwin corresponded with ‘civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners and kennel hands’ (p.10). By 1877 it is estimated that he had spent the equivalent of £2,000 on postage and stationery.
Several of Darwin’s correspondents were scientific women, who at the time were excluded from the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Linnean Society. In her book Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (CUP, 2017) Samantha Evans includes letters from the botanist Lydia E. Becker, who was setting up a small scientific society for women in Manchester and asked Darwin for a copy of one of his botanical papers ‘such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness’ (Evans, p. 212). In January 1867 Darwin sent Becker two papers from his sickbed, revealing his positive attitude to women in science, and Becker and her group were touched by the his kindness (see my post ‘The ascent of women at Cambridge’ here).
More than 9,000 of the 15,000 letters that Darwin is known to have written and received are held at the Cambridge University Library, and this new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see some of them, along with the ‘Tree of Life’ notebooks and much else. It runs until 3 December 2022, and tickets can be booked here. It is accompanied by a contemporary photographic commission by Leonora Saunders re-imagining people who connected with Darwin through letters: ‘those that were rarely seen – and lesser heard’ including Lydia Becker.
Ann Kennedy Smith, July 2022, all rights reserved.