This coming spring, the New York Public Library will have the pleasure of hosting Cambridge University Library's exhibition on the life, letters, and work of Charles Darwin, titled Darwin in Conversation. The following review of the Cambridge exhibition appeared with further illustrations in The Book Collector (Winter 2022) and is reproduced here in full with the proprietor's kind permission.

‘Darwin in Conversation. The Endlessly Curious Life and Letters of Charles Darwin’
Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, 9 July-3 December 2022


New York Public Library, New York, April-July 2023

by Mark James

With a remarkable array of treasures from Cambridge University Library’s Darwin Archive, augmented with loans from private and institutional collections, the curators of the exhibition ‘Darwin in Conversation’ have amply proved the truth of Darwin’s aphorism that ‘a letter is something living’.(1) The exhibition marks the completion of the final volume of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, a monumental undertaking which began in 1974 with the foundation of the Darwin Correspondence Project (DCP) by Frederick Burckhardt (who had just retired as President of the American Council of Learned Societies), his wife Annie Schlabach Burckhardt, and the zoologist Sydney Smith. Unusually, it was decided that not only letters from Charles Darwin but also letters to him should be recorded by the DCP. The first volume of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (1985) and its successors established a benchmark for scholarly editions of scientific correspondence, eventually encompassing more than 15,000 letters exchanged by Darwin with some 2,000 correspondents.(2) 

As these figures testify, Darwin was an indefatigable correspondent, but this exhibition also demonstrates that he was an engaging, funny, and sympathetic letter-writer to whom correspondence was vital, not only to express his feelings to family and friends, but also to communicate with a large international network of scientific associates. (At the entrance to the exhibition the global span of the network is nicely demonstrated by a large, white globe titled ‘Lines of Communication’, covered with coloured threads which radiate out from Britain to the locations of his correspondents.) The importance of Darwin’s scientific letters was very well understood by his contemporaries – indeed, the first and the last books of his writings to be published in the nineteenth century were composed of letters. The first was Extracts from Letters Addressed to Professor Henslow by C. Darwin, Esq., which comprises passages selected from ten letters that Darwin wrote to his Cambridge mentor John Stevens Henslow during the second voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836).(3) Unbeknownst to their 26-year-old author, these passages were privately printed for the Cambridge Philosophical Society in December 1835 ‘in consequence of the interest which has been excited by some of the Geological notices which they contain, and which were read at a Meeting of the Society on the 16th of November 1835’;(4) and, as Darwin wrote to his sister Catherine from the Cape of Good Hope some months later, he found himself ‘a good deal horrified by a sentence in your letter where you talk of “the little books with the extracts from your letters”. I can only suppose they refer to a few geological details. But I have always written to Henslow in the same careless manner as to you; & to print what has been written without care & accuracy, is indeed playing with edge tools. But as the Spaniard says, “No hay remedio”’.(5) The last book-length work by Darwin to be published in the nineteenth century (and the first to be published after his death) was The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887).(6)

Illustration from the published review, The Book Collector, Winter 2022

The exhibition’s first two sections, ‘Darwin the Letter Writer’ and ‘Anatomy of a Letter’, examine the materials and technologies employed by Darwin in his correspondence and the ways in which he used letters, as well as the editorial processes of the DCP and the sources used to identify new letters. Exhibits include a letter written by Darwin to his sister Caroline during the Beaglevoyage, which is accompanied by a Bramah pen holder and quill (a type of pen favoured by contemporary travellers and used by Darwin during his circumnavigation) and a set of postal scales from Down House, his home in the village of Downe. Darwin’s later attempts to speed the flow of information are shown by a petition to the Secretary of the Post Office requesting a better delivery service for Downe, which was drafted by Darwin himself, while the spread of telegraphy in the second half of the nineteenth century led him to campaign for the establishment of a telegraph office in the village. Unfortunately, replying to the volume of mail that his fame attracted impinged significantly upon Darwin’s time; a printed form letter beginning ‘Mr Darwin is much obliged for the letter just received’ (which was never used) and a letter produced on a typewriter Darwin acquired in about 1876 (but soon gave away) testify to two attempts to harness technology to respond to letters more efficiently. Ironically, the most effective method that he found to manage his correspondence seems to have been the employment of Emma Darwin and their children as amanuenses.

Since Cambridge University Library has been assiduous in locating and, when possible, acquiring Darwin letters, it now holds more than half of the letters included in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. However, a number of letters are known only from secondary sources such as illustrations in auctioneers’ or dealers’ catalogues, or from their inclusion in early works about Darwin. One of the more unusual exhibits is a mid-twentieth-century printer’s block used to print a facsimile of a Darwin letter in the American magazine Hobbies in 1959 – in the absence of the original manuscript, this block was the source through which the DCP became aware of the letter.(7) 

It is a curious contradiction that despite the care lavished on preserving and documenting Darwin’s library and manuscripts after his death – particularly by Francis Darwin, the editor of the posthumous letters and the donor of his father’s working library to Cambridge University – Darwin’s use of them was, judged by bibliophile standards, careless and even brutal. In Francis Darwin’s ‘Reminiscences of my Father’s Everyday Life’, which prefaces The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, he recalled that ‘[f]or books [Darwin] had no respect, but merely considered them as tools to be worked with. […] He used to boast that he had made Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes, instead of in one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut it in half’ for convenience of reading.(8) One of the great strengths of ‘Darwin in Conversation’ is its demonstration of how Darwin similarly viewed letters as vehicles for ideas or data and used them accordingly by carefully marking passages of interest, transcribing sections, and sometimes excising parts of letters to insert into another manuscript. A fascinating example of Darwin’s deconstruction of a letter (and its painstaking reconstruction by the DCP to establish the text for publication) is Fritz Müller’s letter that he wrote to Darwin from Brazil on 2 August 1866. This manuscript forms the centrepiece of a case study which shows how Darwin incorporated raw material from his correspondents into his published books. Müller’s letter concerns the question of ‘bright seeds’ that he had found in Brazil, which seemed to contradict Darwin’s proposition that the bright colours of berries and fruits were the result of an adaptation intended to attract birds and other animals which would eat the fruit and then excrete the seeds, thus propagating the species over an increasingly large area. The Brazilian ‘bright seeds’ did not, however, follow this pattern. Darwin excised pertinent sections from this letter and another one from Müller before pasting them into his manuscript Experiment Book. These excised sections were subsequently removed from the volume, but the Experiment Book is exhibited here with the excised passages suspended above the pages, thus recreating Darwin’s original assemblage. It is accompanied by botanical drawings Müller made for Darwin, and copies of Darwin’s The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable KingdomThe Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species – all of which drew upon his correspondence with Müller.(9)

The next four sections of the exhibition centre on aspects of Darwin’s life and writings: ‘The Beagle Voyage: Learning for a Lifetime’, ‘Notebooks’, ‘Working from Home’, and ‘The State of Things’. The first of these opens with a strikingly personal artefact: a hairpin sent to Darwin by his childhood friend Sarah Owen shortly before he embarked on the Beagle, together with her letter expressing her pleasure at the thought that it would accompany him during his circumnavigation – an evocative gift to a young man about to undertake a perilous voyage which would take him far from home and loved ones. The journey was also a turning-point in his life; 40 years later Darwin would assert that the ‘voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life & has determined my whole career. […] I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind’.(10) It would also provide the basis for much of his later scientific work, and the antecedents of that work are found in the letters exhibited here. Some remarkable relics further illuminate the narrative: a sketch map of Chile used by Darwin, a view of Valparaiso by Conrad Martens (who had replaced Augustus Earle as the Beagle’s artist in 1832), and botanical and geological specimens collected by Darwin during the voyage.

On his return to England in 1836, Darwin was immersed in his work on the material gathered during the voyage, but he also began to consider the question of natural selection, recording his thoughts in a series of four small, pocket-sized notebooks, known collectively as the ‘Transmutation Notebooks’ (1837-1844). The first two of these – ‘Notebook B’ (which includes the celebrated ‘Tree of Life’ diagram) and ‘Notebook C’ – had been missing from Cambridge University Library’s collections since at least January 2001. As The Book Collector has previously reported, following a public appeal led by the University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner the notebooks were anonymously returned to the library in a bright pink gift bag on 9 March 2022.(11) Thanks to the fortuitous timing of their return, two manuscripts of the greatest importance are now on public display for the first time this century.

Illustration from the published review, The Book Collector, Winter 2022

‘Working from Home’ provides an insight into Darwin’s four decades at Down House, which served equally as a scientific centre and as a family home – a duality nicely captured by a leaf of Darwin’s first draft of Origin of Species, which is displayed vertically between two sheets of Perspex. The recto of the leaf bears the heavily corrected and ink-spattered text of a passage relating to geology, while the verso has a brightly coloured picture of the interior of a large house drawn by Francis Darwin, who (like his siblings) was encouraged to use his father’s discarded manuscripts as scrap paper. The children were also frequently employed as research assistants, for example in Darwin’s investigations into the flight-patterns of bumblebees around Down House, which are recorded in a plan of the surrounding grounds. Darwin explained the children’s roles in a letter to the German botanist and entomologist Hermann Müller: ‘I repeatedly stationed five or six of my children, each close to a buzzing place, and told the one farthest away to shout as soon a bee buzzed there: “here is a bee”, and so on with the other children one after another, the words “here is a bee” were passed on from child to child without interruption, until the bees reached the buzzing place where I myself was standing’.(12) 

Down House also became a site of pilgrimage for British and foreign scientists, one of whom was the German physiologist Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne, who wrote to Darwin’s friend and scientific associate T.H. Huxley asking him to arrange an audience at Down. Huxley relayed the request to Darwin, writing with mock-solemnity that ‘Kühne, Professor of Physiology, (and a monstrous clever fellow) has just been to see me, and he wants to know whether there is any possibility of his paying his devotions at the Shrine of Dr. Darwin. I have told him that that great Saint though always kind to worshippers is not always in a condition to be worshipped – In fact that the best incense occasionally gives him a sick headache’.(13) The letter is illustrated with a caricature of the bearded professor swinging a censer as he kneels before Darwin, who is dressed as a saint, accoutred with a mitre inscribed ‘pangenesis’ and a staff with the legend ‘selection’, and enthroned beneath a cloud labelled ‘variation’. 

Such anti-clerical satire was stock-in-trade for the bishop-baiting Huxley, but Darwin’s interventions in the public debates on social issues of the day were more measured and careful, and these interventions are the subject of ‘The State of Things’. Here we find Darwin writing to the absentee vicar of Downe about two recent curates who had been accused of embezzlement, and expressing his fears that ‘the Church will be lowered in the estimation of the whole neighbourhood’ (a concern which may have surprised some of Darwin’s critics);(14) corresponding with the scientist and suffragist Lydia Becker, the founder of the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society, to whom Darwin had sent a copy of his paper ‘Climbing Plants’ to be read at their inaugural meeting (she had previously sent him a copy of her Botany for Novices, a work ‘intended chiefly for young ladies’, which is also exhibited);(15) and composing, together with Emma Darwin, An Appeal against the use of steel vermin-traps, ‘a system which consigns thousands of animals to acute agony, probably of eight or ten hours duration, before it is ended by death’.(16) 

The final three sections of the exhibition – ‘Writing and Re-Writing Origin’, ‘Humans and Other Animals’, and ‘Plant or Animal?’ – are devoted respectively to the writing and publication of Origin of SpeciesThe Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; and Insectivorous PlantsThe Power of Movement in Plants, and The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms. ‘Writing and Re-Writing Origin’ maps out the genesis, publication, and revision of Origin of Species,(17) commencing with a leaf from the manuscript synopsis of its unpublished precursor, provisionally titled Natural Selection, which would articulate Darwin’s ideas on the subject. This is accompanied by a leaf from Darwin’s 1857 draft of his outline of species theory, a copy of which he sent to the American botanist Asa Gray at Harvard (this later enabled Darwin to prove that he had independently reached similar conclusions before he received Alfred Russel Wallace’s essay on natural selection in the summer of 1858). As is well known, the potential dispute over priority was resolved by the presentation of papers by both Darwin and Wallace at the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858 – including Darwin’s outline of species theory – and Natural Selection was abandoned by Darwin in favour of a shorter work.(18) Origin of Species was completed in the summer of 1859, corrected and proofed in the autumn, and published on 24 November. It is represented here by a remarkable pair of first editions of Origin of Species: Darwin’s own copy and Alfred Russel Wallace’s annotated copy. Darwin’s ideas continued to develop over the following 17 years, and each of the six editions published during his lifetime incorporated significant changes, culminating in the definitive text of 1876. This process of revision, correction, and improvement is demonstrated here through Darwin’s copy of the second edition (1860) with his marginal notes for amendments to be made in the third edition of 1861 and a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace of 2 July 1866, which suggested that Darwin’s ideas could be expressed more clearly if he adopted Herbert Spencer’s term ‘survival of the fittest’ – a term which Darwin duly introduced into the fifth edition.(19)

With the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871 Darwin addressed a question that he had carefully circumvented in Origin of Species­ – the position of humans in the evolutionary scheme.(20) Although the debate initiated by Darwin’s earlier book had naturally led some (including Huxley) to pursue the issue, it was only with the publication of The Descent of Man that Darwin fully explored it, aware that in certain quarters it could only engender further opprobrium and scorn. The section ‘Humans and Other Animals’ includes a striking caricature titled ‘Gallery of Ancestors’ by ‘George Montbard’ (i.e. Charles Auguste Loye), a French exile who had arrived in England in 1871. In this caricature Darwin is portrayed as the white-haired sage of popular imagination carefully scrutinising a portrait of an ape-like predecessor in a gallery. In the same year Huxley wrote another illustrated letter to Darwin, which has an elaborate border depicting the evolutionary progression of the lancelet (a marine invertebrate) through various tiers of the animal kingdom until it reaches its final form – a fashionably dressed woman. Darwin’s next book, The Expression of the Emotions, continued the evolutionary series of Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. As part of his research for it Darwin printed a questionnaire which was distributed to his network of correspondents, and his annotated copy of the questionnaire is displayed together with some of the responses he received.(21) The book was also notable for its early use of photographic illustrations from a number of sources, including photographs of Darwin’s niece Katherine Euphemia (‘Effie’) Wedgwood and self-portraits of the photographer Oscar Rejlander, who modelled some of the facial expressions.

‘Plant or Animal?’, the concluding section of the exhibition, is devoted to publications from the last seven years of Darwin’s life.(22) The experimental foundations of Insectivorous Plants had been laid in 1860, and the letters exhibited testify to the range of material that Darwin’s associates and correspondents supplied. Francis Darwin and his wife Amy reported from Switzerland (where they were honeymooning) on the butterwort, while John Burdon Sanderson in London and Mary Treat in New Jersey supplied experimental data on the digestive mechanisms of insectivores. The assistance that both George and Francis Darwin gave their father with Insectivorous Plants is shown by two manuscripts: the illustrations that George Darwin drew for the book, which were annotated by his father, and a sheet of notes on the effect of cobra venom on sundew written by Francis and Charles Darwin. The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, Darwin’s final book, was published on 10 October 1881 and saw him return to a subject which had first excited his interest some five decades earlier. His collaborators for this work included his son Horace Darwin, who devised the ‘worm-stone’ (or ‘wormograph’) – an instrument which enabled the displacement of earth by worms to be measured accurately – and scientific associates such as John Scott of the Calcutta Botanic Garden.

The curators of ‘Darwin in Conversation’ are to be congratulated on this important exhibition. Latter-day disciples who follow in the footsteps of that ‘monstrous clever fellow’ Professor Kühne and visit this exhibition will see Darwin’s ideas worked out, step-by-step, through the pre-eminent Darwin collections of Cambridge University Library. Here are some of the greatest scientific manuscripts held by an institution – and here too are the small, personal artefacts, such as hairpins, children’s drawings, and postal scales, that bring their creator to life.

To see the illustrated review and read more bibliophile articles, please visit the website of The Book Collector.


(1) The curators are Alison Pearn (Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project), Francis Neary (Editor and Research Associate), and Sally Stafford (Education and Outreach Officer). The quotation from Charles Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray of 22 January 1862 serves as the epigraph to the exhibition guide Darwin in Conversation. The Endlessly Curious Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, 2022); a PDF file of the catalogue is available. A QR code on the final page of the catalogue links to a page of online resources, including a PDF file with full transcripts of the letters in the exhibition.

(2) Frederick Burckhardt and Sydney Smith (eds), The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Volume 1 1821-1836 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). The 30th and final volume of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin is scheduled for publication in spring 2023. With the advent of the internet at the end of the twentieth century, the DCP was able to make the texts of the letters available online through a well-designed website with a sophisticated search apparatus, and references in this review are given to the online edition of the letters.

(3) [John Stevens Henslow (ed.)], For Private Distribution. The Following Pages Contain Extracts from Letters Addressed to Professor Henslow by C. Darwin, Esq. (Cambridge: Cambridge Philosophical Society, 1835). Henslow had proposed Darwin as the ship’s naturalist and therefore had a keen interest in the investigations of his protégé.

(4) Extracts from Letters Addressed to Professor Henslow by C. Darwin, Esq., p. [1].

(5) Darwin Correspondence Project, ‘Letter no. 302’.

(6) Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1887). This was followed by Francis Darwin and A.C. Seward (eds), More Letters of Charles Darwin. A Record of his Work in a Series of Hitherto Unpublished Letters, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1903).

(7) Doris H. Hamilton, ‘Autographs. The Letters of Charles Darwin’, Hobbies. The Magazine for Collectors, 64.2 (April 1959), 110-111 and 116 (p. 110).

(8) The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, i, pp. 150-151. The work referred to here is apparently the sixth edition of Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology: or, The Ancient Changes of the Earth and its Inhabitants as Illustrated by Geological Monuments(London: John Murray, 1865), which was inscribed ‘Charles Darwin from his affectionate friend, the author, July 26 1865’ and retains a paper slip with Darwin’s reading notes (cf. H.W. Rutherford (ed.), Catalogue of the Library of Charles Darwin now in the Botany School, Cambridge (Cambridge: University Press, 1908), p. 53). The work of more than 800 pages has been cleanly bisected along the spine and the second part covered in blue paper wrappers.

(9) Charles Darwin, The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1876); Charles Darwin, The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, 2nd edn (New York: D. Appleton, 1877); Charles Darwin, The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (London: John Murray, 1877).

(10) Nora Barlow (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 (London: Collins, 1958), pp. 76-77.

(11) [Anon.], ‘News & Comment’, The Book Collector, 71 (2022), 331-342 (p. 331).

(12) Darwin Correspondence Project, ‘Letter no. 8312’.

(13) Darwin Correspondence Project, ‘Letter no. 6283’.

(14) Darwin Correspondence Project, ‘Letter no. 6486’.

(15) Darwin Correspondence Project, ‘Letter no. 4441’.

(16) [Charles Darwin and Emma Darwin], An Appeal ([Bromley]: Edward Strong [for the authors, 1863]), p. [1].

(17) Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859).

(18) For the presentation of the papers at the Linnean Society, see Mark James, ‘“Two Indefatigable Naturalists”: The Darwin-Wallace Collections of the Linnean Society’, The Book Collector, 69 (Spring 2020), 29-43 (pp. 30-31).

(19) Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 5th edn (London: John Murray, 1869).

(20) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1871).

(21) Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1872).

(22) Charles Darwin, Insectivorous Plants (London: John Murray, 1875); Charles Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants(London: John Murray, 1880); Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (London: John Murray, 1881).

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