Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863’

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863

The eleventh volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1863.

During the second half of 1863, Darwin suffered from prolonged ill-health, which affected the work he was supposed to be doing on the first part of his long-planned, never-to-be-completed three-volume magnum opus on evolution. Instead, he continued to pursue his recent botanical studies, sometimes from his sick-bed. Featuring prominently in the year’s correspondence are Darwin’s thoughts, observations, and queries concerning plant cross-pollination, including his interest in dichogamy (the ripening of the stamens and pistils of a flower at different times), heterostyly (in which different individuals of the same species of flower exhibit different relative lengths of stamens and styles), and orchids’ reproductive adaptations. Darwin’s botanical interests expanded further as he became fascinated with certain plants’ abilities to move and climb, and in phyllotaxy (the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem)—a topic that ultimately left him flummoxed.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1863 correspondence include:

  • excitement and controversy over the recently discovered fossil Archaeopteryx, an early bird bearing decidedly reptilian features and, as Darwin had once predicted, bifurcated wings;
  • Darwin’s growing indignation with his former friend, now enemy, Richard Owen;
  • Darwin’s deep disappointment at the ‘excessive caution’ exercised by his close friend and ally Charles Lyell in his long-anticipated book The Antiquity of Man;
  • the ensuing public scientific spat about Lyell having insufficiently acknowledged the work of others in his book;
  • Darwin’s delight at his friend Thomas Henry Huxley’s far more forthright book on a related topic, Man’s Place in Nature;
  • Darwin’s regret at having used biblical-sounding terms in On the Origin of Species;
  • Darwin’s public defence of On the Origin of Species, in the pages of ‘Athenæum’—a move he was soon to regret, and never to repeat;
  • ongoing discussions with Darwin’s closest friend in the United States, Asa Gray, concerning the civil war;
  • a campaign spearheaded by Darwin’s wife, Emma, against steel vermin traps;
  • Emma and Charles Darwin’s dismay at the apparent destruction of their daughter’s grave in Malvern (it was found eventually—Emma had been looking in the wrong place);
  • an unsuccessful campaign by his friends to have Darwin awarded the Royal Society’s highest honour, the Copley Medal (not to worry—spoiler alert—he was to receive it the following year).

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

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