Book Review

Karin Hollricher

Charles Darwin (Introduction by Janet Brown):
The Beagle Letters.

Hardcover: 544 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (October 13, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521898382
ISBN-13: 978-0521898386
Price: 21.40 EUR

The Origin of Controversies

Darwin’s Rhea (Rhea pennata aka Rhea darwinii), published in 1841 in John Gould’s description of birds collected on the Beagle voyage (see page 54). Darwin wrongly guessed that these creatures were a South American type of ostrich (Struthio spec.), while Gould, a British zoologist, identified it later as a new species and named it after its discoverer.

Charles Darwin was a sedulous writer of letters. He corresponded with roughly 2,000 people during his life (1809-1882). Surprisingly, most of his letters have been preserved – more than 14,000 documents in total.

In the new book The Beagle Letters, Frederick Burkhardt has skillfully selected correspondence between Darwin and his family, friends and colleagues over the five year period of his worldwide voyage aboard the Beagle. In an age of horse-drawn coaches and sailing ships it is surprising that nearly all of the letters found their destination, whether despatched in England or from one of the far-flung ports where the Beagle dropped anchor.

The collection starts with letters documenting how Darwin, who originally wanted to make a short natural history expedition to Tenerife, ended up on the Beagle and travelled around the world from 1831-1836. Through the letters we witness Darwin’s (“Chas’s”) seasickness, life on board and experiences on shore leaves. We read how he first realised that extinct animals have broadly the same physiology as living animals and how he saved an interesting specimen before it was completely eaten up by the crew. Unfortunately we do not learn much about his days on the Galapagos islands. The only letter he wrote from those islands, to his sister, was lost.

The only Galapagos letter is lost

Darwin’s sisters were also very eager writers. They report in detail on happenings in England whilst their brother was sailing around the world – ranging from marriages to new laws enacted. Those letters not only allow us to gain deep insights into Darwin’s life and work but also provide a remarkable picture of living and thinking in Victorian times. Drawings by Conrad Martens, the Beagle’s official artist for part of the voyage, illustrate the book.

The book is one of three collections of letters published by Cambridge University Press, drawn from the extensive Darwin Correspondence Project’s resources. This project was initiated by Burkhardt in the 1970s, who edited Darwin’s letters into 16 volumes as books. Also, the project’s online database at the University of Cambridge holds 5,000 complete, searchable letters from and to the scientist. This includes all the surviving letters from the Beagle voyage – online for the first time – and all the letters from the years around the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.

Francis Bacon, the philosopher, scientist, and author, once said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested”. This one definitely belongs to the last category. Enjoy!

Letzte Änderungen: 16.07.2013

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