I’ve just read Janet Browne’s two-volume biography of Charles Darwin, and it’s a magnificent achievement — one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read. I especially admire Browne’s judgment in knowing when to stick with the events of the life and when to pull back her camera to reveal the larger social contexts in which Darwin worked.

One of the interesting subthemes of the book concerns the way Darwin gravitated towards technologies that would allow him to pursue whatever aroused his curiosity — and whenever his curiosity was aroused he tended to become obsessive until he satisfied it. For instance, though he hated having his photograph taken, he made extensive use of photographs in writing his peculiar book on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Also: if you think of the various scientific institutions and journals of the Victorian era as a kind of network, he and his chief supporters (Thomas Henry Huxley above all) skillfully exploited those technologies to spread the news of natural selection far more quickly than it could have been expected to spread otherwise.

But as someone who has a long-standing interest in the postal service, these passages from the early pages of the second volume are especially provocative:

Systematically, he turned his house into the hub of an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence. Tucked away in his study, day after day, month after month, Darwin wrote letters to a remarkable number and variety of individuals. He relied on these letters for every aspect of his evolutionary endeavour, using them not only to pursue his investigations across the globe but also to give his arguments the international spread and universal application that he and his colleagues regarded as essential footings for any new scientific concept. They were his primary research tool. Furthermore, after the Origin of Species was published, he deliberately used his correspondence to propel his ideas into the public domain—the primary means by which he ensured his book was being read and reviewed. His study inside Down House became an intellectual factory, a centre of administration and calculation, in which he churned out requests for information and processed answers, kept himself at the leading edge of contemporary science, and ultimately orchestrated a transformation in Victorian thought.

Maybe it wasn’t the telegraph that was the Victorian internet but rather the penny post — even if it was slower.

And Darwin was utterly unashamed to use letters to get other people (friends, family, and often strangers) to do research for him:

He also hunted down anyone who could help him on specific issues, from civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners, and kennel hands, through to his own elderly aunts or energetic nieces and nephews. Many of his letters went to residents of far-flung regions — India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, China, Borneo, the Hawaiian Islands — reflecting the increasing European domination of the globe and rapidly improving channels of communication.

It’s a good thing that Darwin was a wealthy man: “In 1851 he spent £20 on ‘stationery, stamps & newspapers’ (nearly £1,000 in modern terms) … By 1877 Darwin’s expenditure on postage and stationery had doubled to £53 14s. 7d, a sum roughly equal to his butler’s annual salary.”

And here’s Browne’s incisive summary of this method:

If there was any single factor that characterised the heart of Darwin’s scientific undertaking it was this systematic use of correspondence. Darwin made the most of his position as a gentleman and scientific author to obtain what he needed. He was a skilful strategist. The flow of information that he initiated was almost always one-way. Like countless other well-established figures of the period, Darwin regarded his correspondence primarily as a supply system, designed to answer his own wants. “If it would not cause you too much trouble,” he would write. “Pray add to your kindness,” “I feel that you will think you have fallen on a most troublesome petitioner,” “I trust to your kindness to excuse my troubling you.” …

Alone at his desk, captain of his ship, safely anchored in his country estate on the edge of a tiny village in Kent, he was in turn manager, chief executive, broker, and strategist for a world-wide enterprise. Once, in a passing compulsion, he attached a mirror to the inside of his study window, angled so that he could catch the first glimpse of the postman turning up the drive. It stayed there for the rest of his life.


  1. Interested as I am at the moment in the question of How One Writes A Good Biography I shall certainly seek this out.

    I think you're right about the penny post. People today don't realise how extensive or frequent the network was: there are stories (for specifics inquire within, I'd need to check details) of people commuting in to London in the morning from the countryside, sending letters back to their homes before lunch alerting their wives and housekeepers what time to expect them back that same evening.

  2. For historians, the decline of postal correspondence has a dreadful consequence. Starting with telephones a century ago, more and more of the contacts between people have taken place in forms that lack permanence. The Internet has made that even more pervasive. Letters are often filed away. Email may not survive a change in digital hardware, much less the death of someone or a change in how computer data is stored.

    In the future, writing good biographies like that of Janet Browne may prove far more difficult.

    And to comment on Adam Roberts remarks, there was a time when postal service was very quick. Mail was often delivered twice a day. A letter sent in London in the morning might arrive cross-town that afternoon.

    I recall reading a letter that Truman, in the White House, wrote his daughter in Independence, Missouri. He was hurrying to get it into the afternoon mail, so she'd get it the next day. Postal employees actually rode trains, sorting the mail as it traveled, to ensure it arrived a day faster.

    I can remember in my little town during the 1950s seeing a bag attached pole alongside the rail tracks. As a train passed through without stopping, that bag was snatched and incoming mail tossed in a bag beside the tracks.

  3. Reminds me of a passage I came across a few months ago:

    That central medium of communication in Edwardian Ireland, the halfpenny postcard, was used to carry loyalist propaganda, from coy depictions of Unionism in the form of pugnacious little boys or vulnerable young women through images of Carson…. If, as Ronan Fanning has pointed out, the homes of the Irish Republic were adorned with the triptych of Pope John XXIII, Robert and John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, then the Unionist household gods were the king-emperor, William III, and––above all––Carson…. (Jackson, Alvin. “Unionist Myths 1912–1985.” Past & Present. No. 136. (August 1992.) 164–85 at 172)

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