The Prodigal Son
On 29 August 1831, Charles Darwin, aged twenty-two and just returned home from Cambridge University for two weeks of holiday, presented his father with a ridiculous proposition. Charles had a letter from a Cambridge friend, Reverend John Henslow, conveying an offer of a position as naturalist on a naval survey vessel that would depart England in one month’s time, to circumnavigate the globe via Tierra del Fuego and the East Indies. The voyage would take two years and Charles would have to pay for himself.
It wasn’t the cost that Dr Robert Waring Darwin objected to: heaven knows, he was used to covering his son’s extravagances. It was rather an exasperated fear that the boy would end up ‘an idle, sporting man’. He worried that Charles had been spoiled. Perhaps his dreamy, aimless character was a result of the early death of his mother, in 1817 when he was only eight, and his upbringing by three sisters who’d indulged and scolded him in equal measure. Charles had shown a childhood tendency to draw attention to himself by making up romantic and sensational stories. He’d also developed a passionate love of the outdoors.
As a doctor and a man of robust commonsense, Robert Darwin knew that a boyish enthusiasm for ﬁshing, raiding birds’ nests, stealing fruit, collecting shells and hunting rats was perfectly natural and healthy. It had shown to good effect in Charles’s tall, muscular frame and strong legs. Dr Darwin, who kept a detailed record book of his botanical plantings, had also gained great pleasure from his younger son’s company in the garden of their Shrewsbury house, the Mount. On the other hand, the doctor had begun to realise, unless Charles’s recreational zest was balanced by a willingness to commit to some form of useful learning, it could become a means of escaping the responsibilities of adulthood.
Dr Darwin wondered if he was partly to blame for Charles’s lack of direction. Perhaps he’d been too preoccupied with work and too generous with the boy’s allowance? The doctor had been so devastated by the loss of his wife, Susannah, that he’d immersed himself in his profession. Being the best-known, best-paid physician in Shrewsbury was demanding of his time, and he’d also developed a supplementary business as a money broker: he raised money for investors and occasionally invested personally in the burgeoning network of canals and roads that were criss-crossing the industrialising county of Shropshire. This could be risky, of course, but it was also highly proﬁtable, as long as one was careful and a good judge of character. Dr Darwin was both, and he’d become one of the richest men in the county.
Charles was a puzzle. He’d grown up a delightful boy in so many ways – affectionate, sensitive and energetic. He listened attentively to his elders, doted on his sisters, Marianne, Caroline, Susan and Emily, and adored his clever, rather literary older brother Erasmus. Neither did Charles seem stupid; if he put his mind to something he was able to learn quickly enough. This hadn’t shown in his school results, admittedly, which were average to mediocre. At the age of nine he’d been sent as a boarder to Shrewsbury Grammar, a school close to their house and famous throughout the country under the headmastership of the learned Dr Samuel Butler. Although Charles had appeared to work conscientiously enough, he showed no talent for the classical studies that dominated the school’s curriculum. He’d been chastised by the headmaster for his lacklustre efforts in Latin and Greek verse, and for wasting time reading Shakespeare’s histories and fooling about with chemicals. His nickname of ‘Gas’ was not intended to be complimentary.
Charles had never settled at the school; he’d taken advantage of every unmonitored period in the daily routine to dash the mile home to gossip with his sisters and play with his dogs. When not making these risky little escapes, he mooned about reading poems and romances by Byron and Scott, or sensational travel and adventure stories in boys’ magazines. He had a vivid imagination and something of an aesthetic bent, which showed up in his stories, his reading and his ‘poetic fancy’. He also developed a passion for hunting on his uncle Josiah Wedgwood’s country estate, Maer, thirty miles from Shrewsbury.
By the time Charles was ﬁfteen, Dr Darwin decided there was no point in him continuing at the school. Tolerant as he normally was, the doctor made his ﬁrst of several angry predictions: ‘you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family’. He sent Charles to Edinburgh University to become a physician, in the footsteps of his grand father, father and older brother. Although the Darwins boasted a long and distinguished lineage as country gentry, they prided themselves on acquiring respectable vocations. Erasmus, who was ﬁ nishing his medical degree at Edinburgh, would help Charles ﬁnd his feet.
Robert Darwin had already seen some hopeful signs that his younger son might apply himself in this capacity. As a child, Charles loved to squeeze himself into the carriage beside his father’s massive bulk and listen to his medical theories and diagnoses. In the months immediately before going to university, Charles showed that he’d grasped Dr Darwin’s central tenet of good doctoring: be optimistic and conﬁdent and a cure will often follow; most patients were not really seeking medical treatment so much as advice and comfort about their domestic unhappinesses. Charles tried this remedy on a small group of patients among the local poor, who’d been pleased by the attention. Dr Darwin was impressed by his son’s sensitive manners and careful records.
But the Edinburgh experiment proved a disaster, though it took nearly two years before Dr Darwin realised the full extent of his son’s alienation. Despite enjoying the convivial company of Erasmus and his friends for the ﬁrst year, Charles complained in letters to his sisters about musty, boring lectures on the materia medica, and disgusting, blood-soaked anatomy demonstrations. Here again Dr Darwin was not unsympathetic: he hadn’t liked medicine at ﬁrst either. He understood his son’s repulsion at having to dissect corpses amidst the stench of guts, and his distress at having to watch limbs being hacked off screaming children, but Dr Darwin had learnt to tamp down his squeamishness and do the necessary minimum of these activities.
Charles, by contrast, let his feelings run away with him and swore never to lay eyes on such horrors again. Dr Darwin had given both his sons to understand that if they exerted themselves in order to gain a medical qualiﬁcation, they wouldn’t necessarily have to practise: they would inherit enough money to live in comfort. Erasmus had taken the hint, but Charles seemed to treat the prospect of an inheritance as a further inducement to idleness.
There was little consolation for the doctor in Charles’s extracurricular enthusiasm for naturalism. Natural history and philosophy were ﬁne as adjunct subjects to a medical degree, but they would not in themselves lead to any paid employment. Naturalism was mostly the preserve of enthusiastic amateurs – clergymen whiling away idle moments in their rural parishes, genteel young women drawing butterﬂies and pressing plants, artisans ﬁnding themselves a self-improving hobby. Lectures in subjects like botany were given at Edinburgh mainly to young men intending to practise in the colonies, where medicines were not easy to obtain.
And it was not as if Charles was any more conscientious about attending lectures in those ﬁelds than in other parts of the curriculum. He griped to his sisters about the tedious zoological and geological lectures of the famous scholar, Professor Jameson, and he swore to never again study or read a book on the wearisome subject of geology. No, Dr Darwin suspected that his son’s fascination for natural history was similar to his obsession with hunting – commendable for its zeal and harmless as a hobby, but an undesirable substitute for serious work. Though generous about covering a stream of expenses, the doctor found it difﬁcult to see how some of them – such as paying a former black slave to teach Charles how to stuff birds – were going to advance the boy’s career.
Charles was also prone to wandering along Scottish beaches with naturalist-minded professors, gathering up crustacea in tide pools, and philosophising about the age of the earth. Dr Darwin – whose own father, another Erasmus, had been a famous poet as well as a physician – understood the pleasures of the imagination, but he didn’t fool himself that going trawling for oysters with Newhaven ﬁshermen qualiﬁed as work. Such activities looked much more like an extension of Charles’s delight in stalking partridge through the woods, or tramping across the north Welsh countryside to admire crashing waterfalls.
When Charles eventually gave up his medical course in 1827, Dr Darwin felt bound to put his foot down. If the boy wanted to fritter away his life shooting snipe and collecting beetles, he must at least take a degree that would cloak such hobbies with a modicum of gentility. In short, he must resort to the stock refuge of the educated idle and become a Church of England clergyman. True, the Darwins were not a religious family – Charles’s mother Susannah Wedgwood had been raised a Unitarian, a nonconformist religion so rationalist as to border on free thought – but, largely for social reasons, her children had been baptised in the Church of England. Charles’s easygoing orthodoxy extended to believing vaguely in the truth of the Bible and adhering to the Anglican creed. So it was agreed that he would go to Cambridge to take a bachelor’s degree.
Everyone in the family knew that his incentive was not so much religion as an aspiration to emulate the life of the famous clergyman naturalist, Reverend Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne, a gentle, arcadian record of the daily doings of the plants, birds and animals of a small rural parish in Hampshire. After reading it, Charles had wondered excitedly ‘why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist’.
Charles’s reduced career goal proved within range of his stamina and abilities. He struggled at ﬁrst: the wasted years at school meant that he had to take special tutoring to regain some rudimentary knowledge of Latin and Greek and to brush up his algebra. Once at Cambridge, he continued to party hard, but he also worked enough to pass his preliminary exams with ease, and eventually to graduate in the respectable position of tenth out of the non-honours candidates.
Dr Darwin’s relief was so palpable he was happy to indulge his son’s leisure activities. He didn’t jib greatly at Charles’s extravagant spending on food, cards and wine, or at reports from his daughters of the boy’s continued obsession with hunting, rambling and insect collecting. On one occasion, his tutor at Christ’s College was greatly alarmed by cracking sounds emanating from behind young Darwin’s door: Charles was practising snufﬁng out a moving candle with the puff of air detonated by his unloaded shotgun.
At Cambridge, Charles met up with a former teacher of his brother’s, the Reverend John Henslow, who inspired him to become a regular at Friday soirées and weekend naturalist outings – and even to attend a course of botany lectures. Through Henslow, Charles mixed with senior university dons like William Whewell, the natural philosopher, and Adam Sedgwick, the geologist. Charles’s hero-worship of the sociable and tolerant Henslow appeared to be all to the good. Aside from provoking him into becoming an even more energetic gatherer of plants and insects, it reinforced his belief in the congeniality of a clerical career.
Dr Darwin did not even mind when Charles, towards the end of his time at Cambridge in 1831, read a book lent to him by Henslow and became infatuated with the idea of exploring the tropical environment of Tenerife in the Spanish-owned Canary Islands. It was an eccentric destination, but the boy deserved a holiday as a reward for attaining his degree.
In the event, Charles’s zeal outran his planning abilities, and the trip was delayed for a year because of a missed schedule and the death of one of his intended companions. Henslow, in the meantime, gave constructive direction to Charles’s naïve enthusiasm by urging him to prepare for the trip intellectually. Though hopeless at languages, Charles laboured for a while to teach himself the rudiments of Spanish, and thanks again to Henslow’s good ofﬁces, undertook a short ﬁeld trip in August 1831 as assistant to Adam Sedgwick. The gruff Yorkshire professor agreed to give the boy a crash course in practical geology among the mountains of Snowdonia in North Wales, so that he might better understand the volcanic structures of Tenerife.
It was immediately after this episode that Henslow’s note about the voyage around the world arrived. Dr Darwin pointed out in no uncertain terms that this was a wholly different prospect to holidaying in Tenerife for a few weeks: it could involve years of absence, along with the perils of shipwreck, drowning and tropical disease. The doctor knew no more about sailing than did his son, but he did know that sailors were regarded as social vagabonds who spent all their time on shore drinking, whoring and ﬁghting. Keeping such company could only harm Charles’s reputation and his chances of gaining a clergyman’s position, along with his commitment to such a career. As for working as a ship’s naturalist in South America, what possible good could it do, especially when Charles had precious few credentials for the job?
It was obvious, Dr Darwin speculated, that other, qualiﬁed naturalists had already turned down the offer. Had Charles thought to ask why? What was it about the captain, the ship or the proposed voyage that had led them to refuse? And what would it say for Charles’s future standing that he was willing to take on a position spurned by better men?