Descripción de editorial
In 1858 Charles Darwin was forty-nine years old, a gentleman scientist living quietly at Down House in the Kent countryside, respected by fellow biologists and well liked among his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. He was not yet a focus of debate; his “big book on species” still lay on his study desk in the form of a huge pile of manuscript. For more than twenty years he had been accumulating material for it, puzzling over questions it raised, trying—it seemed endlessly—to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Publication appeared to be as far away as ever, delayed by his inherent cautiousness and wish to be certain that his startling theory of evolution was correct.
It is at this point that the concluding volume of Janet Browne’s biography opens. The much-praised first volume, Voyaging, carried Darwin’s story through his youth and scientific apprenticeship, the adventurous Beagle voyage, his marriage and the birth of his children, the genesis and development of his ideas. Now, beginning with the extraordinary events that finally forced the Origin of Species into print, we come to the years of fame and controversy.
For Charles Darwin, the intellectual upheaval touched off by his book had deep personal as well as public consequences. Always an intensely private man, he suddenly found himself and his ideas being discussed—and often attacked—in circles far beyond those of his familiar scientific community. Demonized by some, defended by others (including such brilliant supporters as Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker), he soon emerged as one of the leading thinkers of the Victorian era, a man whose theories played a major role in shaping the modern world. Yet, in spite of the enormous new pressures, he clung firmly, sometimes painfully, to the quiet things that had always meant the most to him—his family, his research, his network of correspondents, his peaceful life at Down House.
In her account of this second half of Darwin’s life, Janet Browne does dramatic justice to all aspects of the Darwinian revolution, from a fascinating examination of the Victorian publishing scene to a survey of the often furious debates between scientists and churchmen over evolutionary theory. At the same time, she presents a wonderfully sympathetic and authoritative picture of Darwin himself right through the heart of the Darwinian revolution, busily sending and receiving letters, pursuing research on subjects that fascinated him (climbing plants, earthworms, pigeons—and, of course, the nature of evolution), writing books, and contending with his mysterious, intractable ill health. Thanks to Browne’s unparalleled command of the scientific and scholarly sources, we ultimately see Darwin more clearly than we ever have before, a man confirmed in greatness but endearingly human.
Reviewing Voyaging, Geoffrey Moorhouse observed that “if Browne’s second volume is as comprehensively lucid as her first, there will be no need for anyone to write another word on Darwin.” The Power of Place triumphantly justifies that praise.
When Browne published her first volume on the life of Darwin seven years ago (Charles Darwin: Voyaging), she secured her reputation as the last word on the Victorian naturalist. Now she has published the much-anticipated second half, and it is more spellbinding than the first, which ended on a cliffhanger of sorts. Darwin was back from his Beagle voyages, his famous evolutionary principles were distilled in his mind and the Bible-centered science of his day was about to be convulsed forever. Here, Browne picks up the story a year before the publication of On the Origin of Species, with the arrival of a package from Alfred Russel Wallace, whose own ideas on natural selection virtually mirrored Darwin's, forcing him to go public; as Browne shows, he proved himself a master tactician of institutional and media spin. Browne's subject is monumental, but her writing style is never overburdened by the weight. Rather, her prose is elegant in its clarity of thought, her craftsmanship impeccable in the way it weaves a coherent whole from the innumerable threads of thought, experience and persona that comprised this colossal life. Darwin's science, Browne contends, was characterized by his systematic use of correspondence, which the author puts to effective use in her narrative, again illustrating how the naturalist's thought was as much the collective product of his day as it was its single-most intellectual catalyst. Readers are left with the image of the sailor returned home to dig in his garden, stare into the past and, in dying, slip into legend.