Heart of Darwin

The places in and around London that shaped the naturalist as a young man

In paintings and sculptures from the last years of his life, Charles Darwin gives the impression of a man deeply wishing he could be somewhere else. At the National Portrait Gallery in London, he keeps his rumpled hat clutched in one hand, ready to bolt for the door. At the Natural History Museum, he has his coat folded across his lap, as if yearning to shed the burden of fame and slip quietly into oblivion. On the £10 note, his eyes are haunted beneath a vast furrowed brow, and there’s dismay behind that biblical white beard.

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Exploring Darwin's London

This image of Darwin is everywhere, and that seemed to me, on a recent trip to London, to be a pity. Even the founding father of evolutionary theory was not born a gloomy old man. I began to wonder if it might be possible to walk Darwin’s London and get a sense of him as a young man caught up in the fray. The landmarks of his life turned out to be all around. One day, for instance, I ducked into the Burlington Arcade—a handsome 1819 predecessor of the enclosed luxury shopping mall, where the bon ton of Darwin’s day shopped—and then, via another arcade, out onto Albemarle Street. To the right was the Royal Institution, where Darwin attended lectures. Brown’s Hotel, where a pro-Darwin group called the X Club used to meet in the 1860s, stood in mid-block. And though Darwin’s publishing company was sold off a few years ago to a conglomerate, the seventh generation of John Murrays still presides over the company’s old house just down the street. Murray told me he was already being inundated with visitors anticipating next year’s big anniversaries of Darwin’s birth (1809) and of the publication of his book

London has of course also changed. I went to visit 36 Great Marlborough Street, where Darwin was living in a bachelor flat when he got his first tentative inkling of natural selection, in September 1838, and I found the site occupied by a fast-food joint (slogan: “Scream if you want it faster”). I had better luck just below Trafalgar Square, where the Old Admiralty Building stands intact, screened off behind a handsome neoclassical colonnade from the broad avenue of government buildings called Whitehall. The modest U-shaped brick structure within served for centuries as headquarters of the Royal Navy and home ground to such storied mariners as Cook, Bligh, and Nelson. In September 1831, the 22-year-old Darwin came here for his first meeting with Captain Robert FitzRoy, who was seeking a gentleman naturalist to accompany him on a long expedition on H.M.S. Beagle.

The meeting went well: “Gloria in excelsis is the most moderate beginning I can think of,” Darwin wrote later that day. He was so eager to get started that he took lodgings around the corner on Spring Gardens, practically tucking himself in at night under the Admiralty’s left earlobe.

People are still talking about the consequences of the five years Darwin spent circumnavigating the globe aboard the Beagle. But he had hardly begun to think about evolution when the voyage ended, as I was reminded at a lecture I attended one evening at the Linnean Society. The “world’s oldest active biological society” occupies a wing of Burlington House, on Piccadilly, and Darwin was a member (he complained, soon after the Beagle’s return, about an evening that featured “a couple of intensely stupid papers”). The current meeting room dates from the 1870s and looks the part, with oak window trim, a coffered plasterwork ceiling, and portraits of Darwin (gloomy) and his collaborator Alfred Russel Wallace on one wall. The audience, mostly elderly naturalists, sat on pew-like benches pushed close together, pleased to have the speaker toss them the sort of biological bonbons Darwin himself liked to collect: the mice on St. Kilda, for instance, are twice the size of those on the Scottish mainland, possibly because there are no weasels to send them fleeing down narrow bolt-holes. About Darwin, the tone was affectionate deprecation: By the time the

Darwin did not need evolution to make his name. His South American fossils were an immediate sensation, and he won high praise for a talk to the Geological Society arguing that the coast of Chile had been formed from uplifted sea floor. (The scholarly acclaim left him feeling, he said, “like a peacock admiring his own tail.”) He gained admission to the prestigious Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall, a few minutes’ stroll from Trafalgar Square; the first time “I sat in that great drawing room, all on a sofa by myself, I felt just like a duke,” he confessed.

Along with career building, the Darwin of the post-Beagle years was considering the pros and cons of marriage. As an “object to be beloved & played with,” he thought that a wife would be “better than a dog anyhow.” One afternoon I went out walking with Joe Cain, a senior lecturer in the history of biology at University College London. We headed to 2 Bedford Place, a few minutes from the college, where the geologist Leonard Horner used to live with his five highly educated daughters. Darwin was a frequent visitor. But his father steered him instead toward Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin, good-natured and with a handsome dowry. The two were soon looking for their own first home in the same Bloomsbury neighborhood, though Emma prudently advised against living too close to “the Horneritas.”

One Sunday I traveled by train and then bus to Downe Village, 15 miles away, where the young Darwins moved to escape the filth of the city. Their new home was known rather unpromisingly as Down House. But for a visitor still stuck on Darwin as éminence grise, the really startling thing about the house is the pervasive air of playfulness. He and Emma filled the place with 10 children. While Darwin struggled with an eight-year study of barnacle taxonomy, his offspring happily raided his supplies and sometimes lit out with his microscope seat, a burled-wood stool on brass wheels. They used it, with a cane for an oar, to go punting around the first floor of the house.

Darwin also seems to have engaged in a form of punting. In photographs of the study, his chair, high-backed and narrow, looks a little severe. But in person, what catches the eye are its long, bird-like iron legs borrowed from a bedstead, with wheels for scooting from bookshelf to table, or for checking out visitors from the window. Darwin also regularly went roaming from his study on foot, to dip snuff from a jug in the hall, or to check the mail, delivered several times a day then. (The Darwin Correspondence Project counts 14,500 letters sent or received during his life.) He sometimes played billiards with his butler, Joseph Parslow, and he wrote, “I find it does me a deal of good, & drives the horrid species out of my head.”

This routine clearly suited Darwin. He and Emma enjoyed a remarkably compatible marriage (maybe it was that first-cousin thing). She was relaxed and tolerant, even when Charles was studying earthworms and put clay pots filled with them on her prized Broadwood grand piano to see how they responded to the vibrations. He in turn listened to her religious concern that his evolutionary thinking would keep them from being together for eternity. The first draft of the natural-selection idea got put away in the game closet under the stairs, where it remained with the tennis racquets and croquet mallets for more than a decade. But the “horrid species” would in time come creeping back.

From the house, I went out to a wooded path, called the Sandwalk, where Darwin used to stroll at midday. Some of the oak, yew, and beech trees he planted still stand, and a scattering of bluebells were in flower. But for me the best thing about the walk was the point early on where Darwin sometimes veered off to dawdle among the botanical experiments in his hothouse. His dog, trotting contentedly along toward the farther reaches of the Sandwalk, would then collapse instantly into a state of utter dejection known to all as “the hot-house face.” Darwin described this face in his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

He also described the faces of his children, who served as examples of the unity of expressive behavior in the human and animal worlds. Upstairs at Down House, photographs survive from around the time On the Origin of Species was published: One son goofily squashes his nose over to the side with a finger. Another son, slightly younger, struggles to look more mature than his age. And there’s a later photograph of Darwin on horseback, with a scribbled note that says, “Hurrah—no letters to day. C.D.” You get the feeling that at Down House, Darwin was taking notes on the natural history of his own family—and also basking in it.

In the end, Emma was right: they would not be together for eternity. He would suffer the fate of other great men and women, being buried in Westminster Abbey. She lies with various family members in the churchyard in the middle of Downe Village. And if the Darwin of the old paintings and sculptures visibly yearns to be somewhere else, this is surely the place, back with Emma in their own private world, before he became a creature of his admirers and his antagonists, back before his science told him more perhaps than even he really wanted to know about the nature of life.