Brent, Peter. Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity. New York: Harper, 1981.

 

Brent, Peter. Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity. New York: Harper, 1981.

This overlong biography of Darwin was written to appear in the centenary of Darwin's death.
There is a lot here concerning his early years which is not to be found in many of the other
biographies. One can learn, for example, more than one wants to know about Fanny Owen. Brent
deals with Darwin's education, and with his early relationship to his father, as few others do.

There are several quotes here indicating that Darwin was not the rigid empiricist which later
biographers made him out to be. In writing to a young correspondent: "(L)et theory guide your
observations, but till your reputation is well established be sparing in publishing theory." (p. 467)
That is hardly conforming to Whewell's or Herschel's ideas on methods, but it is descriptive of
what Darwin himself did in his scientific work.

Concerning Darwin's health, this biographer has it that he suffered from "chronic dyspepsia,"
flatulence, headaches, boils and depression. (pp. 381ff.) He further suggests, but does not say
directly, that Darwin used his illness to manipulate his family and his friends: "Was ill health
both his method of governing and his way to an inner contentment?" (p. 380) He suffered what
was a very common condition for Victorians: indigestion. Indeed, it was a chronic complaint for
which the upper classes seemed constantly intent on finding some social cure, and as an excuse
for spending leisure time at resorts. But Brent does not suggest that Darwin spent his days
meaninglessly. It is hard for him to imagine how Darwin could have been more productive than
he was. Three hours a day of hard writing is about all that anyone can do and Darwin kept that
pace for years. "Despite his own complaints, accepted by nearly everyone at their face value, his
losses were small compared with his gains: the scope and extent of his output makes this
obvious. It is hard to see what, or how much, more he could have achieved." (p. 389) Brent does
not get involved in the psychoanalytic claptrap that has developed over the years but he does use
some insight: Emma, in treating his illness, was to become the nurturing mother whom Charles
never had.

Concerning the Brackman thesis, Brent is silent, but he does make it clear that the whole
presentation before the Linnean society was, indeed, staged and designed to protect Darwin's
priority. Darwin's colleagues felt tht Darwin deserved priority. That Wallace did not complain is
evidence that he, too, felt the same way.

There is a long discussion on Chamber's book: certainly it prepared the way for Darwin. It was
Chambers who took the brunt of criticism and prepared Darwin for the arguments to be hurled
against him. Interestingly enough, Darwin had guessed the author's identity long before it came
out.

It is made clear throughout this book that Darwin was a gentleman, in the social sense, and a
fitting representative of change in England. He was utterly conservative in everything but his
theory. His revolution was a revolution from the top.