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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

The Life of Erasmus Darwin

Charles Darwin

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Title: The Life of Erasmus Darwin
Author: Charles Darwin
Genre: Biography
Written: 1879
Length: 169 pages
Availability: The Life of Erasmus Darwin - US
The Life of Erasmus Darwin - UK
The Life of Erasmus Darwin - Canada
  • Charles Darwin's The Life of Erasmus Darwin
  • First unabridged edition (2003)
  • Edited by Desmond King-Hele
  • Includes:
    • Chronology of Erasmus Darwin's life
    • Selective family tree
    • Selected books and papers
    • Outline of Ernst Krause's biographical essay on Erasmus

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining curiosity, very nicely presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, is not as well-known as he should be. Jenny Uglow's recent book on The Lunar Men (see our review), and perhaps Desmond King-Hele's own biography (promising: Erasmus Darwin: a Life of Unequalled Achievement) might help convince readers that the fascinating figure of Erasmus is worthy of their attention. (Better still, of course, would be the re-publication of Erasmus Darwin's own work, but that still seems unlikely.) The publication of this book, the first unabridged edition of the more famous Darwin's biographical work on his grandfather might also help, though it is really more of a literary curiosity than the in-depth introduction Erasmus deserves.
       Charles Darwin never knew his grandfather (Erasmus died in 1802). In 1879 Ernst Krause wrote an article on Erasmus in a German periodical celebrating Charles' 70th birthday; Charles was pleased by it and wanted it translated into English. Krause enlarged it and the resulting profile, in English translation, was then published together with an introductory piece by Charles -- a "Preliminary Notice" (Charles' contribution however being, as Desmond King-Hele notes, a full 50 percent longer than Krause's). A second edition was published in 1887.
       The original manuscript text was cut by Charles' daughter, Henrietta, (with his permission) -- leaving it, as King-Hele points out with impressive precision, abbreviated by 16 percent. The Cambridge University Press edition now available is the first to restore these cuts -- the first unabridged edition of Charles' text.
       The book -- and we can hardly emphasize this enough -- is a lovely edition, pleasing for book-lovers and scholars and anyone who takes pleasure in a thing well done.
       The presentation is near-flawless. As King-Hele explains, "Henrietta's deletions have been restored and printed in italics whenever they exceed five words." The italics make clear exactly what was available previously (and, of course, what wasn't). Beside Darwin's references (as endnotes), there are an impressive number of "Notes on the Text" by editor King-Hele (almost forty pages worth, but anything but dense) -- fine explanations of most everything in the text. Five appendices offer: a useful chronology of Erasmus' life, a "selective family tree", a bibliography, an outline of Krause's essay, and an attempt to link the proof pages with those from the 1879 pages. Along with an introduction by King-Hele, and a synopsis -- it's all any academically minded reader could ask for. (The pleasures of the presentation of a text should not be underestimated: it is, so often, not a given -- and it makes perusal of the text itself a so much more pleasant experience.)
       Charles Darwin's text itself is an odd mix of biography and defence, quoting extensively from letters and other sources. There are numerous anecdotes, some examples of Erasmus' own writing, and many attempts to rebut charges made against Erasmus.
       A great deal of attention is paid to Anna Seward's book, Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin (1804) -- and here (as elsewhere) Charles doesn't mince words:

(S)he knew nothing about science or medicine, and her style is so pretentious that it is extremely disagreeable, almost nauseous to many persons; though others like the book much. It abounds with inaccuracies
       Editor King-Hele offers a slightly different picture, suggesting that Seward's book shouldn't be taken as a straightforward biography -- and noting that, while ignoring much of Erasmus' life, in the book "she offers 216 pages of commentary on The Botanic Garden -- the best critique yet of the poem."
       Darwin devotes much space to rebutting "the many false statements and calumnies which have appeared about him" -- which serves some purpose (it's interesting to hear what Erasmus was charged with) but winds up sounding a bit petty and pedantic. Still, Erasmus' life is presented in broad outline -- and in some interesting detail.
       Charles had, in part, a curious approach to biography, and there's a nice forthrightness to his presentation, writing for example:
(A)lthough I possess many of his letters, and have seen others, they are mostly uninteresting and not worth publication. Medicine and mechanics alone roused him to write with any interest.
       Fortunately, Charles does offer a few examples from Erasmus' correspondence, including an amusing letter offering advice on how a young apothecary might launch a successful career: Erasmus suggests different approaches, including one that proved very successful for an apothecary he knew: he "had great business without any knowledge or even art" -- something he accomplished "by boring every person who was so unfortunate as to step into his shop with the goodness of his drugs".
       There are also some nice observations, such as Charles' noting that Erasmus and Samuel Johnson rarely met when the latter came to Lichfield and that "they seem to have disliked each other cordially".
       Another treat is also to see what diplomatic Henrietta saw fit to cut from the manuscript. Charles had no qualms about being blunt, and some of the italicized sentences and passages (signalling the restored cuts) are quite amusing -- so some "doggerel verses" written by Erasmus' brother, Robert. Charles admits: "He would no doubt have declared it was quite beneath the dignity of biography to publish such verses" -- but goes on to do so anyway (only to have decorous Henrietta agree with Robert, and remove the poem (and the commentary) from the original editions).

       Charles' Life of Erasmus Darwin is a casual piece of biography. There are many useful titbits, but it is not a true or anywhere near complete biography. Still, Charles has an engaging style -- and Erasmus was a very interesting man -- and so it is a worthwhile little read. And this exemplary Cambridge University Press edition shows what a difference attentive and careful presentation can make, adding a great deal to both the pleasure of perusing the text and its usefulness.

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The Life of Erasmus Darwin: Erasmus Darwin: Charles Darwin: Other books by Charles Darwin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British naturalist Charles Darwin lived from 1809 to 1882 He is the author of the groundbreaking The Origin of Species, among other works.

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