Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity

Hallie Rubenhold has reservations about a study of Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity
Author: Patricia Fara
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Price (RRP): £20

Erasmus Darwin’s greatest misfortune was to be overshadowed by his more famous grandson, Charles. As a result, few people are familiar with his life, and fewer still are familiar with his literary work. Even more are surprised to learn that Erasmus Darwin was calling into question our notions of religion, science and evolution as early as the late 18th century.

Like his contemporary and rival, Dr Johnson, Darwin lived in Lichfield, but rather than moving to London he chose to remain in the industrialising Midlands, then known as a centre for Enlightenment thought. As a member of the Lunar Society, an abolitionist, a physician and a natural philosopher, his interests ranged widely from botany to improving women’s education. He invented a letter-writing machine, a steering mechanism for his carriage and designed an early rocket engine.

However, as Patricia Fara explains, Darwin is often remembered for his interest in sex, both personally, and professionally. Twice a husband, and 12 times a father, Darwin was not shy about his sexual relations, and even openly acknowledged his two illegitimate daughters. His second wife, Elizabeth Pole, was married when he met her but Darwin nevertheless persisted in wooing her with his erotic poetry. His technique worked and when Pole found herself a widow, Darwin, now nearly 50 years old, married her. It was this relationship, Fara concludes, that was responsible for launching Darwin into the next phase of his career as a poet.

As Fara explains in the introduction here, she has not set out to write a biography of Darwin, but rather to focus on his poetry and the context in which it was composed. However, her route through the subject matter is circuitous and at times confusing. In the space of two pages, her discussion of The Loves of the Plants leaps from Captain Cook to the growth of the British empire and then to the reign of terror, before finally alighting on the subject of racism. It’s only when Fara eventually addresses Darwin’s poetry directly that the reader is offered something original and fascinating.

Fara’s second stated objective is to document the process of researching an historical subject, and to take the reader through the twists and turns that lead to discovery. In order to achieve this, she has chosen to write the book in first person. The idea is a noble one.

However the author adds a disclaimer in the introduction stating she has fictionalised her own activities “and in some places exaggerated my ignorance, naivety and incompetence”. Darwin’s story is interesting enough not to require embellishment.

Hallie Rubenhold is the author of The Covent Garden Ladies (Transworld e-book, 2012)

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