Another biography of Darwin! How can this be justified? Only by excellence. This first volume, which takes us up to the publication of The Origin of Species, is an excellent account of Darwin as a man in the circle of his friends and his immersion in science.
It is informative, friendly - altogether an appealing, well illustrated book. It attracts by its details rather than as a philosophical tract. It reads as though the author was an intimate friend of the family and more aware, indeed, than anyone could be at the time of what was going on and its significance.
The author is clearly a genuine scholar, and her background confirms this,as she was trained as a zoologist and historian of science and has been associate editor of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, now holding a lectureship in the history of biology at the Wellcome Institute. The bibliography is unusually full and well organised as also are the notes for each chapter.
Darwin's life is exceptional - quite apart from his outstanding achievements - as he combined scholarship with adventure, and family virtues that one can only admire and almost regret their passing.
Born into a family of privilege and considerable wealth, he made the very best of his opportunities and did not squander his time and energies, but made full use of the talents of his friends, especially TH Huxley, to avoid distractions such as dealing with the public.
So he was the exact opposite of a Media Person, which might explain his lasting (one is tempted to say everlasting) integrity as man and scientist.While shaking theological belief, he was very aware that this could cause hurt, and his humanism shows through as glowing embers in his remarkable caldron of creativity.
He made major contributions beyond zoology, to psychology, philosophy of mind, and development of children. His Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals remains of first importance for appreciating how symbolic facial expressions derived from functional muscle movements. Janet Browne is well aware of these other though deeply related interests and contributions.
This book sets Darwin's life and work within the rich tapestry of Victorian personalities, prejudices and aspirations. This is very largely why it is such a good read. Here we learn of his reactions to his friends' successes and peccadilloes, and we are even allowed into his dining room at private parties. The wealth of detail, derived largely from the correspondence, is astonishing.
So now we await the second volume.
Richard Gregory is emeritus professor of psychology at Bristol University.