Darwin in context: the London years, 1837-1842

Erskine, Fiona (1987). Darwin in context: the London years, 1837-1842. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000dea1

Abstract

This thesis explores Darwin's life in London in the context of the social relationships he formed there. Recent studies have highlighted the paradox between his speculative work, with its dangerous associations with political radicalism and infidelity, and his intense desire for social respectability, evidenced by his determination to shun controversy and by his retirement to the security of family life in the Kent countryside. How Darwin coped with the tension arising from this mismatch of intellectual radicalism and social conservatism has not been explained; it is widely assumed that it was a major factor in prompting his prolonged and frequent attacks of debilitating illness.

The problem is addressed here by looking at the support Darwin drew from the friends he made in London. His experiences during the Beagle voyage had led him to focus on philosophical issues which had not previously troubled him. Having returned to England, he deliberately chose to surround himself with friends who were not afraid to adopt heterodox positions on religion and society; in their company his personal anxieties were assuaged and he could pursue new ideas with enthusiasm.

These friends had specialist knowledge in subjects which had a close bearing on Darwin's theories. His relationship with them throws light on issues such as how the debate about religion influenced his evolutionary thinking, and the nature of the contribution made to it by Malthus. The esteem in which they were held, notwithstanding their intellectual radicalism, explains how Darwin was able to find in their company the self-confidence to develop his iconoclastic conclusions. His identification with them, and their contribution to the intellectual re-evaluation of the 1830s and 1840s, helps to account for the wide acceptance of Darwin's views, published twenty years later, when the social ideology being formulated in his youth had become the prevailing orthodoxy of mid-Victorian England.

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