Darwin’s Digs

Portrait of the scientist as a college boy

Visiting Cambridge University this week, to speak in one of the countless conferences honoring Darwin’s anniversary year, I had a chance to see the rooms he lived in as a student there. He was at Christ’s College, taking a general bachelor’s degree, with a view toward possible later training to be a clergyman.

Yes, it’s ironic as we see it today, but he was barely out of boyhood. He thought originally he might become a physician, and began studies at Edinburgh. This was not for him; reports are he was squeamish and upset by viewing surgery.

This seems odd to me; I loved the surgery I did in medical school, despite the fact that I was thinner-skinned than the average medical student. I was respectful of the human body and its boundaries, but enthralled by the power of intervention to save lives. Transgressing the boundary was not just part of the process, it was part of the fun.

The odd thing is, Darwin had grown up hunting on his family estate, taking that kind of transgression—the power of life and death over beautiful and fascinating animals, and the routine shedding of those creatures’ blood—completely for granted. In his rooms a shotgun was mounted over the fireplace.

Nearby was a little cabinet where he stored the hundreds of beetles he collected during his college career, a glimmer of his future as a scientist. But when he first arrived, he was an ordinary undergraduate—to the extent that a Cambridge boy could be ordinary.

First of all, you had to come from a “good”—read, rich and connected–family. His father had come from such a family and then had married a Wedgewood (of high-end crockery fame), as Darwin was later to do himself—his cousin Emma–very happily.

Second, you spent your college years in the style you were accustomed to—at your parents’ expense. A receipt from a woolen goods manufacturer showed that young Charles spent forty pounds sterling on a rug for his personal dining room—this when the maid in the home he had recently left earned ten pounds a year.

They’ve tried to recreate the rug based on patterns popular at the time; it’s a geometric going toward floral pattern, green on faded white, giving the impression of soft squares. On it was a dining room table that sat ten people, as well as a desk and a bed for the dog. Around the dining table on regular occasions he entertained the members of a supper club he belonged to, called The Glutton Club.

They were experimental eaters at that table, and they braved many things, but reportedly disbanded after an unsavory episode with owl. On the walls overlooking the table, in addition to the gun, were reproductions of three of the etchings Darwin is known to have checked out of the library.

One was of Leonardo da Vinci, looking sober in a formal cap and pointed beard, another of a lovely soft Raphael Madonna and Child, and the third a Raphael group scene. It’s intriguing to see the images this particular young man chose to gaze at every evening, when he wasn’t preoccupied sorting his beetles or cleaning his gun. The adjoining bedroom is very small—no plumbing of course, just a porcelain bowl on the dresser with a pitcher in it, and a rather sad looking piss-pot next to the narrow bed.

But this life belonged to Darwin before he was Darwin. I doubt there was any clear clue that would have told us what would come. As a college professor, it’s nice to think I would have seen his potential, but I doubt that very much.

For one thing, every student who enrolled at Cambridge in those days had to pledge that he (all were male of course) subscribed to the 39 articles of the faith of the Anglican Church. I squirm more than a little when I consider what the faculty must have subscribed to.

But more meaningful to me was the scene at Down House, where he lived with his family for decades. This was where he had his garden and greenhouse laboratory, the study where he wrote his great works, the sitting room, furnished (unlike his dorm suite) by a cultivated woman’s eye, where he and his wife read aloud to each other the novels of George Eliot and other Victorian greats.

There you can page through his notebooks, see his drawings of carnivorous plants, read the records of his experiments in his careful, lucid hand. You can walk the back-garden path through woods where he strolled and thought. You can see the  study in the center of the house where his children were not supposed to go but did anyway.

And you can see the dining room table before the fireplace, solider and bigger than the one he had at Cambridge. Here he sat, back to the fire, and in his role as a volunteer magistrate gently and wisely adjudicated disputes between local farmers; and then went back to his study, cajoled the children out of it, and scribbled away at the pages that would utterly change the way we think about ourselves.

For a virtual tour of Down House, click here.

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