An extensive and revealing collection of letters written by Charles Darwin has now been made available to the public by Cambridge University. Much of the naturalist’s emotional life is revealed in the correspondence, and gives readers newfound access into his relationships, both personal and professional. Almost the entire collection of letters, about 1400, 300 of which have not been previously seen by the public, have been published by Cambridge University’s Darwin Correspondence Project. The letters, many of which take place between the naturalist and his long time friend, botanist Joseph Hooker, reveal details about Darwin’s personal life as well as the early development of his thoughts on evolution, human nature, religion and geology.

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The letters also expose how important Darwin’s family were to him, and include details of the death of his daughter-in-law Amy. He wrote, “It is an inexpressible comfort that she never suffered & never knew she was leaving her beloved husband for ever.” He added, “I never saw anyone suffer so much as poor Frank. He has gone to north Wales to bury the body in a little church-yard amongst the mountains and I do not know when he will return.” Darwin goes on to express his affection for Amy, writing that she was “a most sweet, gentle creature, with plenty of mind beneath.”

A spokesman for Cambridge Digital Library says the letters are “a connecting thread that spans forty years of Darwin’s mature working life from 1843 until his death in 1882”. Many of the letters, while including personal details, also reveal the professional relationship between Darwin and Hooker. Darwin sought advice and feedback on Hooker’s thoughts and the seeds of what would become his most controversial theory were entrusted to Hooker. His ambivalences over his discoveries are evident in these sections of correspondence, revealing that “At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable,” he wrote. “Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progression’ ‘adaptations from the slow willing of animals’ &c, – but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his – though the means of change are wholly so – “.

The correspondence is proving invaluable to Darwin scholars and fans alike, providing increasing insight into both his personality and his own feelings about the progression of his work. For those interested in reading the letters, they are accessible on the Project’s website, www.darwinproject.ac.uk.

Photo credit: APS Museum, Flickr

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