Questions Enough for a Career: Charles Darwin sets out on the Beagle voyage

Emma Darwin

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Emma was due to give a talk on this topic at Plymouth Athenaeum during Plymouth History Festival – find out more about their history on their website

As a writer, one of my basic professional skills is to imagine my way into other people’s heads – sometimes real, sometimes imaginary. And yet it’s incredibly difficult to imagine how the twenty-two year old Charles Darwin would have felt, arriving in Plymouth to embark on HMS Beagle. The Navy’s project to map the coast of South America would take two years, and there were many delays and false starts, which did at least give Charles the chance get to know the scholarly and scientific society of Plymouth. 

We have the letters of course, flying round the natural-history network centred on Cambridge and the Darwin-Wedgwood clan, all working to fit Charles into what appeared to be the perfect berth for him, now that he had given up all idea of training as a doctor. His newly-decided future as a clergyman could very well pause, while he took the chance that even his sceptical father was at last persuaded to support. Charles had a decent grounding in the latest discoveries in the natural sciences, and the status and manners of a gentleman – and, not being part of the crew, he made a safe companion for Captain Fitzroy, tempering the loneliness of Fitzroy’s command.

Charles Darwin Charles Darwin – portrait by George Richmond, 1840.

There’s no one alive now who was born before the cinema, and many on this planet don’t know what it’s like not to be able to watch someone live-streaming from inside a tornado in Florida. But Charles only had geography books, engravings, maps, paintings, memoirs and travellers’ tales to help him understand what he was heading into. How much of an idea would his imagination have been able to create of what it was going to be like to travel in such places? And yet imagination is one of the most essential powers of any good scientist: the power to look at what is true, and imagine outwards – or inwards – to what might be true, and then work out how to test whether what you imagine is true. The moment when you look onwards from the known, and sense something probable across the gap, or merely possible or only-just-conceivable, is the essence of creative thinking in everything from writing fiction to nuclear physics.

In case you’re wondering, Charles Darwin, and his wife (and first cousin) Emma, née Wedgwood, are my great-great-grandparents. But I’m not sure I would ever have begun to think about such things if I had not, some years ago, been asked to lecture about my family. Most of the audience were going to know more about Charles and his work than I did: how was I going to say anything that would interest them? Then I remembered a story that my cousin, the poet Ruth Padel, tells about taking her biologist grandmother Hilda – a granddaughter of Charles – to a poetry reading. ‘I see the point of poets, now,’ said scientist Hilda. ‘They notice things.’ 

Ruth is also, like me, a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of the polymath Erasmus Darwin, who not only noticed things, but put them into poetry. The Loves of the Plants explained the new Linnean botany in decidedly erotic terms for the interested general reader, and it was a bestseller. Since then, along with the scientists and engineers that people expect in the Darwin-Wedgwood clan, there have been more poets, at least one composer, ceramicists, painters and many writers. My great-aunt, the printmaker Gwen Raverat, wrote in old age, ‘The whole of a long life is spent learning to see.’

So here was my way in. I write fiction and creative non-fiction, I have a doctorate in Creative Writing, and I teach and mentor writers: I spend most of my working life trying to make creative thinking happen. Most recently, in my memoir This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: a writer’s journey through my family, I told the story of my three-year struggle to write a novel rooted in the clan. The novel ended in disaster, but as I researched the family I could see how, time and again, their work was driven by looking really hard at something in the world, and asking, ‘How does that happen? How did it get like that? What if something changed? What would happen next? How do I tell other people about it?’

And of course, ‘What if?…And what will happen next?’ is where all fiction starts. Of Charles’s descendants there are 152 of my generation alone, so I don’t myself have many family relics, but one I treasure is The Darwin Fairy Book. A shabby cover binds a set of stories written by the five granddaughters of Charles Darwin including Gwen, for her brother, my grandfather. If the teller of a story is asking, ‘What if––’ and imagining onwards, then the story’s heroine or hero also sets out on a journey. They must find out how this new world works – the rules of the magic, the powers of the strangers – and wrangle their new knowledge to a conclusion, and with luck a useful one. Scientists do the same.

HMS Beagle finally left Plymouth on 27th December 1831, sailed round the entire world, and docked at Falmouth on 2nd October 1836. In five years of looking, and thinking, and imagining, and looking again, Charles had reached no large-scale answers but, as his biographers Desmond and Moore put it, he had come home with ‘questions enough for a career’ – and ready for what turned out to be a very happy marriage.

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