March 15th, 2007

Vanitas desk

Diaries, Darwin, Down

I've only studied Darwin in the way that one does when surveying the history of science on a grand scale. That's not strictly speaking true: I've been to a generous handful of lectures on Darwin, his precursors, and his successors along the way too.

Every town is proud to claim its well-known heroes, and so I knew that Darwin lived in Shrewsbury. So well did I know this, that it never occurred to me that he might have lived elsewhere along the way too. So it came as a mild surprise yesterday, in the Natural History Museum, inamongst the lemurs, to encounter a large display case advertising Down House, near Bromley, once a Darwin home, now a museum and proposed World Heritage Site.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, that today I see on Mirabilis a note that now Emma Wedgwood Darwin's diaries are all online. Each page has been scanned in - thousands of them. Doodles decorate empty space. Useful charts are pasted in.

Browsing through the first volume, 1824, small things stood out. She finished reading Belinda on January 8th. April 1st was a story day. At the end of the year, she used an otherwise blank page of February to compile a list of all the books she read that year.

As facile a conclusion at it is, I come away from diary-browsing entirely understanding why so many people study the nineteenth century. Sources are plentiful and interlocking, that multivalency making the exploration of sources all the richer. Diaries and inexpensive publications are more widespread than ever before thanks to the developments of wood pulp paper manufacture and the results of factory education. And conveniently, the work is all out of copyright.