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Darwin’s ‘clumsy’ prose

June 10, 2012

Reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species straight after publication, Friedrich Engels wrote to tell Karl Marx that it was quite splendid. Excepting, that is, its “clumsy English method”. Turning to it on his sickbed a year later, Marx responded that “although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the natural history basis for my view”. Closer to home, Darwin’s readers were not always more enamoured of his style. Within weeks of its appearance, George Eliot wrote that she thought the book “ill-written”, and that she didn’t think it would be very popular. But few could doubt its significance, and writers were among the first to see this. Hitting the bookshops in November 1859, it sold out on the first day, Darwin’s publisher John Murray told him. Eliot said “it will have a great effect in the scientific world . . . . So the world gets on step by step towards brave clearness and honesty!”, and Thomas Hardy, who read it as a teenager, declared himself to be one of its first champions. Rereading the Origin (“slowly again for the nth time, with the view of picking out the essentials of the argument for the obituary notice”), T. H. Huxley remarked that “nothing entertains me more than to hear people call it easy reading”. “Exposition”, he insisted, “was not Darwin’s forte – and his English is sometimes wonderful.” This wonderful English, the extraordinary prose that could puzzle Darwin’s Victorian readers, is the subject of George Levine’s new book, from which Darwin emerges as an artist as well as a scientist, a master of argument, analogical reasoning, hypothesis and anecdote.

Excerpt fro a review by Angelique Richardson, at TLS. Continue HERE
Image above: Darwin’s 1837 sketch of an evolutionary tree. Courtesy of Darwin Online. Via

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