Interview in Irish Times, February 2009
Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago today, and for Ruth Padel, the best way to commemorate her world-renowned great-great- grandfather was to write a book of poetry about his life. She talks to Arminta Wallace.
THE IDEA OF writing your great-great-grandfather’s biography in poems is pretty outrageous in itself. But when your great-great-grand-father’s name happens to be Charles Robert Darwin, well, “phew” is the first word that springs to mind. Ruth Padel took up the challenge, however: and the word which best sums up her attitude towards him in Darwin: A Life in Poems is “affectionate”.
In her seventh published collection of poetry, Padel aims to give a voice to her revolutionary relative by using his own words wherever possible, weaving quotations from his letters and notebooks together with her own insights, plus occasional observations from his contemporaries. In particular there is an ongoing conversation with his wife, Emma; and this close encounter with Darwin’s family life is, Padel insists, totally in tune with his scientific method.
“It was wonderful to work on him in this way, to read those extraordinary letters,” she says. “His attention to all life forms was exactly the same as his attention to his children and his wife.”
Darwin did, indeed, study his children from babyhood, making detailed notes on everything from their reflexes to their changing facial expressions, measuring their development against that of a baby orang-utan in London Zoo. But if this gives the impression of him as a disengaged, coldly scientific Victorian paterfamilias , it just goes to show how misleading impressions can be. Darwin was an almost ludicrously indulgent father, and the mansion in rural Kent where he lived with Emma and their 10 children from 1842 onwards, was famously chaotic.
In the closing paragraph of On The Origin of Species, Darwin writes about an entangled bank “clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth”.
The image might just as easily be applied to the multilayered turmoil of Down House, where life and death, sadness and joy, competitiveness and co-operation were – just as they are everywhere in nature – inextricably interwoven. The house featured a “staircase slide” down which the children habitually hurtled and clattered on trays. They were also allowed to trot in and out of their father’s study at will, borrowing bits and pieces of equipment for their elaborate games.
“Emma was the untidy one,” says Padel. “She was the one who said, ‘Let’s make the decision early on – are we going to keep the furniture precious, and make it a bugbear for the children, or are we just going to let them rip?’ So they agreed to let them rip.” Untidiness, though, was probably the least of it. “Down House must have been pretty smelly, as well. Darwin vomited every morning. Also, he liked to skeletonise pigeons by boiling them up in the kitchen.”
Padel’s biography is divided into five chapters: Boy covers his childhood in Shropshire; Journey describes the voyages of the Beagle; City details his time in London, refining his ideas on evolution; Emma is devoted to family matters; and The Coat of Fur deals with his final years. It’s no accident, however, that the book is shaped around the occurrence of two untimely deaths. The first was that of Darwin’s mother in 1817, when he was just eight. “She died quite suddenly,” says Padel, “and his father and elder sisters were so devastated that they never mentioned her.” The trauma may, she suggests in the poem The Miser, explain his boyhood interest in collecting biological specimens: “Making, like Orpheus, a system against loss”.
THE DEATH OF Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter Annie in 1841 was, if anything, even more traumatic. “Annie’s death led him to see with great clarity that his idea about the survival of the fittest, the competitiveness for life and the weakest going to the wall, was somehow tragically being etched out in his own life,” Padel explains. “Sexual reproduction was always at the back of his mind as a scientist. The idea that two members of the same species can make another member of the species, which will be different. That’s the whole process of natural selection. But of course, he had married his first cousin. And he was more and more aware that that could be regarded as inbreeding, and could cause problems.”
Three of Darwin’s 10 children died and another was regarded as “rather strange” – for which, Padel insists, he “felt responsible”. But the biggest shadow which fell across his personal life was the chasm which opened up between himself and Emma, a devout Unitarian who feared that her husband’s innovative view of creation would see him consigned to the fires of eternal damnation. This, says Padel, is one reason why he didn’t rush into print with On The Origin of Species .
Darwin knew exactly what kind of bombshell he was about to drop on the religious mindset of Victorian England. As a student of Divinity, he also knew only too well what kind of theological arguments would be unleashed against him personally. What he was proposing, after all, was – as Padel puts it in the poem The Free Will of an Oyster – “No deity, no lutes of paradise. Only the smell of tall grass,/ tissue adaptive as light from a star/ and quick cells vivid to change in the struggle for life”. But Darwin also needed to produce a body of evidence to support his theories. He did this by – among other things – seven years of painstakingly detailed work on barnacles. “He had to get scientific credibility, which he didn’t have at the beginning. He was just someone with a Divinity degree who had, effectively, been on a gap year for five years. If he had just come out with, ‘Oh, look, here’s a good idea’, nobody would have listened to him for a second.” It all, no doubt, contributed to Darwin’s notoriously OTT digestive problems, the delay – and the guilt – eating away at him from the inside.
How much interest did Padel have in her great-great-grandfather when she was growing up? “Well, my grandmother, Nora, took it for granted that that was what you were interested in. Plants, animal behaviour, ‘Oh, look how that’s working’. All that sort of thing. And there were lots and lots of books about naturalists in her house, so I grew up thinking that the naturalist was the hero, whether it was Dr Doolittle or whoever. I ended up going into poetry – but all that knowledge was still there. When I began to research my book Tigers In Red Weather in 2001, it was quite easy for me to pick up the zoology connections, and try to understand the biology of the tiger, and all the connections with the deer, the forest and so on.”
As a poet writing a book on tiger conservation, did she feel she was consciously picking up Darwin’s mantle? “No,” she says. “But I did bring On The Origin of Species with me when I was researching the book, which took several years. I was kayaking in Laos at one point – not that I wanted to – it was a complete accident. I had to get to the Mekong river. I was terrified. Anyway we were going through these rapids, and I was looking at the forest on either side of me, and realising that actually the jungle of Laos was empty. There were no animals. People had eaten them and poached them. I was coming to understand how wild species were gradually disappearing; whereas he, 170 years earlier, had gone through tropical jungle coming to understand how species came to be. I began to feel a real intellectual kinship with him then.”
DARWIN WAS inordinately proud of all his children’s achievements, and interested in everything from taxidermy through coral reefs to breeding pedigree dogs. So it’s a fair bet that his reaction to a biography in poems written by a poet descendant would be overwhelmingly positive. “Poetry and science are totally connected,” says Padel. “They both work by absolute hard clarity and precision. People use the word ‘poetic’ as if it means ‘woffly’. But it doesn’t. Poetry is fierce and precise and accurate, and it works by minutiae – one syllable against another – and also by clarity. And imagination, of course.”
All of which the great man would recognise and respect. He might, however, be slightly alarmed by his great-great-granddaughter’s plan to write haikus with tigers at a zoo on the Isle of Wight in July. “I’ll write a haiku which has three different endings, and then they’ll get three of their tigers, and they’ll attach bits of meat to each one and the tigers can each choose the best ending. Sort of thing,” she says. No poets will, she promises, be harmed during the project. Padel wants to live to finish her first novel. “I’ve started it now, and it has king cobras and field zoologists. I wanted to use the biology thing in another way. So there it is. The connectedness.”
Much will be written about Darwin during this celebratory year, not all of it positive. “What I care about,” Padel declares, “is humanising him. And what I really mind is when young people say, ‘Oh, do you believe his theory?’ In science, ‘theory’ is just another word for ‘law’. It’s one of the highest things you can have; it’s what fits all the available facts best. Evolution is accepted. The Church of England accepted it by 1860. Whereas a theory, as in, ‘I’ve got a theory that Jane’s having it off with Roger down the road’, that’s just an unsupported guess.”
Does she mind that her ancestor’s voice has, in recent years, been co-opted into the shrill and very public battle between aggressive atheism, on the one hand, and fundamentalist religion on the other? “Yes. I think that’s a great pity. Darwin wasn’t a dogmatic man. He hated cruelty of any kind. He hated slavery. He was very, very democratic in his instincts – he listened to pigeon-fanciers and beekeepers just as much as scientists. He respected proper knowledge, wherever it was.”
Darwin: A Life in Poems is published by Chatto Windus at 12.99 in UK