The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 90 of 188

Charles Darwin to J.S. Henslow.

October 14th, [1837].

My dear Henslow,

…I am much obliged to you for your message about the Secretaryship. I am exceedingly anxious for you to hear my side of the question, and will you be so kind as afterwards to give me your fair judgment. The subject has haunted me all summer. I am unwilling to undertake the office for the following reasons: First, my entire ignorance of English Geology, a knowledge of which would be almost necessary in order to shorten many of the papers before reading them before the Society, or rather to know what parts to skip. Again, my ignorance of all languages, and not knowing how to pronounce a single word of French–a language so perpetually quoted. It would be disgraceful to the Society to have a Secretary who could not read French. Secondly, the loss of time; pray consider that I should have to look after the artists, superintend and furnish materials for the Government work, which will come out in parts, and which must appear regularly. All my Geological notes are in a very rough state; none of my fossil shells worked up; and I have much to read. I have had hopes, by giving up society and not wasting an hour, that I should finish my Geology in a year and a half, by which time the description of the higher animals by others would be completed, and my whole time would then necessarily be required to complete myself the description of the invertebrate ones. If this plan fails, as the Government work must go on, the Geology would necessarily be deferred till probably at least three years from this time. In the present state of the science, a great part of the utility of the little I have done would be lost, and all freshness and pleasure quite taken from me.

I know from experience the time required to make abstracts even of my own papers for the ‘Proceedings.’ If I was Secretary, and had to make double abstracts of each paper, studying them before reading, and attendance would at least cost me three days (and often more) in the fortnight. There are likewise other accidental and contingent losses of time; I know Dr. Royle found the office consumed much of his time. If by merely giving up any amusement, or by working harder than I have done, I could save time, I would undertake the Secretaryship; but I appeal to you whether, with my slow manner of writing, with two works in hand, and with the certainty, if I cannot complete the Geological part within a fixed period, that its publication must be retarded for a very long time,–whether any Society whatever has any claim on me for three days’ disagreeable work every fortnight. I cannot agree that it is a duty on my part, as a follower of science, as long as I devote myself to the completion of the work I have in hand, to delay that, by undertaking what may be done by any person who happens to have more spare time than I have at present. Moreover, so early in my scientific life, with so very much as I have to learn, the office, though no doubt a great honour, etc., for me, would be the more burdensome. Mr. Whewell (I know very well), judging from himself, will think I exaggerate the time the Secretaryship would require; but I absolutely know the time which with me the simplest writing consumes. I do not at all like appearing so selfish as to refuse Mr. Whewell, more especially as he has always shown, in the kindest manner, an interest in my affairs. But I cannot look forward with even tolerable comfort to undertaking an office without entering on it heart and soul, and that would be impossible with the Government work and the Geology in hand.

My last objection is, that I doubt how far my health will stand the confinement of what I have to do, without any additional work. I merely repeat, that you may know I am not speaking idly, that when I consulted Dr. Clark in town, he at first urged me to give up entirely all writing and even correcting press for some weeks. Of late anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards, and brings on a violent palpitation of the heart. Now the Secretaryship would be a periodical source of more annoying trouble to me than all the rest of the fortnight put together. In fact, till I return to town, and see how I get on, if I wished the office ever so much, I could not say I would positively undertake it. I beg of you to excuse this very long prose all about myself, but the point is one of great interest. I can neither bear to think myself very selfish and sulky, nor can I see the possibility of my taking the Secretaryship without making a sacrifice of all my plans and a good deal of comfort.

If you see Whewell, would you tell him the substance of this letter; or, if he will take the trouble, he may read it. My dear Henslow, I appeal to you in loco parentis. Pray tell me what you think? But do not judge me by the activity of mind which you and a few others possess, for in that case the more difficult things in hand the pleasanter the work; but, though I hope I never shall be idle, such is not the case with me.

Ever, dear Henslow,
Yours most truly,
C. Darwin.

[He ultimately accepted the post, and held it for three years–from February 16, 1838, to February 19, 1841.

After being assured of the Grant for the publication of the ‘Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle,’ there was much to be done in arranging the scheme of publication, and this occupied him during part of October and November.]

Charles Darwin to J.S. Henslow.

[4th November, 1837.]

My dear Henslow,

…Pray tell Leonard (Rev. L. Jenyns.) that my Government work is going on smoothly, and I hope will be prosperous. He will see in the Prospectus his name attached to the fish; I set my shoulders to the work with a good heart. I am very much better than I was during the last month before my Shrewsbury visit. I fear the Geology will take me a great deal of time; I was looking over one set of notes, and the quantity I found I had to read, for that one place was frightful. If I live till I am eighty years old I shall not cease to marvel at finding myself an author; in the summer before I started, if any one had told me that I should have been an angel by this time, I should have thought it an equal impossibility. This marvellous transformation is all owing to you.

I am sorry to find that a good many errata are left in the part of my volume, which is printed. During my absence Mr. Colburn employed some goose to revise, and he has multiplied, instead of diminishing my oversights; but for all that, the smooth paper and clear type has a charming appearance, and I sat the other evening gazing in silent admiration at the first page of my own volume, when I received it from the printers!

Good-bye, my dear Henslow,
C. Darwin.

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