Sunday, April 29, 2007


Pigeons Nearly Derail Entire 19th Century

Today's Times of London notes an interesting item in the Murray archive: a letter from an early Origin of Species manuscript reader giving a thumbs-down on the book:

The near-miss was unearthed in 150-year-old correspondence between Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, and a clergyman, the Rev Whitwell Elwin. Elwin was one of Murray’s special advisers, part of a literary panel that was the Victorian equivalent of a modern focus group.... Writing back from his rectory in Norwich on May 3, 1859, he urged Murray not to publish. Darwin’s theories were so farfetched, prejudiced and badly argued that right-thinking members of the public would never believe them, he said....

He suggested that Darwin’s earlier observations on pigeons should be made into a book as “everybody is interested in pigeons”. He enthused: “The book would be received in every journal in the kingdom and would soon be on every table.”

Not noted in the article is the wonderful Darwin Correspondence Online Database by Cambridge U, featuring a fully searchable 14,500 letters. I used it, among other places, in researching The Trouble With Tom. (Paine's skull, it turned out, resided at a neighbor's house for many years.)

And sure enough, Elwin turns up in there. On May 9 1859, Darwin wrote to his publisher:

As I have thought you perhaps might like to forward the enclosed note to M r Elwyn I have written it separately.

It is my deliberate conviction that both Lyells & M r Elwyns suggestions, (which differ to a certain extent) are impracticable. I have done my best. Others might, I have no doubt, done the job better, if they had my materials; but that is no help.— Nothing on earth can have been kinder than both M r Elwyn & Sir C. Lyell have been.—

Ah, the very model of a polite brush-off.

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