Writing Darwin

April 29, 2021


The first reading assigned to me in my first class in college was from a Norton Critical Edition entitled, simply, Darwin. The 650-page tome contained key texts authored by Charles Darwin; background perspectives on his life and times; contemporary opinions of Darwin’s field research and theory of natural selection from scientists, philosophers, and theologians; and critical essays that traced and assessed his persistent influence in the most significant debates about science, religion, society, and literature for every generation succeeding his own.

Decades following this first encounter with Charles Darwin (with everything Darwin wrote and read now online), that Norton Darwin remains an indispensable introduction to the tectonic impact of this profoundly gentle and thoughtful genius. Which begs some obvious questions about the durability and resilience of his ideas.

Nearly 200 years since 22-year-old Charles Darwin sailed from Plymouth on the HMS Beagle for a five-year journey that would circle the globe, why can we not quit this man? What explains his enduring hold upon us? What fresh meanings from his perspective on the natural world can we form and apply to our own unique 21st-century moment of reckoning and wonder?

An additional set of questions also presents themselves. What literary form offers us the most penetrating access to the mind of Charles Darwin? What mode of inquiry can unlock the interiority of the life he built for himself following his return to England? What is the passkey to these intricate, cathedral-like reconstructions that he used to illuminate the breathtakingly architected complexity of the seascapes, landforms, and life forms he witnessed during his journey?

A significant amount of biographical fiction about Darwin already exists. Irving Stone’s biographical novel, The Origin, was published in 1980 and, some 40 years later, endures (to use a verb that applies to most everything Irving Stone wrote). There is also Harry Thompson’s acclaimed This Thing of Darkness, about Darwin’s tortured relationship with his counterpart on the Beagle, 26-year-old captain Robert FitzRoy. There is The Darwin Conspiracy by journalist John Darnton, Confessing a Murder by Nicholas Drayson, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter by Roger McDonald, and Seduction by Catherine Gildiner. There are, delightfully, also two books of poetry about Darwin, Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems and The Darwin Poems by Emily Ballou.

Which of course poses a third set of questions. Amidst this literary profusion, does room remain for a new work of fiction about Darwin? At our particular moment in the 21st century, in this era of disease vectors and climate collapse, can fiction reclaim Darwin for us in ways that are newly relevant for our time and our experience?

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There is a virtue of simplicity when holding a novel in one’s hand, versus a work of nonfiction (a biology textbook, perhaps). Whatever the book might be “about,” at the end of the day it is merely a story. In this sense, there is no difference between Runaway Bunny and Ulysses. We read fiction, and novels specifically, to enter and inhabit new worlds. The measure of success of any novel, ultimately, is the degree to which we forget the world we actually live in while we are reading. And one important element of this teleporting trick we play in our minds to leave our own “reality” and enter another are that we appreciate and accept that each “reality” operates according to its own set of rules.

The task, and opportunity, for the fiction writer is to create at these two levels – establishing the laws (the operating system) of the story that define the underlying logic of the story’s movement or progression and then creating characters whose thoughts and actions conform to these laws. As readers, we absorb and inhabit this new world – it becomes transparent to us – to the extent we release ourselves from the rules of our own world (as we understand these rules) and can appreciate and accept the frameworks of perception and action that instruct the characters of this imagined world, that tell them what they can do and how they can do it.

Sometimes, we slide easily into a story. The rules are simple, and not so different from the rules of our own reality. The stories work because they facilitate the shock of recognition. Their dramatic moments reinforce what we know, but sometimes forget, about our own world. One thinks of the quotidian realness of Alice Munro. Other stories require a lot of work from the reader. The rules, the underlying logic, obfuscate us, and part of our effort as readers is to figure out the universe at the same time that we are figuring out the characters and the dynamics of the story itself. Science fiction can place this burden on us. One thinks of the recondities of Dune (the suspensor belts and harnesses of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, for instance).

There is a rub either way, of course (in fiction, there must always be a rub). We might call this rub the “friction in the fiction,” the ways in which the characters in a story themselves may challenge or call into question the rules of their own fictive universe (in this sense, of course challenging the author, as well). As is often the case, the questions contain their own answers. The story form works for Darwin because the simplicity of the form - its openness to uncertainty and contingency - is the perfect vehicle for managing the underlying logic of Darwin’s own discoveries about nature, which is complexity.

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What can we learn from Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s marvelous and oceanic biographic novel, as an element in the process of conceiving a comparably playful and epic story about Charles Darwin, rooted in themes that scale appropriately to his stature and significance in the origins and progress of Western civilization?

Mark Knopfler’s ballad, Sailing to Philadelphia is a sonic reconstruction of Pynchon’s 1997 stemwinder about lady-loving, “Geordie boy” surveyor Jeremiah Dixon and baker’s boy stargazer Charlie Mason, and their efforts to survey the line that would demarcate the boundary in America between the northern and southern states. A duet recorded with James Taylor, Sailing to Philadelphia reminds us that beneath Mason & Dixon’s mischievous and elaborate postmodern filigree, the book remains a resonant story of deep and abiding male friendship, partly centered in the city of brotherly love.

Mason & Dixon is one of the most acclaimed novels of our time (Harold Bloom in 2009 declared it to be the most “sublime” work of American fiction of the last century). As with V (Pynchon’s acrobatic, shape-shifting debut novel, first published in 1963), Mason & Dixon is a picaresque story of adventure, exploration, and obsession, the pursuit across oceans and between continents of an off-kilter, elusive vision. If these themes echo a certain book about a mad ship’s captain and his white whale doppelganger, well then. And if in V and in Mason & Dixon, Pynchon bends, dissolves, and reframes conventional narrative boundaries of time, space, and identity - the essential forms and structures of classical traditions - well then again.

From this extraordinary novel about two scientifically minded British explorers in the Age of Enlightenment, how might a philosophically and historically minded writer reimagine its architecture and its themes for a similarly ambitious biographical novel about Charles Darwin, a young man himself athwart the high seas some 70 years after Mason & Dixon first sailed for Sumatra at the behest of the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus? What tools and satisfactions can we cull from Mason & Dixon to enliven and elevate Darwin’s journey?

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In The Creation Project, the philosophical history of Western civilization on which I’ve been working for a number of years, the story pivots around an enormously important conceptual shift occurring during the history of early modern Europe. This shift involved a philosophical idea called hylomorphism, concerning relations between matter and its forms, which had been central to nearly all of Aristotle’s mature speculations and which remained vital to the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and other late medieval scholastic philosophers.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a revolution occurred whereby Europeans for the first time could imagine, across all dimensions of their existence, content liberated from its forms, an end to the “essentialist” perspectives of classical philosophy about the fixed character of existence and authority. We can (somewhat arbitrarily) date the origins of this revolution to events and developments that spawned the Protestant Reformation, including the invention of the movable-type printing press, the proliferation of vernacular printed publications for a lay audience, and Martin Luther’s 1521 defiance of the Papacy and the Roman Church before the Diet of Worms.

This liberation of content from its forms corresponds to the onset of the “modern” era in human history, and specifically to the history of what we now term “western civilization.” Relevant “content-extraction” technology innovations in the early modern period ranged from the movable-type printing press (15th century, for mechanical reproduction of printed materials), to the square-rigged ocean sailing carrack or galleon (15th and 16th centuries, for trans-oceanic trade, exploration, and conquest), and to the external and internal combustion heat engine (18th and 19th centuries, for mining, manufacturing, shipping, and transportation).

With Archimedean violence, these historically pivotal innovations collided with the forms of the world and split them apart, liberating the “ingredients” or substances trapped within. For these reasons, we now also associate this period with the origins of anthropogenesis and with the beginnings in geologic time of the Anthropocene (Gaia philosopher James Lovelock dates the origins of the Anthropocene to the 1712 invention of the coal-fired steam pump).

The Creation Project specifically uses the phenomenon of the ocean crossing to “the West” that became so common during the centuries of the early modern era to comprehend the multiple levels on which content could liberate itself from fixed forms. These levels ranged from the emerging interior life of individuals confronting directly vernacular Scripture to land empires conceptualized, constructed, organized and integrated in relation to unimaginably vast and empty ocean spaces.

In this understanding, the “ocean crossing” constituted a significant interior moment that required the reimagination of the relationship between time and space. At the same time, this crossing experience accelerated the development of new conceptions of global capitalism and global empire, enabled by engineered and machined forms of leverage to extract the earth’s resources (content from form) on a scale never before imagined (and to fight wars on a scale never before imagined).

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Using these hylomorphic distinctions, I’ve tried to construct a simple matrix of form-content relationship possibilities, the goal being to determine how we can array within this matrix conceptions of “modernity” and “post-modernity” that might help us to imagine the appropriate literary vehicles for writing about Charles Darwin. Here, I’m indebted to George Levine’s wonderful New York Times essay, published in 1986, entitled “Darwin and the Evolution of Fiction.”

One useful way to conceptualize modernity and post-modernity in literature and philosophy is to pair both against the classical model. If “essentialism” defines the classical model - a commitment to the fixed relationship between form and content, between the outward “appearance” of things and their inward “nature” - then both modernism and postmodernism escape from this ontological prison by reorienting the boundaries between form and content.

A useful heuristic to capture how modernism and postmodernism chastise and diminish the classical ontology might be that modernism liberates content from its forms while postmodernism liberates forms from its content. Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” offers a modernist lens on the artistic process, with specific emphasis on the productive capacities of new technologies that we have come to associate with the Anthropocene. In the preface to the essay, Benjamin quotes French philosopher, poet, and essayist Paul Valery to establish this new relationship between “knowledge and power.”

Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.

By contrast, the methods of Thomas Pynchon (whom George Levine describes as a “poet of entropy”) almost epitomize the postmodern approach to artistic representation, a kaleidoscopic and mercurial fixation on shape-shifting that emphasizes the endless reproducibility of forms themselves. Which of course implies the inevitable failure of any attempt to “assemble” or “organize” truth, the inevitable dissociation of any relationship between knowledge and power! Here is Pynchon’s oft-quoted statement about truth, history, and power from Mason & Dixon.

... Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,—who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been.

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Where does Darwin fit into this matrix? Is there a 4th box that includes both content extracted from form to be endlessly mixed and recombined into new materials and endless formal variations of the same content? To make the case that there is such a box, and that Darwin may fit within it, I’ll rely closely on Levine, who in his 1986 essay characterizes Darwin, “one of the great shapers of the Western imagination,” as perhaps the most important avatar of modernism and its most significant source of subversion. Here’s Darwin as modernist.

It is arguable that the most influential English writer of the last 150 years is Charles Darwin and the most influential book ''The Origin of Species.'' Darwin gave to the West its most powerful myth of origins since the Old Testament; at the same time, he wrested biology, the study of life, from theological tradition and set it entirely within the explanatory range of a materialist science. The world, which had been understood as the material expression of a divine intention, became, in his argument, an accumulation of chance variations, subject only to the regularity of what he and his contemporaries thought of as natural law. Obviously, the moral and religious implications were enormous.

But Levine also emphasizes the degree to which Darwin himself needed himself to employ what we might now term a radically diverse and playful array of “postmodern” literary methods to “work his way free of the dominant tradition of Western thought-essentialism.” For Darwin, explaining (to himself and to others) the transient, “real-time” flux that confronts all species of life and that favors unbidden adaptations to changing circumstances required a “fertile, multi-vocal use of language,” one dependent on the poetic ambiguities of metaphor and analogy. And from the outset of his journey on the Beagle, we do see Darwin deploying a full range of descriptive, comic, and ironic perspectives on the new worlds he encounters and must comprehend, worlds that begin anew each day, and for which, Darwin seemed to clearly appreciate, traditional or classical descriptors would otherwise merely befuddle and fail.

There is more. But hopefully this can start us down the path toward an appropriately epic novelistic rendering of Darwin.

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Here are a few sign-posts I’ve tried to hammer into the ground as navigational aids for the creation of “fictions.”

  • We read novels to inhabit new worlds. That is all. In this sense, there is on difference between Runaway Bunny and Ulysses.

  • Success is “suspension of disbelief,” the capacity to forget the world we actually live in while reading.

  • Each “fictional reality” operates according to its own set of rules.

  • The fiction writer therefore must create at two levels: 1) the underlying laws, logic, or operating system of the story; and 2) creating characters who thoughts and actions conform to these laws and logic.

  • The “friction in the fiction” is the extent to which characters in the story themselves may challenge or call into question the rules of their own fictive universe.

  • The fictional story form can work for a 21st-century encounter with Darwin because the simple arc of his life creates enormous space to account for the “complexity” he perceived in nature.

I am currently in the middle of Voyaging, the first volume of Janet Browne’s authoritative Darwin biography. I’m also familiar with the remarkably complete collection of the documentary record of Darwin’s life and times contained in the Darwin Online website. There is also the fact that Darwin himself was a fantastically clear and unambiguous communicator. Finally, the Victorian era fully embraced and articulated what we might call the “imperatives of modernity.” For all of these reasons, with Darwin we have a vessel ideally suited to graciously accept and accommodate the complexities, perplexities, ironies, and mysteries of nature, alongside the accelerating human drama bearing down and impressing itself upon the natural world, as Darwin himself experienced and pondered these matters.

So two layers to the story immediately present themself. There is Darwin and all of the people and places and moments that constitute his biography, his actual story. That is the top layer. The layer beneath is the flux and drama of the human origins of what we call emergent modernity, extending from the Middle Ages into the 21st century. This is a separate layer of historical reality to which Darwin himself only had fractional access. The friction in this fiction arises from a narrative that opens Darwin up to the entire historical frame, to 800 years or more of Western history.

Thomas Pynchon’s work, particularly Mason & Dixon, offers inspiration for this approach. However, Pynchon’s model breaks down to some degree when applied to Darwin (which I’ll get to shortly). For the moment, I’d simply like to suggest that this layered vision of the story I’m imagining - with its frictional, fractional structure - requires smooth execution to overcome the obvious (and less obvious) pitfalls and risks.

In my mind, the role of rhythm in dance might seems relevant for constructing a narrative both complex and accessible, and thereby overcoming some of these challenges of transposition or teleportation. A good example might be John Mulaney’s SNL Cha Cha Slide skit, which succeeds, against a rhythmic backdrop, with layers of revelation that subvert everyone’s assumptions about who he is (including his own).

Extend that vision to a world in which the rhythms of entire landscapes are defined by mash-ups that entirely upend conceptions of who we are, where we live, and how we construct identity for ourselves. In some ways, the SNL skit simply mirrors a broad array of culturally and racially specific inversions that flip urban and rural tropes.

Consider Bass Reeves, the “real” Lone Ranger, who inspires Hooded Justice in Watchmen. Or Lil Nas X’s urban-country mashup in Old Town Road. Then consider how we might apply this kind of flow to the storyline of a major historical figure, such as Darwin, set against the backdrop of a world both familiar and alien.

Which returns us to some notions about what Pynchon can - and cannot - teach us about this sort of project.

The imaginative premises of an oceanic novel speak for themselves. By definition, for a terrestrial species, the “ocean crossing” from one land known, to another unknown, bends, twists, and reshapes reality.

In this understanding, the ocean crossing can represent both significant interior moments that reimagine the relationship between time and space (Raphael Hytholodaeus in Thomas More’s Utopia, Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

Ocean crossings also reframe relationships between societies and cultures and establish new dependencies on and relationships to the natural world, which in the 18th and 19th centuries accelerated the development of new conceptions of global capitalism and global empire.

The ocean crossing is the frame for Melville’s Moby Dick and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. In Mason & Dixon, the “wilderness crossing” survey expedition provides analogous experiences of disorientation and a remixing of what constitutes reality.

But Pynchon constructs Mason & Dixon as a postmodern novel about a premodern (or primitively modern) world. The deployment of a framing narrative and the language innovations are the basis for shifting and blurred perspectives on exactly what is happening in much of the novel. The Darwin story more logically belongs in the “4th box” of the matrix I discussed in my previous newsletter about the Darwin novel, one in which emergent conceptions of modernity and postmodernity can intermingle and play off of each other.

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My goal in this essay has been to conceptualize and structure a biographical novel about Charles Darwin, to develop a framework for a narrative that exploits Darwin’s pivotal historical role and Janus-facing perspectives on the adaptive origins and proliferation of life on Earth. Ideally, this narrative frame will allow us to flex and blend classical, modern, and postmodern genres into an appropriately complex story that might speak to and claim Darwin for our century.

The next step, then, is to flesh out the most superficial and linear template for the novel, the elements of the story constructed directly from Darwin’s own life and times. These elements include the developmental stages of Darwin’s growth and emergence as an individual. We already know that Darwin was both altogether normal for his times and altogether singular. We need to be able to account and elevate into drama the synthesis of and tensions within this paradox of comfortable conformity and unparalleled originality. How can both qualities exist within the same person?

Voice. Considerations of voice may help us to think through this problem. A first-person interior monologue liberates Darwin from normal storytelling conventions by allowing him to travel freely within his own mind, across time and space, to places and moments known and unknown, in ways that might productively stretch and bend our own sense at any given moment in the story of what is real or factual and what is somehow more (or less) than real or factual. Darwin was very much an observer, although obviously an exceedingly active observer. This active mind, accessible to itself, perhaps, far more than to others (although one that stretched mightily to meet others where they were). The first-person interior monologue might well accommodate this vital inner life.

Place. Identity is closely linked to place, to the physical environments and conditions to which one adapts from the beginning of one’s life, and perhaps before, if we consider genetics (and epigenetics). Obviously, this adaptive capacity creates recursive possibilities for applying the lens of natural selection to Darwin’s own set of life experiences. The boundaries of place and personhood are clearly and securely defined for Darwin, from his early life at home with his father, sisters, and brother, to his experiences in educational environments in Edinburgh and Cambridge prior to commencing his five-year voyaging adventure at the age of 22, an adventure that was itself remarkable, under the circumstances, for its creature comforts and modern amenities.

Stability. Darwin’s active mind benefited greatly from the material comforts and emotional stability of his physical and psychological environment. He could explore the origins of all life because he did not need to concern himself with circumstantial turbulence, vicissitudes, and precarity in his own life, secure as he was with levels of comfort and pride of status and place that, indeed, extended back several generations on both sides of his family, an ultimate source and foundation of emotional security. Darwin’s placid and adaptive nature itself, in his formative years, allowed him to experience changes in station and location—that might for others have represented disjunction—as a smooth accumulation and absorption of his past into his present.

So we will of course consider and account for and incorporate into the novel Darwin’s early memories and most significant experiences in Shrewsbury, Edinburgh, Cambridge, on the Beagle, and at various ports of call in South America and elsewhere. At the same time, we possess an opportunity to take these memories and experiences for granted. If the first 35 years of his life lack many moments of high personal drama, that frees us to frame them as the backdrop for other sorts of drama less tied to specific locations or moments in time, and more connected to the larger sets of issues that concern both the course of human history since Middle Ages—extending, indeed, past the arc of Darwin’s own life, and his own understanding of the past, into the 20th and 21st centuries—and to the logic and processes and complexities and mysteries of nature itself.

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In my limited experience, the first and most frustrating and embarrassing part of writing a novel is the throwing-mud-against-the-wall part. It’s fun, but also messy and unproductive and when you’re done, you’ve mostly just got a pocked and smeared emblem of your own primitive imagination peering back at you.

But at some point, if you keep at it, you notice something amazing. The mud marks on the wall start to move, here and there, haltingly, but from some internal volition of their own you can’t account for or credit. The marks reshape themselves, engage each other, split and join. They are beginning to tell their story, but with beseeching gestures indicating they cannot do so without your assistance. And so you keep tossing the mud, but now with new purpose and intention.

I am now officially in the mud-throwing stage of my Darwin novel. What does the wall look like? I’m mostly trying to imagine and create a dense sense of place, the physical environment and conditions that are the source of identity (for Darwin and everyone else with whom he associates in the story) and the context for his thoughts and action. Place provides the frame for the narrative, not simply physical location, but emotional nexus for readers (and authors) with inhabitants of this new world.

For my Darwin novel, place starts with the HMS Beagle, a 10-gun brig-sloop carrying a crew of 65, initially launched in 1820 as a carronade gunship for the British Royal Navy. The Beagle was Darwin’s home for nearly five years, and we can imagine it as an ocean-crossing shipboard microcosm of his world in the same way that the Pequod serves as an image of the world for Melville in Moby Dick (first published in 1851).

Inspirations for the Pequod (besides Melville’s own four-year whaling stint in the early 1840s) include the Essex, the whaler obliterated by a sperm whale in the South Pacific, also in 1820, about which Nathaniel Philbrick wrote with In the Heart of the Sea. For this Darwin novelist, the parallels matter. Notably, the Essex was nearly the same size as the Beagle, just shy of 90 feet in length, and shipboard conditions were probably not dissimilar (although whalers typically carried much lighter crews than small naval gunboats such as the Beagle). As with Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, South America—and the Galapagos Islands, in particular—also played a central role in the voyage of the Essex.

We know a lot about what life was like for Darwin on the Beagle. We know so much, indeed, that the daily circumstances and events of his journey can trick us into an illusion of full transparency, that there may be nothing more to know. And so I’ve been mud-splatting the crew, the configuration and details of the ship, the sailing conditions, Darwin’s state of mind, his inner life, his quotidian routines (British naval sailing ships being preeminently locations of routine), disjunctive moments that violate those routines, and Darwin’s own adaptive proclivities. I’m looking for signs of life and movement on this mud wall of my own creation. Who—and what—is calling to me?

This, too, is to be continued, with much concern for world-building matters where imagination intersects with history and biography, and with attention to such shipboard marginalia (on which the oceanic part of the narrative will to a great extent turn) as cordage and canvas, crew relations and class relations, conversation and contemplation, friends and foils, physical and mental labors, and reading and writing, with specific focus on the cramped aft (poop) cabin Darwin shared with assistant surveyor on the voyage, John Lort Stokes, which included a massive work table and a library of 400 books.

But I’d also like to mention that I may have arrived at another framing device for the novel, which accounts for voice and perspective. Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is well-known for its use of the frame narrative, or story-within-a-story. In its lovely opening pages, Mason & Dixon coyly and seductively summons us into wintry 18th-century Philadelphia, where three children (twins Pitt and Pliny, and elder sister Tenebrae) gather on fire-warmed afternoons to hear stories from their “far-travel’d Uncle, the Rev’d Wicks Cherrycoke” about the adventures of surveyor Jeremiah Dixon and stargazer Charles Mason, those men who together drew the line on which the history of the nation would hinge.

As an alternative framing device, the perspective possibilities of the epistolary novel entice me. Darwin was an inveterate letter-writer (his correspondence includes more than 15,000 known surviving letters). Pynchon cagily uses an omniscient present-tense voice laded with archaicisms to pull us into the 18th century, where we, like the children, allow ourselves to merge into the story via the voice and memory of Rev’d Wicks Cherrycoke. In a similar manner, the well-established epistolary conventions of Victorian England give us means to seduce readers into the story via shards of memory and recollection that are portals into the imagination, where we can infiltrate Darwin’s mind and accompany him as a traveler and explorer, in and beyond his own time.