Reading Darwin's first masterpiece

It's like confessing a murder. I have been a self-confessed Darwin groupie for almost a quarter of a century, yet, until this year, I had never read what is supposed to be his most accessible book, The Voyage of the Beagle.

No, really, I had never read it.

In my defence, I had dipped into it many times, usually to look up some obscure snippet of Darwiniana or other. And I had read Darwin's Beagle Diary, upon which large chunks of The Voyage of the Beagle were based. But I had never set off to read The Voyage of the Beagle from cover to cover before—despite owning several copies.

Darwin's 'The Voyage of the Beagle'
My favourite copy of The Voyage of the Beagle, complete with index card bookmarks.

I picked up my favourite copy of The Voyage of the Beagle in a now-defunct second-hand bookshop in my home town of Hebden Bridge. It cost me £2. I like this particular copy for a number of reasons: I like it for the Charles Darwin signature embossed in (presumably fake) gold on the cover; I like it for the purple, rubber-stamped advertisement on the flyleaf saying "F. Pearson & Son / BOOKSELLERS & Stationers ESTD. 1875 / SOUTHGATE, ELLAND. LEATHER GOODS A SPECIALITY."; I like it for its proud boast "Illustrated By Eight Photographs"; but I like it most for its size—the book was clearly designed to slip conveniently into one's pocket. It's a wonderful format, and one which I wish more publishers would rediscover.

Indeed, so conveniently sized is my favourite copy of The Voyage of the Beagle that it has been an obvious book to take on holiday with me—many, many times. It has travelled the world with me. It has been to Australia with me, where I consulted it about Darwin's trip to Govett's Leap the day I also visited Govett's Leap. It has been to Tobago with me, and the Canary Islands, and Barcelona, and Sicily, and Rome, and Florence (twice). But it has always remained unread.

Until my latest holiday in Italy, that is. In March this year, I sat on my hotel room balcony overlooking the Bay of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius looming menacingly in the background, and finally began to read The Voyage of the Beagle from cover to cover.

And, I am glad to report, it was utterly fantastic. You should read it. You really should. Just like I did. Eventually.

Whenever I read a book, I use an index card as a convenient bookmark upon which I can jot down brief notes about anything that interests or amuses me in the book. In the cases of certain interesting books, I have even managed to fill both sides of my index card. But, in the case of The Voyage of the Beagle, I managed to fill four entire cards! There's a lot of interesting stuff in there for the Darwin groupie. But there's also plenty of other interesting, fascinating, and, dare I say it, amusing stuff in there for the general reader. Which probably explains why The Voyage of the Beagle became an instantly popular book in Darwin's own day.

So, to atone for my sin of having taken so long to read Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, I have decided, over the next few days and weeks, to put up a few posts based on the index card notes I took while reading the book. Please don't expect anything too profound or insightful, though: I just want to share with you some of the snippets of Darwiniana which interested, fascinated and amused me as I finally got round to reading Darwin's first masterpiece.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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3 thoughts on “Reading Darwin's first masterpiece

  1. Hi Richard,

    By a strange coincidence I also recently started to read Voyage of the Beagle and it is so good that I am annoyed that I didn't begin it sooner! Darwin's enthusiasm (should I say 'Youthful enthusiasm'?) leaps from the page and it is indeed a joy to read. I love the bit where he forgets about his altitude sickness because of his excitment at discovering some marine fossils and this he finds to be the best cure. Simply brilliant.

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