Book review: ‘Darwin’s Garden’ by Michael Boulter

Darwin’s Garden’ by Michael Boulter

It's probably a bad idea to begin a book review by admitting that you haven't actually read the book in question, but that's precisely what I am about to do: I have not read this book—I gave up on page 32. So this is a review of the first 32 pages.

I own over 70 books with the word Darwin on the spine, but this is the first one I have ever given up reading. As a total Darwin groupie fascinated by Darwin's home-grown fools' experiments, and with very fond memories of my trip to Down House, I was really looking forward to reading this book about the experiments Darwin carried out in his garden. But, I began to have early doubts during the introduction, where Boulter describes Darwin's neighbour, the M.P. and astronomer Sir John Lubbock, as:

a man who sought to explain nature objectively with laws and equations. His view of a highly ordered world was in contrast with the more flexible and uncertain attitudes of his neighbour.

Well, yes, obviously the motions of planets are going to be more mechanical than the day-to-day contingencies of the living, evolving world. But did Lubbock and Darwin themselves believe that they had fundamentally different attitudes to science? Somehow I doubt it. In fact, in the wonderfully evocative and oft-quoted final sentence of On the Origin of Species, Darwin goes out of his way to compare his own theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection with Newton's mechanical laws of planetary motion:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

By page 3 of his book, Boulter is vesting deep paternal symbolism in Darwin's father's decision to grow a banana plant in his conservatory during his son's long absence aboard HMS Beagle. He does not comment on the symbolism of the pineapple plant that Robert Darwin, a keen gardener, planted in the same conservatory long before his son set sail. A page later, Boulter is misquoting Darwin using the present tense when describing his late father. Not a huge error, perhaps: but one that does not exactly fill you with confidence concerning the book's accuracy: if you're not using someone's exact words, don't put them in quotes.

We then learn that the young Darwin was laden with guilt over the death of his mother (was he?), and that his wife Emma always suspected that Charles wanted to do better than his well-known grandfather, Erasmus. Did she?

By this stage, the index card I typically use as a bookmark for making notes was covered in observations such as Was he? Did she? Rubbish! How do you know? Made up! What's your source? and a plain old exasperated !!??

Yes, what were Boulter's sources? Time to consult the bibliography…

Ah! But there's another problem: the bibliography isn't described as a bibliography; it is described as a list of Influences and Sources which helped Boulter to gather his facts and feelings over the years. Influences? Feelings (as opposed to facts)? Hardly words you would use to describe a dispassionate historical investigation.

By now I was wondering whether I should stop reading this book before it contaminated my mind with unsubstantiated conjectures about my hero masquerading as facts. How was I to know whether to believe the delightful stories (all totally new to me) about Darwin breaking a glass cucumber frame with an errant boomerang, warming himself next to a small fire in his greenhouse, or the gardener showing the Darwin children how to make whistles out of hedge-parsley? Perhaps they did; perhaps they didn't—in the absence of clear sources, I had no confidence that I would be able to distinguish between fact and artistic licence.

The final straw came on page 32, where Boulter states:

In all his solitude along these pebbled paths [of the garden at Down House], the dark image of a troubled man was as tragic as the happiness of the children playing on the lawn was calm. Charles was putting together the pieces of a puzzle that strained him inside, reviving painful memories—his missing mother, uncles mysteriously dying—and making him ever more conscious of his wife's devotion to a God he could not share.

Missing mother? Dead uncles? No way was Darwin strained by such memories! Freudian bollocks! I wrote on my index card, and, ignoring my hideous tautology, I turned to a different book.

If all that hasn't put you off, you might like to:

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *