Darwin was wrong

It sometimes seems that whether a person who was well known in their lifetime remains famous or becomes a footnote of history is a matter of luck. Victorians might be surprised by many of those who have survived history (and historians) – Marx would be a good example – or be bewildered by the absence of many other notables and celebrities who have been long forgotten by the 20th and 21st centuries.

Someone who we take for granted as one of the great Victorians, and who most Victorians would – whether they loved him or loathed him – have assumed would last into the future, was Charles Darwin. However, in a new biography of the man, the always interesting and readable, but frequently infuriating, A. N. Wilson has a go at relegating Darwin to the footnotes. In one of the great, and shortest, first lines of a book, he writes, “DARWIN WAS WRONG”, and from then on seeks to portray Darwin as, in Sarah Perry’s words, “an intellectual thief, a morose hypochondriac, objectionably flatulent, obnoxiously ambitious and – worst of all – mistaken.” Perry, the author of the intriguing and fantastical Victorian novel, The Essex Serpent, concludes her excellent review of the book by saying:

“This book, with its elisions, inaccuracies, vivid set pieces and palpable dislike for its subject, has I suspect achieved its end: the air is thick with ruffled feathers. Perhaps it will be looked on most fondly by those who find proponents of the new atheism intractable and priggish: they may well take enormous pleasure in watching a scholarly gentleman in a butcher’s apron approaching a sacred cow.”

Charles Darwin photographed in 1878.

I suggest you read the book if only because it presents a different insight to Darwin’s day-to-day life, as well as his ideas. You don’t have to believe Wilson, but he might make you think twice. It is also a reminder that, in the longer span of history, people can come and go, and come back again, and go and then ……..  The trajectory of William Morris over the last 150 years would be an excellent example. I don’t see Wilson having his way with Darwin, but sadly I won’t be here in the 22nd century to find out if he did.

If you enjoyed the quotes from Sarah Perry’s review, I would encourage you to read the whole piece at:


Indeed, if you enjoy the fun of reading excoriating reviews, just put Wilson Darwin Review into Google.


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Victorian Vegetarianism


In the 19th century, vegetarianism was linked to a much more radical agenda which incorporated not just health issues but moral, spiritual and political agendas. In the UK the Vegetarian Society was set up in the 1840s and while the movement was always marginal in this period, there was a proliferation of media, books, clubs and restaurants. As always ridicule was never far away as in this cartoon from Punch in 1852. For a very interesting analysis of the cartoon and the movement generally, look at the Happy Cow website (an excellent modern site for anyone interested in vegetarian matters, whether eating or reading) at:


If you are interested in the history of vegetarianism more generally, the standard text is Colin Spencer’s Vegetarianism: A History which will take you from Homer and Pythagoras through to the modern day. See:





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Book of the Month

I need to declare a conflict of interest here. Chapter 11 is by me: Agitate, Educate and Organize: Radical Networks in New York in the early 1880s. Featured is the founding footnote of this blog – John De Morgan – who had just arrived in New York and was trying to create a new life as an agitator. See https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071FG4WS1

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Captain Cook and Doctor Priestley: A Library Tale for Our Times

This comes from a really excellent blog run by Leeds Public Library. Think of the 1770s as part of a very long 19th century!

The Secret Library | Leeds Libraries Heritage Blog

Heritage volunteer Tony Scaife imagines a secret meeting of great minds in 18th century Leeds…

Having borrowed a copy of Peter Whitley’s Lord North: The Prime Minister Who Lost America from Leeds Libraries, I became intrigued at the similarities between the 1770s and today. As his many Whig critics claimed, Lord North’s bungling government negligently lost of the American colonies, and with them the potential economic resources of an entire continent.

Similarly, our present government, with its party lineage stretching back to Lord North, is not without its Remainer and Brexiteer accusations of incompetence and bad faith. The pledge of a ‘global Britain’ with worldwide free trade agreements certainly has echoes of the late 18th century search for a second British empire; whilst, then and now, though for different reasons, the news from America tends towards the disturbing.

Amidst all these anxieties and complexities, public libraries, as they have…

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Cartoon of the week

Heaphy, Charles 1820-1881 :Ye diggings. [1852]

This is one of a curious set of cartoons done in 1852 by Charles Heaphy, relating to New Zealand’s gold rush. Heaphy (1820-1881) was an English-born New Zealand explorer and first soldier of the New Zealand armed forces to be awarded the Victoria Cross. He was also a noted artist and executed several works of early colonial life in New Zealand.

It shows a group of officers from H. M. S. Pandora on a goldmining picnic at the Coromandel, occupied with goldmining, eating and drinking and hunting. The cartoon shows:

Ye Gold Commissioner speculateth on ye amount of ye licence fees [i. e Charles Heaphy, seated cross-legged on the top of a hill]; Jones lot – no. 1. Bob. [Theodore Morton Jones atop another hill shooting at something, with the dog Bob at his side, top right]; Experiment on ye ductility of ye metal [ an officer in the centre of the picture, sliding head first down a hill into his pan of gold]; An erratic boulder [another officer falling on his back, centre picture]; Preparatory process moistening ye clay [an officer lying back emptying a bottle of alcohol]; Good diggings [an officer with food in both hands, about to place a forkful in his mouth, left foreground]; Ye thoughtful provideth for the future. Dove Cot No. 2 [an officer carting a heavy wooden gold cradle]; Shiney [i.e. shiny?]; surfacing [two men, one flat on his face, scratching the ground, with a pan of gold in front of them]; Ye nugget [ a very small gold nugget, centre left foreground]; Ye Master contemplateth his nugget [i. e. the ship’s Master viewing a minute nugget]; Clay sheweth igneous action [several clay smoking pipes on the ground, right foreground]; Variety of quartz [the drinking mugs on the ground, right foreground]; Ye medical officer prepareth to open (quartz) skin [the Pandora’s doctor, Dr John Jolliffe, “lancing” a rock from which gold is “bleeding” into a pan held by another officer]

Heaphy, Charles 1820-1881 :Ye diggings. [1852]. Heaphy, Charles 1820-1881 :How we went to the diggings and what we did there. In a series of cartoons. [1852]. Ref: E-299-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22823469

Thanks to Lloyd Carpenter for pointing this out. For more about Australasian gold rushes, see Lloyd’s book Rushing for Gold at http://www.otago.ac.nz/press/otago291003.pdf



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Something completely different

This is from the collection “Illustrations from the Lights of Canopus” (1847) which can be found at the wondrous Public Domain Review website: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/illustrations-from-the-lights-of-canopus-1847/

The Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus — commonly known as the Fables of Bidpai in the West — is a Persian version of an ancient Indian collection of animal fables called the Panchatantra. The tales follow the Persian physician Burzuyah on a mission to India, where he finds a book of stories collected from the animals who live there. Much like in the Arabian Nights (which actually uses several of the Panchatantra stories), the fables are inter-woven as the characters of one story recount the next, with up to three or four degrees of narrative embedding. Many of the fables offer insightful glimpses into human behaviour, and emphasise the power of teamwork and loyalty: one passage describes how a hunter catches a group of pigeons in a net, only for them to be saved by a mouse who gnaws through the rope. The version celebrated in this post hails from nineteenth-century Iran and is particularly notable for its exquisite illustrations — scenes of tortoise-riding monkeys, bird battles, conversing mice, delicate purple mountains — 123 in total.

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Book of the month

Charlatan by [Jinks, Catherine]

This excellent piece of historical detective work shows that 19th century scoundrels are an international phenomenon. Thomas Guthrie Carr – who “lied, fought and sleazed his way around Australia and New Zealand between 1865 and 1886” – lived on the fringes of various 19th century movements such as mesmerism and phrenology. With all the crafts of a showman and self-promoter, he moved backwards and forwards across the fine line between the performer and the criminal. Very well written and constantly interesting, the book “unearths a Victorian-era celebrity who should never have been forgotten.” Recommended reading at https://www.amazon.com/Charlatan-Catherine-Jinks-ebook/dp/B06VVL2W36


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History rhyming again?

An 1896 Judge magazine cartoon which has William Jennings Bryan- a Presidential candidate – and the Populist Party swallowing  up the mule representing the Democratic party. A reminder that Populism can take many forms, across the political spectrum, and emerges from what Margaret Canovan calls the ‘shadow of democracy’ when the mainstream parties fail to deliver what the ‘people’ want.


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Charles Augustus Howell



A portrait by Frederic Sandys (1882)

One of my favourite Victorian scoundrels and an inveterate footnote of the period is Charles Augustus Howell. He is actually quite well-known – notorious – but mostly because he regularly features in the byways and footnotes of the biographies of the Pre-Raphaelites and the circle of William Morris. He does have his own biography, Helen Angeli Rossetti’s 1949 Pre-Raphaelite Twilight, which is highly readable and intriguing, though possibly over sympathetic and far from complete. He is definitely worthy of more attention because of the insights he gives to the murkier side of the art world in the Victorian period. Angeli gets to the heart of Howell’s reputation when she writes that “It would be easy to compile a Vocabulary of Vituperation” and then proceeds with a long-list of the highly uncomplimentary sobriquets which were attached to him during his 30 or so years on the margins of fame: arrant rascal, blackmailer, base fellow, confidence trickster, cunning rogue, parasite, stench of hell, vile wretch……

Howell was born in Oporto in 1840 to an English father and a Portuguese mother. Purportedly from an aristocratic background, he arrived in England in his youth, already suespected of being a cheat and also being involved in his friend Orsini’s plot to assassinate Napoleon III. For a while he disappeared but from 1864 onwards he became friend and business agent of both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin. According to Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, Howell was a skilful salesman “with his open manner, his winning address, with his exhaustless gift of amusing talk, not innocent of high colouring and actual blague – [he] was unsurpassable”. Like many scoundrels, he was charming and popular, regarded as a great raconteur and the perfect guest for a social dinner. However, constantly having to slip and slide, he, like most scoundrels, lived on the edge of crisis, condemnation and criminality. He is best known for persuading Dante Gabriel Rossetti to dig up the poems he had buried with his wife Lizzie Siddal.

He divided the people with whom he became involved. Morris, after an initial dalliance, would have nothing to do with him. Edward Burne-Jones described him as “a base, treacherous, unscrupulous and malignant fellow”. Hall Caine called him a “soldier of fortune” and Swinburne said he was “the vilest wretch I ever came across.” Others were more generous. Ford Madox Brown said that though he was “one of the biggest liars in existence” and “half mad”, he was essentially “good natured” and Whistler said he was a “wonderful man… a genius… splendidly flamboyant”. Eventually, however, he would always overplay his hand. As time went by he became more and more desperate, trading off friendships and business deals against each other. His need to always be looking over his shoulder is beautifully captured in Max Beerbohm’s cartoon which shows him listening at the door while his mistress Rosa Corder – he was a complete scoundrel – forges paintings by Rossetti.


Gradually rumours circulated that the lovable rogue was actually a criminal, including accusations of blackmailing as well as artistic forgery. His reputation as a blackmailer inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”

He died at the age of fifty in circumstances that possibly befitted his lifestyle – dramatic, mysterious, and probably on the wrong side of the law. He was found close to a Chelsea public house with his throat slit, with a coin in his mouth. The presence of the coin was believed to be a criticism of those guilty of slander. The embarrassment of an inquest and police investigation was avoided when his death was ruled to have resulted from “pneumonic phthisis”, the slit throat having been inflicted posthumously. Numerous, carefully filed, letters from high-placed people were found at his home, leading to much speculation. In the words of Humphrey Hare, “Fallen on hard days, Howell did not hesitate to blackmail by the threatened sale of letters which contained the customary puerile indecencies.” However, Helen Angeli was adamant that there was no evidence of blackmail.

Like many true scoundrels, it is difficult to avoid a certain sympathy, even affection, for characters like Howell. He certainly warrants a new biography.

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Cartoon of the Week

Facebook didn’t invent the cute animal and the cat in charge.


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