Charles Darwin’s notebooks that disappeared for 20 years will be exhibited

Two Charles Darwin manuscripts returned anonymously to Cambridge University Library more than 20 years after they were discovered missing are going on public display for the first time this century.

The precious items were discovered missing in 2001. The manuscripts were initially believed to have been placed on the wrong shelf, but were reported stolen in October 2020 after exhaustive searches failed.

On March 9 of this year, an unknown person left them outside the librarian’s office in a pink gift bag, with a typed note in an envelope wishing the librarian Happy Easter.

The area where the bag was left was not covered by CCTV.

The notebooks, one of which contains Darwin’s famous 1837 sketch of the Tree of Life, will be on display as part of the Darwin In Conversation exhibition at the library from Saturday to December 3.

Professor Jim Secord, director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, said that the notebooks are “the place where Darwin works out his theory of evolution”.

The pink gift bag containing two manuscripts of Charles Darwin that were returned anonymously to the Cambridge University Library. (Cambridge University Library/PA)

“When we think of Darwin and how he discovered evolution, we often think only of the voyage of the Beagle and the Galapagos, but in fact the main work in making the theory was done in London after his return,” he said.

“Darwin lived in a bachelor pad and he kept these notebooks that were largely secret and he carried them around and when he had a good idea or an observation he would write it down.

“The notebooks really record that process and for me it’s like writing a stream of consciousness.”

He added: “When we look at the notebooks, we are really looking at one of the great moments in the process of scientific discovery and, indeed, in world history.”

Professor Secord said putting the manuscripts on public display allows people to see a “direct connection to the past”.

“It’s something that we feel very strongly, it has a kind of aura that I think is very powerful,” he said.

“I think there’s something about this: the real paper, this is the real thing. He’s not just some genius guy who’s really different from all of us.

“This is someone who has returned from a long sea voyage, he is 20 years old, he kept his intellectual powers but there are all kinds of everyday things in there.

“It’s not a diary, but you can tell he’s interacting with people.

“One of the notebooks has a place where he reports a dream of being hanged.”

Dr. Alison Pearn, associate director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, said she was “overwhelmed with relief” when the notebooks were returned to her.

He said he wanted the manuscripts on display as “the library’s mission is to make its material available to the public”, adding that the items are “definitely safe”.

The curatorial team of the Darwin In Conversation exhibition identified more than 15,000 letters from around the world.

Dr Pearn said that correspondence was “an integral part” of the way Darwin worked and “he needed those correspondents to send him information from all over the world, but also to share ideas, to criticize his work”.

Among the exhibits is a letter from Darwin’s neighbor and childhood friend, Sarah Owen, who wrote that she was sending a lock of hair, which did not survive, and a jeweled pin.

“We want people to take away that he was human,” Dr. Pearn said.

“He was not born with a beard.

“He was a very young man once.

“I think we forgot that he was only 22 years old when he embarked on HMS Beagle.

“We know that he carried around the world with him, kept until the end of his life letters from at least two young women.”

The police investigation into the disappearance and subsequent return of the Darwin manuscripts is ongoing.

For more information on the exhibition see www.lib.cam.ac.uk/darwin

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