John Walsh: 'So Darwin was a boho boozer on the quiet – an idle proto-Wildean dandy lying on his Otto'

Tales of the City

Related Topics

It's hard to think of Charles Darwin as a dandy, a horseman, a gourmand or a sot. We think of him as fixated, from youth, on natural science. He seemed born to taxonomise, to research and classify. He was the kind of kid who could tell you the Latin names of snowdrops and weevils while still in short trousers. There's a picture of him, aged seven, in a blue tunic and white ruff, holding a pot-full of yellow plants, looking as though he's about to lecture you on their endangered-ness. He arrived at his first school, aged eight, with an addiction to collecting rocks. As a medical student at Edinburgh, he bunked off his studies – but not to play poker and imbibe porter with pals; he spent his spare time investigating the life cycle of marine invertebrates in the Firth of Forth. Sometimes he seems to have been a crucial link in the chain of evolution: would The Origins of Species have happened without the emergence of one beetle-browed naturalist, prepared to stare for hours at the tiny differences between two kinds of sparrows?

He doesn't really suit the word "student," which still conjures words like "stoner," "layabout" and "rag week participant." So hurrah for the historians at Christ's College, Cambridge, who have unearthed six books of financial records from Darwin's time there, between 1828 and 1831, which suggest a man of unexpectedly wider interests.

Shoes, for one. He spent £15 on shoes over three years, about £750 in today's money, and he'd probably have had fancy riding boots as well, since he owned a horse stabled in Cambridge. He spent another £15 on haircuts, and summoned to his rooms an army of tailors, hatters, barbers, grocers, chimney sweeps, carpenters, glaziers, wall-painters, a scullion to wash his mugs, a seamstress to darn his unmentionables and a laundress to launder them (one imagines a pre-Victorian Dot Cotton,) someone to make his bed and someone else to light the fire.

Because dinner in College tended to feature meat and beer, he ordered deliveries of vegetables (five shillings extra) every week. You can imagine his fellow students looking at his deliveries of greens and shaking their heads at his affectedness – just as Milton's co-students, at the same college 200 years earlier, had watched the poet combing his long hair, and called him "The Lady of Christ's."

What else? He didn't attend many lectures (two hours of maths and classics each morning hardly seems excessive,) preferring to go shooting or riding. He collected beetles, but that seems to have been a fad of its time, like playing frisbee in 1971. We don't have his bar bills, but a friend made him a spoof coat of arms, in which "drinking and smoking" were his key features. The records feature a sick note or "Aegrotat", the tutor's note that excused you from an exam for being too ill (or too hungover.) He visited the library but was reluctant to buy books, spending only one pound and seven shillings on them in three years. Occasional forays to an apothecary's might suggest a laudanum habit or a search for contraceptives, but could just as easily be prompted by a need for tooth-balm or sticking plaster.

Amid the list of things his indulgent father had to pay for every month, one entry ("Eve Joiner") is glossed by the editors as "Unidentifiable". It may refer to a carpenter who plied his trade during evening hours – but might it be that a certain lady of the night called Joiner ("Call me Eve, dearie, – everyone else does") was the reason Darwin missed lectures and went around on a horse, shooting things, in a courtship display such as he was later to discover in the lesser spotted warble-fly?

And so a new picture of Darwin begins to emerge: far from being the obsessive insect-nerd of common legend, he was a hard- riding, romantic man of action, a boho boozer and fag-ash Lionel on the quiet, an idle, proto-Wildean dandy lying on his Ottoman sofa while a fleet of servants pullulated around him, laying fires, making his bed, manicuring his nails and buffing his insteps. We now know that he used to bunk off exams after a heavy night, and attend the chemist to buy pre-Civil War Anadin...

Marvellous what some research into college archives does to the imagination. I'm beginning to like this version of Charles D, almost entirely false though it is.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A supporter of the Kurdistan Workers' Association holds a placard during a demonstration against Islamic State (IS) in front The Hague  

Nothing will stop Isis except a Syrian truce

Patrick Cockburn
The victory of the NO campaign was confirmed at 6.08am on Friday morning  

Scottish referendum: Partisan fallout, Gordon Brown's comeback and Elizabeth, the Queen of unity

Jane Merrick
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam