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

Tales of the City

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.