Angelique Richardson reviews George Levine’s new book Darwin the Writer for the Times Literary Supplement:

“Darwin was a great reader of novels. He referred frequently to Dickens’s characters in his letters, and read Eliot’s Adam Bede while he was undergoing the water treatment and about to embark on the proofs of the Origin. He found it excellent, remarking “entire rest & the douche & Adam Bede have together done me a world of good”. Within a few years, Darwin, Eliot and her scientist partner George Lewes were calling at each other’s houses (“I thoroughly enjoyed my hour’s talk with you & Mrs Lewes”, Darwin declared after their first meeting). As Gillian Beer has shown us in Darwin’s Plots (2000), the traffic between scientific and literary culture is not one-way. Darwin’s ideas were not simply freighted with metaphor, but often formed by it. In the Origin the intimate connections of life are “a tangled bank”, and Darwin impressed on his readers that he was using the term “Struggle for Existence” in “a large and metaphorical sense” (in the fourth and fifth editions this point was elevated to a subtitle).

Darwin had, though, in his own words, “to labour very hard & slowly at every sentence”, often reading aloud to an imaginary listener, or to his wife, as he strove to find the right way to explain something, convinced of the necessity of writing clearly, and surprised to find himself an author, promising his publisher as he finished the Origin that he would do his utmost to improve his style.”