Brain Pickings

Darwin’s Daily Routine

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“Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks.”

In between weighing the pros and cons of marriage, grumbling to his friends, and changing our understanding of human emotion, Charles Darwin spent a decade perfecting a radical scientific theory of how the world worked. In part because it demanded intense intellectual investment and in part because it challenged the accepted paradigms of the era enough to offend the public eye, Darwin needed a near-monkish environment to develop his framework of evolution. In 1842, he moved from London to the English countryside, where he would spend the next seventeen years working on The Origin of Species — a kind of intellectual endurance that required systematic, daily dedication of unfaltering rhythm.

Darwin's new study at Down House, engraved shortly after his death by Axel Haig. Image courtesy Darwin Online.

From the wonderful Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (public library) — which previously gave us the routines of Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce — comes this curious chronology of Darwin’s day:

The first, and best, of his work periods began at 8:00 a.m., after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study—disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway—Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day’s post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through.

At 10:30 Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, “I’ve done a good day’s work.”

[...]

Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. The letter writing took him until about 3:00 in the afternoon, after which he went upstairs to his bedroom to rest, lying on the sofa with a cigarette while Emma continued to read from the novel-in-progress.

[...]

At 5:30, a half-hour of idleness in the drawing room preceded another period of rest and novel reading, and another cigarette, upstairs. Then he joined the family for dinner, although he did not join them in eating the meal; instead, he would have tea with an egg or a small piece of meat.

[...]

After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano. He left the drawing room at about 10:00 and was in bed within a half-hour, although he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day.

Pair with a graphic novel biography of Darwin, a fine addition to these favorite pieces of graphic nonfiction, and the daily routines of famous authors.

Quoted text excerpted from Daily Rituals by Mason Currey by permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2013 by Mason Currey.

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