She applied the “Page 99 Test” to the book and reported the following:
When I opened my book at page 99, I was surprised to discover that it’s rather steamy: I’d forgotten writing about prostitutes, licentiousness and French women who (supposedly) were in the habit of biting the amputated legs of guillotined aristocrats. I wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed or pleased. After all, it wasn’t me who decided that ‘unhallow’d lust’ would make a good rhyme for ‘titillating dust’, but a reactionary clergyman who was parodying my subject, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). The father of twelve children by two wives and his son’s governess, Darwin envisaged a progressive universe that is fuelled by sexual energy and governed by natural laws rather than directly by God – and that’s why p. 99 appears in a chapter about female subordination, and why I put ‘Sex’ in my sub-title.Read more about Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity at the Oxford University Press website.
Although unfamiliar now, Erasmus Darwin – Charles Darwin’s grandfather – was well-known among his contemporaries, highly respected by many but reviled by others. Energetic and sociable, this corpulent tee-totaller ran a successful medical practice, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, promoted industrial innovation in the Midlands, campaigned against slavery, and was famous for his long poems on plants, technology and evolution. Committed to progress in every field – scientific, technological, social, biological – Darwin was a champion of Enlightenment thought who became a target of abuse.
Because of his links with industrialisation and his grandson Charles, Erasmus Darwin has mostly been portrayed as a lovable if eccentric individual who, with a greater or lesser degree of success, pointed the way towards the future. I decided to take a fresh look. Guided by serendipity – chance discoveries of unsuspected documents, unexpected conversations with friends, unanticipated links suggested by novels – I searched out a different Darwin. My hero is a controversial political radical who campaigned for abolition, supported female education, and challenged Christian orthodoxy by publishing a theory of evolution long before his grandson was even born.
The world, wrote Darwin, resembles ‘one great slaughter-house, one universal scene of rapacity and injustice.’ That is a fine image of competitive natural selection: but was it written by Erasmus or Charles? You can probably guess the answer, but to find out why, you need to read the book!
Writers Read: Patricia Fara.