It’s June 1873, and Karl Marx has decided to send a copy of his magnum opus, Das Kapital, to Charles Darwin, and 150 years later, that unread copy is going back on display at Charles Darwin’s home.

However, it seems that Darwin wasn’t that impressed with Marx, and not only did it take several months to send an uncharacteristically short thank-you message, but it’s likely that he stopped reading the book after just a few chapters.

The clue is in the printing technique of the time.

Book pages are typically printed in Quarto form, which is to say, four pages are printed on each side of a larger sheet of paper, which is then folded to create eight pages for the book. Today, as those folded sheets are bound into a book, the folded edges are trimmed off to create the individual smaller sheets in the book.

However, the trimming of the folded pages is a relatively recent innovation. In Victorian times, books were often sold “uncut” and it was commonplace for people to read a book with a sharp knife in hand to slice the pages open.

In fact, it’s one of the (disputed) origins of the phrase “page turner” to describe a book you can’t stop reading, and the knife would slice open the page, and you’d turn the freshly sliced page over with the knife — hence a page turner.

When Charles Darwin sat down to read Marx’s Das Kapital, he would have done so with a knife in hand to slice open the pages — but he didn’t. In fact, the restoration of the book gifted to Darwin shows that the first few chapters were cut open to read, but then for whatever reason, Darwin stopped reading.

Darwin didn’t consider Das Kapital a page turner.

Darwin’s copy of Das Kapital, before conservation (c) English Heritage

The book, which is owned by Cambridge University Library, had been on long-term loan to English Heritage to display in Darwin’s home but was removed from display about five years ago as it was in need of conservation work.

They then carried out conservation work to prevent further deterioration of the book’s structure. This included the conservator adhering the flaking areas of the book’s spine and applying a thin layer of tissue to it, acting as a barrier and preventing any further loss. Small tears on the cover were also repaired and the entire surface has been painstakingly cleaned.

Dr Tessa Kilgarriff, Curator of Collections and Interiors at English Heritage, said, “Charles Darwin and Karl Marx are recognised as two of the greatest minds of the late 19th century. It is evident from his personal gift and subsequent work that Marx was a follower of Darwin’s theories; however, the uncut pages (and lack of customary pencil marks) suggest Darwin was less enamoured with Marx’s writing – or quite possibly that his German simply wasn’t up to scratch!”

Although Charles Darwin could read German, as it was a necessary skill in a time when lots of scientific papers were written in German, it was a language he struggled with.

It’s possible that wading through German scientific literature for work was something to be done for the job, but to read an economic book written in German for pleasure was not that pleasurable.

With this in mind, and given that political economy was so far removed from Darwin’s core areas of interest, it is perhaps no surprise that any attempt to read Das Kapital was abandoned.

Darwin’s copy of Das Kapital has now gone back on display at Down House, his countryside home near Orpington.

The house is looked after by English Heritage and is open to the public Wed-Sun. It’s free to visit for English Heritage members, or you can pay at the door.

Getting to Down House

If you drive, it’s easy, but for public transport, it’s a bit of a pain.

The recommended trips would be to catch a train to Bromley South railway station and then catch 146 bus to Downe Church. Alternatively, Wed-Sat only, you can catch the R8 bus from outside Orpington railway station.

Both bus routes run roughly once an hour – so I would use the TfL Journey Planner to work out the best route.

And do check the return bus times so you don’t miss the trip home. If you do miss the bus, then the village is pretty and has a pub. If you’re in the village, have a look at the church as there’s a plaque on the clock tower for Charles Darwin. He wanted to be buried there but was elevated to Westminster Abbey instead.


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One comment
  1. Reaper says:

    Always knew Darwin was a good egg. Now we have evidence of his sound judgement.

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