from this is not a book about charles darwin

In 1908, Cambridge University’s Marlowe Society was only a year old. It had been founded by undergraduate Justin Brooke – friend but no relation to Rupert, as I expect they were sick to death of explaining – with an explictly anti-Victorian agenda and ethos: to produce neglected plays from the past, using the original, unexpurgated and uncut texts, with men playing women, and clean productions to let the texts speak. This was, of course, authentic for pre-1660 texts, but must also have been convenient, as the University authorities were suspicious of mixed productions. The men’s colleges worried about the distraction and potential immorality of having women around, and the women’s colleges, challenging gender conventions by their mere existence, were forced to be extra-careful of the proprieties, and were often particularly reluctant to allow their students to take part.

Now, the celebrations for the tercentenary of Milton’s birth were centering on his college, Christ’s, and it was decided that the heart of it would be a Marlowe Society production of the masque Milton wrote for the sons and daughter of his employer, the Earl of Bridgewater. Clearly authenticity in producing Comus demanded at least one actress, and also extras such as dancers, and there would be a vast amount of work. Frank Darwin was a Fellow of Christ’s, and thought his daughter Frances might be able to help with the designs.

Rupert and Justin went to ask, found Frances with Gwen, (they were in their early twenties by then, and studying art together), and four hours later everything had been set in motion. Indeed, it was Gwen and Frances who persuaded Rupert that as well as being the stage manager (in our terms, director) he should play the important role of the Attendant Spirit; it was they, too, who then persuaded the young Classics lecturer F.M.Cornford, who had been drawn into the Society largely to supply a respectably senior element, to play the glamorous villain Comus. Frances played The Lady, Gwen designed and made the costumes, and virtually all meetings happened at Newnham Grange, culminating in an after-show party which Gwen persuaded her parents might be held in their garden on the Cam. By all acounts the night was magical, even if Rupert’s costume was so tight, he said, that he was unable to sit down.

Along the way, Francis Cornford proposed to Frances and was accepted, and with Frances – who’d suffered from more than one serious clinical depression – safely embarked on a new life, Gwen felt able to embark on her own new life. Her campaign to be allowed to move to London and study art at the Slade finally succeeded, and she went to live with her beloved Uncle William in Kensington Square.

Comus sowed the seeds of the group that Gwen and Frances’s stepcousin-by-marriage Virginia Woolf later christened the neo-Pagans: Rupert Brooke, the parentless Katherine (‘Ka’) Cox, the four very beautiful and virtually un-chaperoned Olivier sisters, Geoffrey Keynes and his friend Jacques Raverat, Gwen and Margaret Darwin, and Francis and Frances Cornford, while the fringes of the group included Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Ermengarde and Fredegonde Maitland and other Bloomsburies.

There was something else. Until Comus, Francis Cornford’s closest female friend had been Jane Harrison, a notable and much older Classics don at Newham College. Together they had had been part of the scholarly revolution which studied the great Classical texts not simply as literature, but through the lenses of archaeology, anthropology and evolutionary theory; she had, in fact, presented George Darwin with a copy of her new study of ritual in Greek religion, Prolegomena, writing in it: ‘You will see that most of the important points are contributed by your illustrious family.’ She was twenty-four years older than Francis Cornford, and in their amitié amoureuse – working together, going on holiday – there had been nothing obviously sexual. Many of Jane’s most intense relationships were with women and it was actually Jane who had, years before, introduced him to the fifteen-year-old Frances – the daughter of Jane’s great friend and fellow-Newham lecturer Ellen Darwin – as one might introduce a beloved great-niece to a favourite nephew. But beloved great-nieces grow up, and favourite nephews may not be so much older after all. It was only when Francis announced his engagement to Frances that Jane admitted what she had known for some time: that she herself had been in love with him for years.

As well as being Milton’s tercentenary, 1909 would be the centenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and fifty years since The Origin had been published. Frank Darwin was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which had played a notable role in the early battles to get evolution by natural selection accepted as scientific fact, and now was at the centre of the celebrations; Frances acted as her widowed father’s hostess for major events. Indeed, Francis Cornford had to set a subject for a poetry competition for the Chancellor’s Medal: did Frances think that ‘Evolution’ would be a possible topic? Jane started to write an essay on ‘The Influence of Darwinism on the Study of Religions’, but suffered a physical and mental breakdown, and left Cambridge, not returning until after the wedding.

So, could this be the start of a novel? As an ex-wannabe actress I was tempted. There are few smells more evocative than glue-size, dust, hired costumes and sweat, and few better sources than a drama production for what books about creative writing call ‘conflict’, which is shorthand for what happens when a character wants something, tries to get it, and encounters practical, physical, human or psychological obstacles. And then I discovered that Joseph Wright of Derby, painter-in-ordinary to the Lunar Society, had actually painted a picture of The Lady: how could I not recognise such a sign? … Even though no novelist would ever be so insane as to have three important characters named Frances, Francis and Frank, maybe – just maybe – it would work.