London: John Murray, 1871. First edition, first printing. Quarter leather. This is the first edition, first impression of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex – his first book to apply the term “evolution” - in a striking fine contemporary binding.
The binding features quarter calf over marbled paper-covered boards, with blind tooled transitions between the boards and calf corners and spine. The spine features raised, gilt-decorated bands framed by double gilt rules, a black title panel, and gilt devices adorning undecorated compartments. The boards, endpapers, and page edges are all marbled in a matching nonpareil combed pattern, creating a compelling aesthetic consistency.
First impression of the first edition is confirmed by issue points; in Volume I, “transmitted” is the first word on p.297; Volume II has errata on the title page verso (seventeen errata for Volume I and eight for Volume II) and a tipped-in “Postscript” at unpaginated pp. ix-x referring to errors which were reset for the second issue. The sixteen pages of advertisements for Murray’s standard works are not present, removed when the book was rebound, as were the half-title leaves.
Condition is very good overall. Despite overall toning (the calf’s original red mostly settling to brown) and scuffing, the exceptional contemporary bindings are square, clean, tight, and original, with no sign of repair, restoration, or hinge failure. The first impression contents are bright with light spotting primarily confined to the first and final leaves. The sole previous ownership mark is the same name and date of “January 1878” inked on the upper right corner of each blank leaf recto preceding the title page. Given that the subject blank leaves were added when the book was finely bound, it follows that the binding was commissioned during or before January 1878.
On the Origin of Species (1859) fomented a reorientation that would eventually supplant dogmatic creationist hierarchy with rationalistic naturalist biology. But in Origin, Darwin had said little about how his ideas applied to human beings. In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex Darwin argued that all creatures are subject to the same natural laws. “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” And in Descent the cause was finally given its enduring name. On page two of Volume I Darwin wrote “these great classes of facts afford, as it appears to me, ample and conclusive evidence in favour of the principle of gradual evolution.” This is the first time the word ‘evolution’ is thus applied in his published work. Descent posited the theory Darwin called “sexual selection” and attempted to set forth a naturalistic explanation for the mind and for moral behavior. That Darwin’s conceptions continue to both fuel rational debate and fervid ire testifies to their fundamental impact. That many of his concepts are settled theory testifies to their empirical insight and veracity.
This particular set is not only an artifact of landmark scientific thought, but also testimony to Victorian era bibliophilic history, craft, and sensibilities. "BOUND BY MUDIE” is printed on the lower front free-end paper versos. Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890) founded a circulating library that served a wide, middle-class audience who could not afford the exorbitant price of new books, making literature significantly more accessible to the public. By 1852 he had over 25,000 subscribers. Between 1853 and 1862 Mudie is said to have added almost 960,000 volumes to his stock in hand, thus becoming one of the major distributors of fiction in Britain at the time. His business also serviced readers overseas, shipping tin trunks of books to India, Cape Colony, Egypt, and other British colonies. The glee occasioned by the arrival of Mudie's shipments was playfully commented upon by W. S. Gilbert in Bab Ballads when he wrote: 'New boxes come from across the sea / from Mr. Mudie's Libraree'.” (ODNB). Item #006663