April 11, 2022

Theories abound after anonymous return of Darwin’s notebooks


Charles Darwin: a notable genius (Paul Adolphe Rajon, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Three short words and a sign-off was all took to reopen one of the most intriguing literary mysteries of recent times. Back in November 2000, a pair of notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin, and said to be worth several million pounds, went missing during a “routine request” and photo shoot at Cambridge University Library’s Special Collections Strong Rooms.

Leather-bound and marked “B” and “C,” one of the notebooks contains a sketch by Darwin of his ‘Tree of Life’ theory. Per the BBC report on the story, “The notepads date from the late 1830s after Darwin had returned from the Galapagos Islands. On one page, he drew a spindly sketch of a tree, which helped inspire his theory of evolution and more than 20 years later would become a central theory in his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species.”

The notebooks were found to be missing during a stock check, prompting an extensive search of the library’s shelves and archives in case of a misshelving. After over a decade of detailed combing, and with no clues as to their whereabouts, they were eventually declared missing, presumed stolen.

A BBC article in 2020 highlighted the books’ disappearance, prompting a worldwide campaign by the library asking for their return. “This is the time to just safely, even anonymously, get in touch,” said librarian Dr Jessica Gardner. “It’s those new leads we’re looking for, with the help of the police, in order to help recover these for the nation.”

Sure enough, over twenty years after initially going walkabout, the notebooks were returned last week in equally baffling fashion: packaged up in clingfilm and a pink paper gift bag, and that cryptic note printed on brown paper. Dr Gardner faced a five-day wait while the bag and contents were checked over by police—but described her “profound” sense of relief at their return, in an apparently undamaged state. An investigation into how the books came to be missing for so long—and who may have been behind their disappearance—remains open.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.