Posted by: Rob Viens | May 29, 2012

My Dear Old Fox Part I

May 29th and Darwin, the English gentleman, is looking for someone to deliver a message for him:

“Cloudy greyish day; something like an Autumnal one in England; without however its soothing quietness. — I wanted to send a note this morning into the city & had the greatest difficulty in procuring anybody to take it. — All white men are above it, & every black about here is a slave. — This, amongst other things, is one great inconvenience of a slave country.”

We never find out if he succeeded…however…

About this time Darwin penned a letter to his college friend (and second cousin) William Darwin Fox. William and Charles met at Christ’s College, Cambridge where they were both preparing for a life a country parson. William, who was 4 years older, became fast friends with Charles and the two became obsessed with collecting beetles (and several other relics of the natural world). In his autobiography Darwin writes:

“I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin W. Darwin Fox, a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ’s College, and with whom I became extremely intimate.” (Autobiography)

William played a key role in Darwin’s life by introducing him to John Henslow – the professor who eventually recommended Darwin for the Beagle Voyage (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I).

Darwin’s lifelong pal – William Darwin Fox

William Darwin Fox

Unlike Darwin, Fox stayed true to his original studies and went on to join the clergy – becoming the Reverend William Darwin Fox and being appointed a parsonage in Delamere (where he served until he retired in 1873). At the time, it was not uncommon for clergymen to also be naturalists (at least on their days off).  That was part of the appeal the parsonage originally held for Darwin.  Fox being no exception, remained an amateur naturalist for the rest of his life.

Fox married twice – first to Harriet Fletcher (who died in 1842) and later to Ellen Sophia.  Between his two marriages he had 17 children! He died two years before Darwin, in 1880, on the Isle of Wight.

In her biography of Darwin (Part I: Voyaging) Janet Browne hits the nail on the head in describing the similarities between Fox and Darwin and astutely notes:

“Fox in effect, became the man that Darwin never was, for if Darwin, instead of seizing the chance of joining the Beagle expedition, has stuck to his father’s new plan of entering the church, he would have become just like his cousin, both in his future responsibilities as a country-loving gentlemen-parson and in the same open-hearted, inquiring personality that found fulfillment in hosts of children, relatives, and animals, keeping abreast with scientific journals, making a few experiments in the garden and poultry yard, and reminiscing about gallops through the Cambridgeshire countryside. … When we look at Fox, it is possible to see What Darwin could have been, what he first intended for himself.” (Voyaging, Janet Browne)

Not a bad life – it certainly would have been comfortable.  But it again illustrates the incredible turning point the Beagle voyage was for Darwin. Of course, Darwin was slightly different from his cousin – he did choose to go off on an adventure, and that made all the difference.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap up Part II with some excerpts from Darwin’s letter to Fox. (RJV)


  1. […] he was most likely headed to a life involving a quite parsonage (like his cousin William Fox -see My Dear Old Fox) or a sort of “playboy” lifestyle  (like his brother, Erasmus). After a year of living […]

  2. […] bug collecting pals from Oxford – about 10 years Darwin’s senior. Like Fox (see My Dear Old Fox), Hope also went on to become a reverend – following the path that Darwin himself almost […]

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