Posted by: Rob Viens | October 29, 2012

Letters from Home

It probably comes as o surprise to anyone, but the Beagle made it back to Montevideo without running out of food – Darwin survived!  They returned to Uruguay on Friday and Darwin was thrilled to receive his first letters from England in several months.  They were from his sisters (Susan and Caroline) and were written back in May and June.  But being so far from home, even old news is good news:

“The day has been very cloudy: but what are clouds & gloom to those who have just heard from their friends at home. My letters from Shrewsbury are dated May 12th & June 28 th. Receiving letters unfits one for any occupation; so that I have done nothing but read the Newspapers; it is rather a laborious undertaking & to make it tolerable it requires the high interest of the present politicks of England.”(Oct 26)

Darwin’s sisters wrote of the goings-on at home.  The weddings and romances, as well as sickness’ and deaths.  (Caroline’s includes all the gory details of Fanny Owen’s wedding – poor Charlie must have been a bit depressed (see Fanny Owen and the Mail Call Blues.) But what really comes through is a tenderness that always seems to be found between the siblings – one of the things that makes reading Darwin’s correspondence such an insight into his real life. A few examples of these family connections:

Regarding Robert Darwin’s compared life on a ship to life in jail (goal) and thought that his son would hate it. But Susan writes:

“Your letter has been read very often over to Papa and I think he never can again for shame make his old speech of the gaol & the ship: now he has heard what a comfortable home you find it.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin, 12 May – 2 June, 1832)

Here Darwin’s father is joking about a quote from Samuel Johnson which references the horrible conditions on board most ships:

“A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.” (Samuel Johnson)

I think Dr. Darwin is a little surprised at how well it was going for his son.  Granted, young Mr. Darwin had 10 times more space and 100 times more freedom that most of the sailors on board.

Darwin’s brother Erasmus, as only a brother could get away with, “jokes” about Darwin’s demise:

“Erasmus had been making some very bruttal jokes to the former a week before: “how that you were lost & we kept it from her” so the poor old soul very nearly cried when she heard you were really alive & well.” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, 12 – 28 June, 1832)

Erasmus Darwin in 1816:

Erasmus Darwin

In much the same way Charles downplays his accomplishments and refers to his writings as “silly” and “stupid”, his sister belittles her own life.  I’m not sure if this was the writing style of the times or just a habit of the Darwin family.  Caroline writes:

“I am ashamed of sending such an abominably stupid letter, but there never was a month with less to tell in it We have done nothing but garden & I think to write about our flowers would hardly do now that you are seeing tropical vegetation.” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, 12 – 28 June, 1832)

Caroline Darwin in 1816 (strangely, although all the other family members were painted that year, I can never seem to find Susan’s picture):

Caroline Darwin

Both sisters, interestingly, mention Adam Sedgwick noting:

“I cannot help thinking how lucky it was you took that Tour with Professor Sedgwick as Geology seems to be so great a pleasure now.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin, 12 May – 2 June, 1832)

“Mr Sedgwick called for half an hour on his return from Wales & was very pleasant—what a very agreeable man he is & what an agreeable countenance he has.” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, 12 – 28 June, 1832)

And both show their deep affection for their dear little brother:

“We miss you & talk about you & think about you more even than I expected” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, 12 – 28 June, 1832)

“…so I can promise you my dear Charley you are not at all forgotten amongst any of us, & I am very glad to hear the warm climate agrees so well with all your affectionate feelings.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin, 12 May – 2 June, 1832)

Upon writing back to his sister a few days later (in a letter that would not be sent till next month) Darwin notes his joy at receiving letters from home:

“Far from your letters not containing news; I am astonished at the wonderful number of events, which monthly takes place.—and I assure you no half famished wretch ever swallowed food more eagerly than I do letters.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 24 Oct – 24 Nov, 1832)

If Darwin’s letter back home is reflective of the things that his is most proud of, I’d say that finding fossils of recently extinct megafauna (See Darwin’s Sloth) and riding with the gauchos (see Shootin’ and Ridin’ with the Gauchos and Learning New Skills) have to be highlights of the last couple months. Though the beauty of the tropics is still etched in his brain. He writes:

“I find the peep of Tropical scenery, has given me a tenfold wish to see more: it is no exaggeration to say, no one can know how beautiful the world, we inhabit is, who has only been in the colder climes.— The chief source of pleasure has been to me, during these two months, from Nat: History.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 24 Oct – 24 Nov, 1832)

This is in stark contrast with his frustration regarding the flat landscape of Uruguay – a sentiment that comes through loud and clear in the letter:

“Anything must be better, than this detestable Rio Plata.— I would much sooner live in a coalbarge in the Cam” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 24 Oct – 24 Nov, 1832)

Though I’m sure he was all ready to move on from one of his least favorite places, on the 27th, Darwin headed into Montevideo to do some shopping, simply writing:

“Went to the city to purchase some things.” (Oct 27)

A little more on the rest of Darwin’s weekend tomorrow… (RJV)

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