Posted by: Rob Viens | May 2, 2013

Letters from the Darwin Sisters

On April 26th the Beagle arrived back in Montevideo – apparently things were pretty routine while Darwin was gone for the past 6 months:

“We arrived there a little after noon. … During our absence, things have been going on pretty quietly, with the exception of a few revolutions.” (April 25/26)

I mean – what’s a few revolutions among friends? 🙂

This unrest didn’t seem to phase Augustus Earle who had stayed behind in Montevideo to try to recover from a painful rheumatism (joint pain).

“I went on shore & saw Mr Earl; he remained at this place, during our whole cruize, in hopes of recovering his health, in which respect, however, I am afraid he has had little success.” (April 25/26)

For those that don’t remember, Earle was the artist in residence on the Beagle, though his illness kept him from participating much (see The Art of the Beagle – Augustus Earle).  It would not be long before he gave up on trying to “recover” and would head back home.

This, of course, was an exciting time for the crew, because it was also the first time in 6 months that they were able to receive mail from home. Darwin received at least four letters include those “dated Sept. 12th, Octob 14th, Novem. 12th, & Decr 15th.” I thought I’d spend the rest of this post with some “news from home”. I could not find any record of a letter dated December 15th, however, the other three letters where all written by Darwin’s loving sisters.

Caroline Darwin:

Caroline Darwin

From Caroline Darwin – 12 September 1832:  This letter was particularly touching in that it was the first letter Caroline wrote to her brother after hearing about the malaria deaths on the Beagle last spring.  These deaths, timely news on the cholera outbreak in England, and the recent death of a near relative – Fanny Wedgewood – all seem to have made Caroline particularly sensitive to the perilous situation that Charles was currently in. She wrote:

“I do hope you are very prudent & do consider the forlorn state you would be in a long bad illness with the miserable accommodation you would have in one of your scrambling expeditions, as indeed you had experience of from what your journal says— I know it is nonsense & “all foolishness” to use your own expression writing at this distance wishes & cautions but I must do it dear old Tactus as a relief to myself” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, 12 September 1832)

In addition, it must have been exceedingly exciting for him to hear how much his family enjoyed reading his diary, which he had been sending back home in regular installments.  Caroline notes:

“I have written to you since reading your journal which I liked exceedingly. I do hope when you have any safe opportunity you will send us some more of it. it gives us all so much pleasure & interest reading about you & it brings the Country &c in such a lively manner to one— I have never told you dear Charles what great pleasure your most affectionate dear letters give me & us all, you would be I am sure rewarded for the trouble of writing if you saw the delight a letter from you is received with” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, 12 September 1832)

From Catherine Darwin – 14 October 1832 : Catherine’s letter contained all sorts of gossip about mutual friends and relatives – filling her brother in on the latest happenings at home. It is funny how the “folks back home” get caught up in daily life.  So much so that Catherine notes that:

“People here think you will find cruizing in the South Seas such uninteresting work, that it gives us some hopes you will perhaps return before the Beagle.” (Correspondence from Catherine Darwin, 14 October 1832)

I particularly like how Catherine describes here father’s interest in the work of contemporary naturalist – James Audubon:

“Papa is also planning buying Audubon’s Book on American Ornithology; the author sells it himself, and will not allow any separate number to be sold, unless you take the whole which is 40 guineas in price. The Plates are magnificent, as they ought indeed to be. You will like to see some of the Plates of your old Friends again, when you come home.” (Correspondence from Catherine Darwin, 14 October 1832)

I imagine this book, and the familiar birds of home, was something that Darwin truly was envious of.

From Susan Darwin – 12 November 1832: Like her sisters, Susan spends much of her letter speaking about the goings on back home – something that seems mundane to the reader today, but which was probably comforting to Charles after being away for nearly a year and a half. Like her sisters, Susan is also interested in better understanding what Darwin was doing and where he planned to go – trying to get a better feel for these things by reading more about the places he was visiting:

“I must ask you a very ignorant question. Are you going to explore down towards the South Pole or not? or only the coasts of America? I must get Earles book to read, for that will put a little sense into my head I hope.— The Penny & Saturday Magazines make the chief reading of the house at present, which we find cheap and profitable.” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin, 18 November 1832)

The first magazine Susan refers to has the awesome full name of the Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). The goals of the magazine were to bring science to the working classes.  What a great concept!

October 27, 1832 Issue of the Penny Magazine (from Wikipedia Commons):

Penny Magazine

Some of Susan’s readings also uncovered more information about the sorts of sticky situations her brother was getting himself into:

“I saw in the Paper last night that there had been an insurrection at Monte Video when 50 of the Crew of the Beagle were called upon & put it down” (Correspondence from Susan Darwin, 18 November 1832)

How hard it must have been to hear that your brother had been quelling revolutions by reading about it in the newspaper!  At least the paper would have reported if there had been any fatalities, but she had no idea what had happened in the last six months.

It is pretty clear from al these tender letters that Darwin’s sisters all cared very much for him and that they took great pleasure in reading his correspondence and sending letters to him in the field.  On the other hand, Darwin’s brother Erasmus, who also carried very much for him, barely corresponded with him at all during the trip.

On the 27th, the crew set sail for a short trip down the coast to the town Darwin would call home for the “winter”:

“Having landed our French passengers & having received all parcels & letters; after dinner weighed anchor & made sail, with a fresh breeze for Maldonado.” (April 27)

In a couple of days, he would be looking for a room to rent. (RJV)

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