Posted by: Rob Viens | June 27, 2013

News from the Family

Back in early March, the Darwin family got word (from Francis Beaumont) that there was a Packet leaving for Uruguay in a day or so.  Knowing that their “Dear old Charley” was heading south later that year and would be out of contact for a while, they all rushed to get some letters out.  Three months later, on June 8th, Darwin received the letters – there importance reflected in the single entry in his diary that day:

“Letters from home dated Feb 13th & March 3rd” (June 8)

There seems to be no record of a letter dated Feb 13 in Darwin’s published correspondence, but he clears up the confusion a little a few days later in a letter that he writes back to his sisters:

“I have just received a bundle more letters.— I do not know how to thank you all sufficiently:—one from Catherine Feb 8th:—another from Susan, March 3d.; together with notes from Caroline & from my Father; give my best love to my Father; I almost cried for pleasure at receiving it.” (Correspondence to Catherine Darwin, May 22-July 14)

So today, let me share a few words of news “from home” and some of Darwin’s responses:

They all included some humor – correspondence between the Darwin siblings are always fun to read.  One example:

“Uncle Jos stands the fatigue of Parliamt very well & I think writes in spirits as if he liked the life— he says 19 out of 20 of the speeches are very dull.” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, March 7)

A couple of the letters mention Darwin’s future wife (not that he had any idea at the time):

“Charlotte Holland is to be married on the 14th of this month to Mr Isaac Emma Wedgwood is to be one of the Brides maids & go back with Louisa H. to London” (Correspondence from Caroline Darwin, March 7)

One reflects Catherine’s interest in relating to her brother’s passion for geology by attempting to study it herself:

“I think Geology far the most interesting subject one can imagine & now I have found a very easy way of learning a little smattering of it. The penny Magazines give a few pages (which the most foolish person can understand) in every Number on the subject.” (Correspondence from Catherine Darwin, March 3/6)

And, as always, they always show a love and tenderness for their brother that provide great insights into his personality. For example:

“They always talk and enquire much about you at Woodhouse & Mrs. Owen still keeps her opinion of Charles Darwin being the happiest person she knows.” (Correspondence from Catherine Darwin, March 3/6)

“Dear old Charley I am afraid we shan’t see yr hand writing till September but at least we have the comfort of knowing that your long silence means no harm & is unavoidable.” (Correspondence from Catherine Darwin, March 3/6)

This bundle of letters also included a rare, short note from “dad” – Robert Darwin (shown below).

Robert Darwin

It is clear from the note, that (regardless of whatever reservations he had at the beginning) Robert is proud of his son’s work on the Beagle:

“As a packet of letters is going under cover to Capt Beaufort I must send you one line, tho’ in fact I have not any thing to say besides expressing the pleasure we all feel at your still continuing to enjoy health & your voyage we all are very happy when we get a letter from you.

In consequence of the recommendation in your first letter I got a Banana tree, it flourishes so as to promise to fill the hothouse. I sit under it, and think of you in similar shade. You know I never write any thing besides answering questions about medicine and therefore as you are not a patient I must conclude” (Correspondence from Robert Darwin, March 7)

It is worth ending today with another quote – this one from Darwin’s letter back to his sister Catherine.  It always makes me smile to see Darwin’s almost perpetual excitement about the work he is doing, and how he is starting to realize that he has truly found his calling.  He writes:

“I have worked very hard (at least for me) at Nat History & have collected many animals & observed many geological phenomena: & I think it would be a pity having gone so far, not to go on & do all in my power in this my favourite pursuit; & which I am sure, will remain so for the rest of my life. … I trust & believe, that the time spent in this voyage, if thrown away for all other respects, will produce its full worth in Nat: History: And it appears to me, the doing what little one can to encrease the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.— It is more the result of such reflections (as I have already said) than much immediate pleasure, which now makes me continue the voyage: together with the glorious prospect of the future, when passing the Straits of Magellan, we have in truth the world before us.— Think of the Andes; the luxuriant forest of the Guayquil; the islands of the South Sea & new South Wale. How many magnificent & characteristic views, how many & curious tribes of men we shall see.—what fine opportunities for geology & for studying the infinite host of living beings: is not this a prospect to keep up the most flagging spirit?— If I was to throw it away; I dont think I should ever rest quiet in my grave; I certainly should be a ghost & haunt the Brit: Museum.” (Correspondence to Catherine Darwin, May 22-July 14)

Surely a sign of things to come!  In earlier letters Darwin still refers to his future life as a parson.  From the tone of this one, I think he has finally let that idea go.  He knows that he has found his calling.

I suppose his dad was right on one account when he made his list of why Darwin should not go on the Beagle voyage in the first place:

“That you should consider it as again changing my profession” (from a Correspondence to Robert Darwin, 31 August 1831)

Of course, that change turned out to be a very good thing indeed. (RJV)

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