To celebrate Valentine’s Day we were very pleased to be asked to join in BBC Radio 3′s The Verb, to talk about how Darwin signed off his letters (no kisses). You can hear two of Darwin’s letters to his wife, Emma, on the programme. After giving her an update on his health, he ends the first letter: “My own dear wife, I cannot possibly say how beyo[u]nd all value your sympathy & affection is to me”, signing off as “Your poor old Husband” (he was 38). In the second, a graphic description of his boils and a discussion of gardening are interspersed with deeply touching declarations of his love, and it ends “My dearest, I kiss you from my heart”.
Eloquent writing was something Darwin learned young, and was a skill that stood him in good stead. The letters sent back to family and friends during his five-year voyage with HMS Beagle are alive with affection and longing: he regularly sends his love to his father and sisters, and ends a letter to one of his student friends “God bless you … may you always be happy & prosperous is my most cordial wish”.
If you’ve listened to the programme, the other letters mentioned are:
- A letter to his Cambridge University professor, Adam Sedgwick, with a particularly deferential valediction.
- A letter to his close neighbour and friend, John Lubbock, written after a disagreement between the two and ending rather frostily, “My dear Sir John, Yours sincerely, Charles Darwin”. Lubbock was one of the small inner circle to whom Darwin sometimes used the intimate and informal “Adios!”, a sign-off he’d picked up during his time in South America, so a bald “yours sincerely” was particularly pointed. (Coming in vol. 23 of The Correspondence.)
- The letter cutting all communication with St George Jackson Mivart with the coldly polite and formal ending “Your obedient servant”. (Coming in vol. 23 of The Correspondence.)
But if you browse through Darwin’s letters you will find those last two are unusual. It was his deft manipulation of language in correspondence with so many different people, most of whom he never met, that enabled Darwin to build up such a large network of collaborators, and without them he could never have achieved the things he did. Darwin’s style was generally warm and engaging, and his most common way of ending letters to family and his many friends is “Yours affectionately” (or “Yrs affly” for short).
Yrs affly, and a happy Valentine’s Day,
The Verb airs on BBC Three at 10:00pm Friday 14 February 2014