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Darwin Correspondence Project

Visiting the Darwins

As for Mr Darwin, he is entirely fascinating…  

Darwin often discouraged would-be visitors to his home at Down in Kent on the grounds of ill-health, but he was far from being antisocial.  In October 1868 Jane Gray and her husband Asa Gray, professor of botany at Harvard, spent several days as guests of the Darwins and Jane wrote a charming account of the visit in a sixteen-page letter to her sister, Susan Loring.  She described Charles and Emma Darwin, their daughter Henrietta, Down House  and its grounds, the daily routine of the household, and her own part in one of Darwin’s experiments.

A complete transcript of the letter is below; here are some highlights:

Charles Darwin

As for Mr. Darwin, he is entirely fascinating— He is tall & thin, though broad framed, & his face shows the marks of suffering & disease, for he has been a very great invalid, & still leads a life of rule & regulation— He never stayed long with us at a time, but as soon as he had talked much, said he must go & rest, especially if he had a good laugh— His hair is grey, & he has a full, grey beard cut square across the upper lip, but the sweetest smile, the sweetest voice, the merriest laugh! And so quick, so keen! He never hears a remark, it seemed to me, but he turns it over, he catches every expression that flits over a face & reads it, he is full of his great theories & sees the smallest things that bear upon them, & laughs more merrily than anyone at any flaw detected, or fun made— Full of warmest  feelings & quick sympathy, reads or has read to him novels of every kind, & yet carries on there profound investigations, with the most minute & patient experiments; & the number of topics he has taken up & studied & experimented on—

Since a severe attack of illness, Mr. Darwin sits on an easy chair raised very high, & generally a cassock in it, so he almost stands, to keep off giddiness & nausea— I shall always think of him on that throne, with his keen, quick, glance, his quick remark or observation, his fascinating laugh.

Down House and grounds

Tuesday I had a little walk with Mrs. Darwin round their grounds— The house faces, that is the drawing & dining-rooms, on a large lawn, a pretty shrubbery at one side, gravel walks, flower beds, nice trees with seats beneath them, & green fields bordered by trees stretching away— A most pleasant home view— We went down the shrubbery, through the kitchen garden, to a sheltered walk at the edge of a copse, where we walked up & down, rounded slopes swelling below us, across which we saw occasionally, groups passing, & heard the sportsmen’s guns—

The days passed off pretty regularly.  We assembled to breakfast at 8½ or 9 in the dining-room from thence we went into the drawing-room,— A large room, looking on the lawn, with three great windows, each composed of two panes of glass only, & down to the floor— A grand piano at one end, a book-case at the other, two writing-tables, sofas, little tables, étagères, small-book-cases, easy chairs of all shapes & kinds, from Mr. Darwin’s great throne, to “the latest instrument of torture” as Dr. Hooker called it, a  little, low, wicker chair that looked as if one were sitting on the floor, & yet which was almost always in use—

Sunday prayers at Down

Sunday morng. we all assembled at breakfast at 9— Each dropping in as Convenient— After breakfast there were prayers in the drawing-room, Mrs. Darwin leading the services— Then some took books, some went to walk spite of the rain, & at 11, some went to church— I was a little uncertain, & kept very quiet all day—

Darwin’s Expression experiment (or the perils of an invitation to dine)

One morng. Mr. Darwin brought in some photographs taken by a Frenchman, galvanizing certain muscles in an old man’s face, to see if we read aright the expression that putting such muscles in play should produce— It was curious the different meanings given— And it came out at dinner, that several of us had been trying to move certain muscles before the glass!—

The experiment was one in which Darwin asked a succession of visitors  to identify the emotions apparently being portrayed in a selection of photographs taken by the French physiologist Guillaume Benjamin Armand Duchenne of people whose facial muscles were being stimulated by electric probes.

Henrietta Darwin

The oldest daughter Henrietta is one of those people who grow most wonderfully on acquaintance. She looks so youthful & childish that I wondered at first, at her decided expressions & her independent opinions. But she is older that she looks, very highly educated & soundly informed, has been her father’s great assistant in a great deal of his work; knows & means what she says, & “is quick & bright,” Dr. Gray says, “as steel”— To hear her argue with Dr. Hooker, or answer her father’s reference, or lay herself out that Harriet should have a good time, restring rosaries into bracelet & necklace as if the arrangement were of serious import, contrive for her walks, & rides on the pony, it did one good— And yet she is a sharp critic, I venture to say, not easily pleased, & friends & intimates few— She had just returned from a journey in Switzerland with Miss Bonham Carter, travelling alone, no doubt to the surprise of many of their acquaintances; certainly to that of a Mallachian gentleman whom they met, & who did not restrain his rather severe expressions of wonder—


Complete text of the letter from Jane Gray to Susan Loring, 28 October – 2 November 1868:

Down

Oct.28th—’68—

Dear Sue,

I was in too much of a hurry on Saturday morng. to add to my letter thanks for the nice budget of letters which came, from yourself & Ernest, from Lizzie, from Aunt Sally Gray— I felt very rich though I did have to read them in a hurry, & thrust them in my pocket & had a nice time again with them, reading them over to Dr. Gray when we were before the fire in our chamber at night.

We took the train at 3.30, meeting Dr. & Mrs. Hooker with Millie & Harriet at the Station; in London we took Cabs across to the Victoria Station, there meeting Mr. Tyndal, & took the cars again for Bromley, where we again took Cabs for Down, where Mr. Darwin lives— It was so dark by the time we were fairly off that one could not see the Country, & we did not reach the Darwin’s until about 6 o’clock— At home I should have said after such a journey, give me a cup of tea & let me go to bed— But such is not English fashion as you shall hear— We reached the door, Dr Gray, Dr Hooker & myself in the first Cab, & whilst waiting for the second to draw up, Mr. Darwin came out into the hall to receive us, followed by Mrs. Darwin, & we were ushered in to the large drawing-room, where were the two daughters, one about 26, the other about 19 or 20, & the son who is at Woolwich, studying for the Artillery— We all sat down, & a little talk & then tea followed, & then were shewn to our rooms, dinner at 7½, & Miss Norton was expected— I had to steal a few minutes rest, at the expense of my dressing, & barely got down at the right time— I could not make up my mind to put on lace waist & then sleeves, tired & cold, & so donned the black silk, with lace ruche & sleeves, cape & big bow, & best cap— I don’t believe now I shall get on the puffed waist, for I have not worn it since, it seemed so Cold to put on in the Evg., & I plead invalid, & wear the high neck & long sleeves,—of course, white gloves, & Dr. Gray in full Evg. dress— We barely got down at 7½, & the first person I saw was Jane Norton, & how cordial her greeting was, & how pleasant to see such a nice home face! We made quite a party for dinner—Mr. & Mrs. Darwin, she in black velvet, two daughters, one in white gauze over wh. silk trimmed with pink ruches, bare arms but the new Cape,—the other in white bare>ge with bright colours, Jane Norton was in black silk, with high neck & long sleeves—Miss Bonham Carter, in black trimmed with white, half-mourning, full evg. dress, Mrs. Hooker in muslin waist, & shirt of pink & white silk striped, Dr. Hooker, Mr. Tyndal, Wm. Hooker, a boy of 16 but looking only 14, Leonard Darwin— I can’t get used to being grand lady & taken out first, & expected to lead the way—

The dinner was very sociable & pleasant, butler & four footmen, but the only livery big buttons of white metal— The butler, a nice old man, who has lived with them many years— Everything is thorough comfort, no show or grandeur— The dining room a fine large room, large bow with large windows at one end— It was a very sociable, pleasant dinner with lively talk— When the ladies retired, Mrs. Darwin’s sister, Miss Wedgewood, & niece, Mrs. Kempson, appeared. Miss W. lives close by— I had some talk with Jane Norton, who told us her brother Charles was improving, though he has been quite ill with a severe attack of inflamation & severe pain, beginning with influenza— They have taken a little rectory two miles from the Darwins, & are enjoying the quiet of English Country life as far as their numerous acquaintances, flocking to them from all parts of the Country, will allow— Later I got talking with Mrs. Darwin & Mrs. Kempson, & happened to say that I was reading ten stories in magazines, in which I was suddenly broken off on coming to England! Unfortunate remark! For such a reputation as I have got for novel-reading! I am celebrated as the lady of “ten novels in her head at once”— You see I counted over once at sea, for fun, the stories I had going on in all the different magazines, some almost finished, some just begun, & unhapply me! left with them all loose on my mind—

Nov. 1st—

Sunday morng. we all assembled at breakfast at 9— Each dropping in as Convenient— After breakfast there were prayers in the drawing-room, Mrs. Darwin leading the services— Then some took books, some went to walk spite of the rain, & at 11, some went to church— I was a little uncertain, & kept very quiet all day— In the course of the morng., as I sat in the drawing-room with my book, one dropped in & then another, & such charming talks now & then— It was a rare chance when Mr. Darwin, Dr. Hooker, Dr. Tyndal & Dr. Gray all got into a lively discussion,—one that does not often come in one’s way— Mrs. Darwin’s brother came to breakfast, Mr. Wedgewood, whose wife was in Boston & Cambridge a few years ago, & he was generally with us most of the day, at breakfast, dinner & lunch, though staying at Miss Wedgewood’s— A very agreable, pleasant man, of most cordial, simple manners— They were all very charming people, so unaffected & kind, so sincere & well-bred, so highly cultivated & intelligent,—such quick interest in so many things. As for Mr. Darwin, he is entirely fascinating— He is tall & thin, though broad framed, & his face shows the marks of suffering & disease, for he has been a very great invalid, & still leads a life of rule & regulation— He never stayed long with us at a time, but as soon as he had talked much, said he must go & rest, especially if he had a good laugh— His hair is grey, & he has a full, grey beard cut square across the upper lip, but the sweetest smile, the sweetest voice, the merriest laugh! And so quick, so keen! He never hears a remark, it seemed to me, but he turns it over, he catches every expression that flits over a face & reads it, he is full of his great theories & sees the smallest things that bear upon them, & laughs more merrily than anyone at any flaw detected, or fun made— Full of warmest  feelings & quick sympathy, reads or has read to him novels of every kind, & yet carries on there profound investigations, with the most minute & patient experiments; & the number of topics he has taken up & studied & experimented on— He saluted me merrily Sunday morng. as the lady who “had ten novels unfinished in her head!” “Good gracious! What a state your brain must be in!” And we had regular challenges to find something the other had not read, & I triumphed in recommending “My Lady Ludlow”—

Mrs. Darwin is very lovable, with her sweet, placid manner & gentle, sweet voice & looking the comely placid matron, happy herself & the source of happiness to others— Just the right wife, with her quiet character, her sound mind, her broad sympathies— She made me think in looks & manner of Aunt Marianne & Aunt Sally Gray— She took the most motherly care of me, sending me to bed early, seeing I went to lie down in the day, to have a short drive, or quiet walk with her—

The oldest daughter Henrietta is one of those people who grow most wonderfully on acquaintance. She looks so youthful & childish that I wondered at first, at her decided expressions & her independent opinions. But she is older that she looks, very highly educated & soundly informed, has been her father’s great assistant in a great deal of his work; knows & means what she says, & “is quick & bright,” Dr. Gray says, “as steel”— To hear her argue with Dr. Hooker, or answer her father’s reference, or lay herself out that Harriet should have a good time, restring rosaries into bracelet & necklace as if the arrangement were of serious import, contrive for her walks, & rides on the pony, it did one good— And yet she is a sharp critic, I venture to say, not easily pleased, & friends & intimates few— She had just returned from a journey in Switzerland with Miss Bonham Carter, travelling alone, no doubt to the surprise of many of their acquaintances; certainly to that of a Mallachian gentleman whom they met, & who did not restrain his rather severe expressions of wonder—

Lizzie, the youngest daughter, is a nice, sweet, quiet, intelligent girl— But only a young girl as yet— Neither of the daughters are at all as handsome as the mother— The son is a pleasant young fellow of 20— There are four other sons; three older, (two at Cambridge) one younger—

Our chamber was a large, pleasant room, & most of the day a nice fire burning, so I could have a quiet place to rest whenever I wanted— Always at Evg. & when one went to bed, cheerful with its bright blaze—

Sir John & Lady Lubbock, who live near, came to dinner— She is quite pretty, & was becomingly dressed in pink, uncut velvet, & a little coquettish cap with pink roses— And to my eyes, very handsome jewelry— I can’t but notice how much handsome jewelry the ladies wear— I take refuge in wearing just as little as I can get on with—

Nov. 2nd

Mr. Tyndal left Sunday Aft., & Dr. Hooker Monday morng. went back to Kew, & Dr. Gray to London to pass the day at the British museum. He came back to dinner, & Miss Wedgewood & Mrs. Kempson came to dine— In the afternoon Mrs. Darwin took me in the carriage to call on the Nortons— We saw old Mrs. Norton, who looks very well, & Grace & Jane— Charles was still improving, but wish wife did not like to leave him— The house looked small & care, but they said it had chambers eno. to accommodate their large family; & that the rector, a bachelor, of course did not need or appreciate what a family of 12 wanted— But they seem very fond of the place, & especially enjoy being close to Holywood Park, which gives them, Mrs. Norton said, most delightful walks.

Tuesday I had a little walk with Mrs. Darwin round their grounds— The house faces, that is the drawing & dining-rooms, on a large lawn, a pretty shrubbery at one side, gravel walks, flower beds, nice trees with seats beneath them, & green fields bordered by trees stretching away— A most pleasant home view— We went down the shrubbery, through the kitchen garden, to a sheltered walk at the edge of a copse, where we walked up & down, rounded slopes swelling below us, across which we saw occasionally, groups passing, & heard the sportsmen’s guns— Dr. Hooker arrived to dinner, & in the afternoon as Miss Wheeler to make a visit— A nice, comely, pleasant, large, English-looking girl—

The days passed off pretty regularly.  We assembled to breakfast at 8½ or 9 in the dining-room from thence we went into the drawing-room,— A large room, looking on the lawn, with three great windows, each composed of two panes of glass only, & down to the floor— A grand piano at one end, a book-case at the other, two writing-tables, sofas, little tables, étagères, small-book-cases, easy chairs of all shapes & kinds, from Mr. Darwin’s great throne, to “the latest instrument of torture” as Dr. Hooker called it, a  little, low, wicker chair that looked as if one were sitting on the floor, & yet which was almost always in use— Since a severe attack of illness, Mr. Darwin sits on an easy chair raised very high, & generally a cassock in it, so he almost stands, to keep off giddiness & nausea— I shall always think of him on that throne, with his keen, quick, glance, his quick remark or observation, his fascinating laugh. The fire-place was opposite the window & the sun shone cheerfully in all day— People sewed, or wrote, or scattered to do as they pleased, or read, or chatted. Generally the walkers started for a long tramp at about 11 or ½ past, to get back to lunch at 1½—Mrs. Hooker was a great walker— Lunch was the servants dinner hour, so there was generally a hot joint, loin of mutton, rib of beef, piece of pork, cold meat & small hot dishes, potatoes, puddings or tarts, often yesterday’s rearranged, & something more, bread & cheese & butter for those who liked— The footmen waited at the first, & then left us at the end generally, to help each other & ourselves; the butler never appeared at lunch or breakfast— The two young footmen then— Mr. Darwin came to lunch, but always breakfasted before us, tho’ he came in then with some merry remark to us all— And he left the dinner-table when dessert was put on— After lunch we sometimes walked, sometimes drove, some read or practiced; one aft. almost all walked 4 miles to Knockold beeches— The carriage met them, & bro’t the ladies home—

At 4½ or 5 all were generally gathered in the drawing room again, the footmen came & moved forward the little stand, then bro’t in the waiters with tea— Everybody as a cup, & this afternoon tea is a nice thing when one dines so late— There is thin bread & butter or little biscuits (crackers) for those who like— As it grows dark, in comes the footman with a tray with 4 great silver candlesticks, tall & heavy, the candles are lighted, we work & chat until gradually we drop off to dress for dinner, which is either at 7 or 7½ as may be—

Wednesday Grace Norton & Mrs. Charles Norton came to dine, & Miss Bohham Carter again— The butler appears at dinner; & one of the four footmen, I learned, was Miss Wedgewood’s, & one the coachman— Unless quite by ourselves, all the carving was done at the side table; & on the table was only, ever, some large piece, saddle of mutton, say, which Mr. Darwin carved— Every thing was handed, & with so many servants all came promptly— But I think more than ever, that lunch is really the hearty dinner; though one eats less at each meal than with us, but has two dinners a day— I must say the frequent eating & lightly, seemed to suit my digestion wonderfully, & I really have gained a little flesh—

There was always plenty of talk at dinner, & often much worth hearing— After the ladies retired, we presently had coffee handed in the drawing-room, & later came tea again for those who cared for it— The gentlemen generally came before long, & Mr. Darwin came in for a little while— If visitors were gone, Mrs. Darwin generally saw that I went up stairs about ten o’clock—

Sometimes we had some music— Mrs. Darwin plays well; & Mrs. Hooker plays & sings— One morng. Mr. Darwin brought in some photographs taken by a Frenchman, galvanizing certain muscles in an old man’s face, to see if we read aright the expression that putting such muscles in play should produce— It was curious the different meanings given— And it came out at dinner, that several of us had been trying to move certain muscles before the glass!—

Thursday morng. Mrs. Darwin took me in the carriage for a short drive in Holywood Park, the seat of the late Lord Cranworth; the beeches were lovely & golden & flaming in their autumn dress, the hollies so brilliant, with polished green & quantities of red berries, it is odd that red & green can be so much brighter in English holly than in ours, & the hawthorns loaded down & down with fruit— The unusually hot summer has ripened almost all fruits exceptionally— We got out to walk over an old Roman encampment, & Dr. Gray & Lizzie Darwin & Miss Wheeler,—who had come with us, walked home— There were only the home party for dinner— Dr. Hooker had returned in the morng—

Friday morng. I went with Dr. Gray to call on Miss Wedgewood, who has recently bought a quaint old house, modernized, closed by & is making over garden, & doing all sorts of things— She is an elderly maiden lady, but full of life & interest, & a very agreable companion— Then we went to see the old yew in the church yard, a huge shattered old trunk hundreds of years old, I suppose; & on our way back down a pretty green lane, to see some old oak boles, almost as big as California trees in diameter, but only shells— Mr. Darwin came cantering across the field as we came in, on his daily morning ride—

Then came lunch & a good bye to our most delightful visit & these dear, charming people—”I will never forgive you,” said Mr. Darwin, “if you don’t come & see us again before you go back to America!”—

Dr. Gray & Mr. Hooker, Mr. Wedgewood accompanying, with Harriet on the pony for a farewell ride, set off earlier, Mrs. Hooker & I went in their carriage—

We took the train at Orpington, Dr. Gray & I to stop at New Cross to go to Blackheath, Mrs. Hooker going in to London— At New Cross we took a cab for Mr. Carey’s, & got there about 4, & were very kindly received by Miss Simon,—and most warmly & cordially by Mr. Carey, when he came from London about dusk. He has a dear little girl about 14, who looked so like Anna that Dr. Gray & I both enjoyed looking at her— Mr. Carey enquired after you all very warmly, & was glad to hear of each one— We showed off the Yo Semite stereoscopes in the Evg. which I had also displayed at Down—

Mr. Carey lives with his father-in-law, his wife’s sister having taken his children & brought them up— She is a sweet, gentle person most kind & attentive, & it was pleasant to see Mr. C. so little changed, & really with so much to make him comfortable & happy— After breakfast Saturday they took us into the little Garden behind the house, very prettily arranged, & an uncommonly nice rock-work crowded with the rarest as well as commonest ferns— Then I wrote, while Dr. Gray & Mr. C went for a walk in Greenwich Park, just across the heath, close to the house— Dr. Gray came back determined I should not lose the view, so he got a little pony carriage standing for hire at the Park Gates, & came over for me— Then I walked to the edge of the terrace, through the avenue of old chestnuts famous since Queen Elizabeth’s time, & looked down on the naval school, on Greenwich Hospital, on the town stretching beyond the Park, the Thames muddy in the distance, & London hazy beyond— It was a fine view— We observed the outside of the Observatory, set our watches by Greenwich time, looked at the standard bronze Yrd., foot, inch, &c. set in the wall, & walked back & took a drive, again back— After lunch we went to see Annette’s collection of shells, a beautiful set & scientifically arranged; & the boy a nice, bright, intelligent looking little fellow of 12, came in. He is at school close by, & his Aunt went for him that we might see him—

Then the Cab came to take us to the Station— We took tickets to Blackfriars, cab to Waterloo, & so back to Kew, getting here about 5¼—

We found a note from Mrs. Hooker including a note to her from Lady Rogers, saying a friend of theirs, Mr. Church, was coming to them to see something of Dr. & Mrs. Gray, Americans staying at Kew— She takes it for granted we are the Hooker’s guests, & asks us all to dine on Monday at 7½. Later in the Evg. came a note from Mr. Church to the same effect— We deliberated, & decided it would be too much for me to drive 7 miles to London & back in the Evg. to dinner, so Dr. Gray accepted & I declined.— A note from Lady Lyell followed us to Down, asking us to come & lunch there some day, when we should be in London—

Yesterday, Sunday, Dr. Gray was threatened with cold again, so we neither of us went to church, but read one of Mr. Church’s sermons— I took the chance to be quiet, for engagements thicken, & our time in England grows short—

This morng. came your letter, dear Sue, & accounts of a snow-storm! What a year ’68 will be!— Winter, spring, summer, autumn each exceptional, & in its way disagreable & horrid!—

I was disappointed to hear nothing from Charles & his plans; the more, that the Prince & Princess of Whales, we hear, are going to Egypt, & it seems very desirable to me, that we should be in advance of them!— As for Sauquoit people they are decidedly shabby— Not a line for two months!—

Mr. Church came down to lunch with us, to see the Gardens— He brought me a beautiful photo of Magdalen Tower at Oxford. It was so pleasant to see him again! We rather laid ourselves out for lunch, \Cambridge Sausages\, & Richmond “maids of honor”— The last a sort of cheese-cake,—the first an uncommonly delicate & nice sausage—

Dr. Gray took a long round in the afternoon with Mr. Church, I had a short turn at noon, & Mr. C. went back to London at 5½— Dr. Gray went with Dr. & Mrs. Hooker in a brougham at 6½— I dont expect him back until towards midnight—

Tomorrow we plan to go to Clapham & pass the night with the Wards— Thursday I have proposed to Mrs. Dabney to meet me at the British Museum— Dr. Gray dines in town that day with Mr. Bentham, & goes to the Linnaæn Society in the Evg.— Mr. Carey, his sister & daughter are to come over on Saturday— I have appointed next Monday to call on the Lyells; & mean to try & persuade Dr. Gray to run down for a day or so to Cambridge, if he will— He has had a very cordial invitation from Mr. Babington,—extended to me—

I did not say how well & how pretty Mrs. Charles Norton looked, nor how becomingly & elegantly she was dressed— Nor how charmed the Darwins are with them, & like them all so very much— The Nortons expect to go November 15th. to France, to be near St. Cloud, where they have taken a house for six months—

You can judge I must have improved in looks, for Mr. Carey complimented me much, saying he could not have believed sixteen years would have dealt so kindly with me— He thought me less changed than Dr. Gray!—

I have lots of little sewings to keep me busy; & if you don’t all say I write nice long letters, I shall being to quote something disagreable about “pearls”— The reading time does not come— There are so many papers!—

Much love to all, | from the ever affc. Jane—

 

About this article

Jane Gray’s letter to Susan Loring, 28 October – 2 November 1868, describing her visit to Down, is in the Archives of the Gray Herbarium (Box G AG-B10: 8) and images and a transcript of the text are reproduced here by permission.

We are particularly grateful to Judy Warmement and Lisa DeCesare at the Gray Herbarium for their help in accessing the material and acquiring the images.

See also

Darwin's emotion experiment

On Jane Gray’s life, see the web pages of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard

Jane Gray’s surviving correspondence, is in the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University