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Darwin Correspondence Project

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Down House hothouse
Down House hothouse, engraving from Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1883
Q900:1.c.2.25
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1863: Quarrels at home, honours abroad

At the start of 1863, Charles Darwin was actively working on the manuscript of The variation of animals and plants under domestication, anticipating with excitement the construction of a hothouse to accommodate his increasingly varied botanical experiments, and continuing a massive scientific correspondence. Six months later the volume of his correspondence dropped markedly, reflecting a decline in his already weak health. Although Darwin worried about the effect of the quarrels on public perceptions, his theory was gathering support in influential scientific circles. He struggled with leaf angles, fractions, diagrams, and shoot dissections.

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Robert FitzRoy
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw115429/Robert-FitzRoy-Fitzroy-Fitz-Roy?
Robert FitzRoy (Fitzroy, Fitz-Roy) by London Stereoscopic & photographic Company albumen print on card mount, early-mid 1860s, NPG x128426
mw115429
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Darwin in letters, 1821-1836: Childhood to the Beagle voyage

Darwin's first known letters were written when he was twelve. They continue through school-days at Shrewsbury, two years as a medical student at Edinburgh University, the undergraduate years at Cambridge, and the of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Letters exchanged with family and friends give a vivid picture of the social life of the Shropshire gentry of the 1820s and 1830s. In the earliest letters Darwin was already keenly interested in natural history. During the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Darwin’s letters convey the excitement and enthusiasm of a keen and careful collector let loose in a new and challenging land. 

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Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley, Vanity Fair, Jan 28th 1871
Cambridge University Library

British Association meeting 1860

Several letters refer to events at the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Oxford, 26 June – 3 July 1860. Darwin had planned to attend the meeting but in the end was unable to. The most famous incident of the meeting was the verbal encounter between Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley in a discussion of Darwin's theories. This account of the meeting has been drawn from the Athenæum, which provided the most complete contemporary report and which Darwin himself read.

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Part of a letter from W. H. Miller to Darwin exploring the geometrical architecture of honey-combs
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-DAR-00048/187
Part of a letter from W. H. Miller to Darwin exploring the geometrical architecture of honey-combs
CUL DAR 48: B1bbr
Cambridge University Library

The writing of "Origin"

From a quiet rural existence at Down in Kent, filled with steady work on his ‘big book’ on the transmutation of species, Darwin was jolted into action in 1858 by the arrival of an unexpected letter (no longer extant) from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a remarkably similar mechanism for species change. This letter led to the first announcement of Darwin’s and Wallace’s respective theories of organic change at the Linnean Society of London in July 1858 and prompted the composition and publication, in November 1859, of Darwin’s major treatise On the origin of species by means of natural selection.

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The evolution of honeycomb

Darwin recognised that explaining the evolution of the honey-bee’s comb-building abilities was essential if his theory of natural selection was to be taken seriously, and in the 1850s he carried out his own experiments at his home at Down House in Kent, and wrote many letters on the subject.

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Visiting the Darwins

'As for Mr Darwin, he is entirely fascinating…'  In October 1868 Jane Gray and her husband 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.  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.

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Anne Elizabeth (Annie) Darwin
Anne Elizabeth (Annie) Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 165
Cambridge University Library

The death of Anne Elizabeth Darwin

Charles and Emma Darwin’s eldest daughter, Annie, died at the age of ten in 1851.   Emma was heavily pregnant with their fifth son, Horace, at the time and could not go with Charles when he took Annie to Malvern to consult the hydrotherapist, Dr Gully. Darwin wrote a memorial of his daughter just one week after her death. Annie's younger sister, Henrietta, recorded her own reactions in a poignant set of notes, which Emma Darwin kept.

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Darwin’s first note on marriage
Darwin’s first note on marriage
CUL DAR 210.8: 1
Cambridge University Library

Darwin on marriage

On 11 November 1838 Darwin wrote in his journal ‘The day of days!’. He had proposed to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and been accepted; they were married on 29 January 1839. Darwin appears to have written these two notes weighing up the pros and cons of marriage in the months immediately preceding his engagement.

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