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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin's 1874 letters go online


St. George Jackson Mivart
St. George Jackson Mivart, Photograph by Barraud & Jerrard, ICV No 27321
Wellcome Library, London

The full transcripts and footnotes of over 600 letters to and from Charles Darwin in 1874 are published online for the first time. You can read about Darwin's life in 1874 through his letters and see a full list of the letters.

The 1874 letters include several relating to the serious offence that the Catholic zoologist St George Jackson Mivart caused Darwin and his son George. In an anonymously published review, Mivart accused George of promoting views opposed to the institution of marriage and in favour of ‘unrestrained licentiousness’. After re-reading what George had written, Darwin wrote:

I cannot see a shadow of foundation for the false, scurrilous accusation of [a] lying scoundrel.—  (Letter to G. H. Darwin, 1 August [1874])

The Mivart affair highlights Darwin’s anxiety about the respectability of his views and the views of those associated with him, his reluctance to enter a public debate, the fierce loyalty of his friends, and contemporary codes of behaviour in scientific society. Find out more about how Darwin and his family and friends dealt with Mivart's accusations. 

Here are some other highlights from Darwin's correspondence in 1874:

I feel as old as Methusalem; but not much in mind except that I think one takes everything more quietly, as not signifying so much.  (Letter to W. D. Fox, 11 May [1874])

At the age of 65, Darwin had reflective moments, although his claim to take everything more quietly was severely tested by some of the events of 1874. He had a clear idea of the shape of his life’s work, and was aware that he was unlikely to finish it.

I shall never have strength & life to complete more of  the series of  books in relation to the Origin, of  which I have the M.S. half  completed; but I have started the subject & that must be enough for me  (Letter to W. D. Fox, 11 May [1874])

During the year he published second editions of Coral reefs and Descent, assisted with the first by his married daughter Henrietta Litchfield (‘a good dear girl to take so sweetly all the horrid bother of  correction’) and with the second by his son George, now a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. At the same time he was completing the experimental work for his new book Insectivorous plants, published in 1875. His work on the digestive processes of the plants brought him both despair and elation.

The negative work takes five times more time than the positive  (Letter to J. D. Hooker, 30 August [1874])

– he mourned after several weeks fruitless work on Utricularia (bladderwort). Yet he was overjoyed when he discovered true bladders containing captured prey on a specimen of Utricularia montana sent to him by Lady Dorothy Fanny Nevill:

I  have hardly ever enjoyed a day more in my life than this day’s work  (Letter to D. F. Nevill, 18 September [1874])

Darwin’s family continued to prosper. His son Horace began an apprenticeship at an engineering firm: ‘I am sure he will never voluntarily be idle’, wrote Darwin to the directors, fearing that Horace shared the Darwin family’s ill health and hoping to protect him from overwork. His son Leonard, an officer in the Royal Engineers, took part in the transit of Venus expedition to New Zealand, though the expedition was unsuccessful owing to clouds.  His son Francis, having given up his medical career, married Amy Ruck and came to live in Down village as Darwin’s secretary.

I declare I wonder that you are alive, considering the work which you have to do—  (Letter to J. D. Hooker, 30 November [1874])

Darwin’s continuing loyalty to his friends was shown when Hooker’s wife, Frances, died unexpectedly in November.  The Darwins had Hooker and his eldest daughter, Harriet, to stay at Down straight after the funeral. Realising how overworked Hooker was in his post as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Darwin used what influence he could to have an assistant appointed to him.

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