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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray and Jane Loring Gray   8 and 9 May 1869


May 8, 1869.

My Dear Darwin

We have just learned with great sorrow, that you have met with a painful accident and have been suffering much. I hope the suffering is over before this, and that the injury is not serious, not one to leave any enduring effects.1 Of the particulars I know nothing. We heard of it thru. one of our young ladies who called on the Misses Horner, yesterday.2 I hope to see them soon, to learn more   Pray take good care of yourself. We have much need of you yet.

We have been great travellers since you have heard from us, went up Nile to 2nd Cataract—had a pleasant winter, an agreeable time generally, got fond of our life and surroundings, so completely extra-European, specially fond of Arabs, &c, and the remains of old Egypt were profoundly interesting.3 I cannot say that Mrs. Gray is much the stronger for it,—at least since a nasty voyage from Alexandria to Messina, which prostrated her much;—but she has been able to see and enjoy Naples and part of its surroundings, Rome, Assizi, & Perugia fairly well, and we are now three days in Florence. We are going to Venice, the Lakes, and to Vienna, where we hope to pass the early part of June, & to meet some travelling friends there. I wonder if Hooker may be of the number. I write to St. Petersburgh to enquire.4

I doubt if one could make sure of having direct news of you before we reach Vienna,—where, if we could find a line from Mrs. Darwin, telling us that you are all right again we should be very happy.

Mrs. Gray is inclined to write a line, so I will leave half the sheet, on the chance of her finding time to fill it. Hoping to see you in England near the close of summer.

I remain, Ever Yours | A. Gray

May 9. 1869—

My dear Mr. Darwin,

We are so grieved to hear of your accident! To one who has always to suffer so much, it seems hard to have any new cause added— We can only hope it will not aggravate old symptoms, & that we may soon hear that you are better—

I enclose the few notes I made for you on the Nile— I am afraid you will think us very stupid people not to have done more. But it is surprising when one’s attention is drawn to it, how little we see what makes the different expressions in faces—5 We are satisfied with what we think the expression is— Then not understanding the language was greatly in our way, for the Arabs are great & excited talkers, & roll out consonants & their rs in a most emphatic way, & what seemed a quarrel or fierce discussion, turned out only an animated account of adventures— But they are a charming people! So docile & gentle, so courteous & dignified, such born gentlemen— Though our crew lo⁠⟨⁠ok⁠⟩⁠ed very odd to us at first as sailors, in their long blue gowns & white turbans, one soon came to know each face, to admire such limbs as rarely greet European eyes.— It seemed as if I had never seen walking & running before!— And the men keep up such perpetual ablutions as part of their religion, they never seemed like common sailors in coming in contact with them, & it was pleasant to have their willing help on all occasions. They are very much like children, pouting when vexed, & smirking like any conscious girl when they knew their beauty was admired; & some are so handsome!— Two of our crew were Ababdeh, a tribe of the desert towards the Red Sea— They were much darker than the Cairines & river natives, & quite different in feature, but the most gentle of them all, & such sweet smiles showing such white teeth!—6 As for blacks, the negroes from the interior were blacker than anything I ever saw before— A deep, lustreless, solid black.— But our crew burned & grew dark as whites do on our voyage— We thought when we first came back to white skins, how ugly they were! This lovely, golden bronze is so beautiful—

I thought you would have been interested in seeing an old picture here of Fra Angelicos of the deposition from the cross— The Madonna has the distress muscles very carefully painted. The other women only the up & down wrinkles—7

Pray give my love to Mrs. Darwin & your daughters.8 And heartily hoping you are relieved, | believe me very sincerely & cordially | Yours, | Jane L Gray


In Alexandria I saw the Arab commissionaire or dragoman of an old Gentleman, who seemed a German use exactly the gesture of No 13, when the gentelman would go in a direction different from that which he pointed to—9

Passing slowly a common country cargo boat, the old man on board stood looking at us, with brow wrinkled & mouth compressed & upper lip raised— An expression, as I read it, of dislike & contempt— Almost hatred—

A black towing a country trading-boat, when there came some obstruction in passing us, had the distress muscles, (the forehead transversely wrinkled in the middle,) very strongly marked, as he stood on the bank watching us—10

I should say yes, certainly, to No 6— after watching a good deal—11

(17) We all decided that the head was never “shaken laterally in negation” & that they did not understand what it meant— Nodding in affirmation was rare, it was more often a sign of approval or greeting.—12

(2) One Eg. the rais (Reis i.e. Captain) of the small boat, in bringing up his boat nearly ran it into the large one, the men chaffed him a good deal, & my brother said he blushed quite to the back of his neck.13 He was a man full of gestures & very emphatic— When he wished to say he had nothing to do with a thing, that he washed his hands of it, he would hold both hands each side of his head, opened out flat—

One of the little village girls who carried our water-jar on excursions, a girl about 11 or 12, had one day some remark made to her by a young man of another party who passed us, evidently something which displeased her— She drew herself up, raised her head, compressed her lips dropping the corners, & fell back by one of the gentlemen of our party— Her expression was of great contempt— And the whole action very dignified—

(16) I heard the hiss to keep quiet, but as often from our dragoman & whites as from the natives—

Sunday, May 9,

Dear Darwin,

I saw Miss Horner14 to-day, and she told me of a letter just received from Mrs. Darwin, which announced that, under Dr. Paget’s care, you were all right again, and already resuming your rides.15 Very glad we are.

This sheet is one upon which Mrs. G. had noted a few mem. on expression16—of no great account,—but showing that we often thought of you in Egypt.


CD annotations

an old picture … painted.] scored ink
1.00 No 13] ‘shrugging shoulders’ interl after ink
3.1 A black … matching us— 3.00] scored ink
4.1 No 6—] ‘good spirits’ added below ink
1.1 I saw … Egypt.2.00] crossed ink
Top of enclosure: ‘Prof. & Mrs Asa Gray. Egypt May 8— 1869’ ink; ‘25 | Egypt’ red crayon
End of enclosure: ‘Mrs G. says in old Picture of Fra Angelicos of the deposition from the cross, the Madonna has the distress muscles very carefully painted’ ink


Sorry to hear of CD’s accident.

Recounts his travels.

Jane Gray writes a description of the Arabs.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray; Jane Loring Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 165: 167—8
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6736,” accessed on 20 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17