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Darwin Correspondence Project

From A. J. Munby   9 December 1872

[Mr. A. J. Munby has given in a letter (Dec. 9, 1872) a graphic description of terror:—1 “It was at Tabley Old Hall, in Cheshire, a mediæval house, unoccupied except by a housekeeper who lives in the kitchens, but fully furnished with its ancient furniture, and preserved in statu quo by the family, as a memorial and museum.2 On one side of the great hall of the house is a noble oriel window, full of shields of arms: a balcony, overlooking the hall, runs round the other three sides, and into this balcony the doors of the first floor chambers open. I was in one of these chambers, an antique bedroom. I stood in the middle of the floor, with the window of the room behind me, and in front of me the open doorway, through which I was looking at the sunlight tinting the oriel window across the hall. Being in mourning, I wore a dark suit—shooting coat, knickerbockers, and leggings; and had on a black Louis XI. wideawake, the very shape of hat which Mephistopheles wears at the opera.3 The window behind me of course made my whole figure seem black to a spectator in front, and I was standing perfectly still, being absorbed in watching the sunlight on the oriel. Steps came shuffling along the balcony, and an old woman (she was, I believe, the housekeeper’s sister) appeared crossing the doorway. Surprised at seeing the door open, she stopped and looked towards the room, and in looking round, she of course saw me, standing as I have described. In an instant, with a sort of galvanic jerk,4 she faced me, bringing her whole figure round so that it stood parallel to mine; immediately afterwards, as if she had now realized all my horrors, she rose to her full height (she was stooping before), and stood literally on the tips of her toes, and at the same moment she threw out both her arms, placing the upper-arm nearly at right angles to her body, and the forearm at right angles to the upper-arm, so that the forearms were vertical. Her hands, with the palms towards me, were spread wide, the thumbs and every finger stiff and standing apart. Her head was slightly thrown back, her eyes dilated and rounded, and her mouth wide open. She had a cap on, and I am not sure whether there was any visible erection of her hair.5 In opening her mouth she uttered a wild and piercing scream, which continued during the time (perhaps two or three seconds) that she stood on her toes, and long after that; for the moment she recovered herself somewhat, she turned and fled, still screaming. She had taken me either for the devil or for a ghost, I forget which. All these details of her conduct were impressed on me, as you may suppose, most vividly, for I never saw anything so strange, of the kind, before or since. For myself, I stood gazing at her, and rooted to the spot: the reaction from my previous mood of quiet contemplation was so sudden, and her appearance so strange, that I half fancied her a thing ‘uncanny,’ being in a house so old and lonesome, and I felt my own eyes dilating and mouth opening, though I did not utter a sound until she had fled; and then I realized the oddity of the situation and ran after her to reassure her.”]


The text of the letter is quoted in a note added to the second edition of Expression, edited by Francis Darwin and published after CD’s death; the note refers to CD’s description of the eyes and mouth being widely opened in expressions of fear and terror (Expression, p. 290; Expression 2d ed., pp. 306–7 n. 21).
Tabley Old Hall, built on an island in Nether Tabley Mere, Cheshire, dated from the late fourteenth century. It was abandoned as the main residence of the Leicester family when a new house was constructed on the Tabley estate between 1761 and 1769. See Emery 1996–2006, 1: 580–2.
A wideawake hat has a low crown and a wide upturned brim. Louis XI, king of France from 1461, was renowned for wearing an old hat and dressing poorly (see Mosher 1925, pp. 179–80). His character had been made familiar to the English-speaking world by Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward (1823), in which the king was compared to Mephistopheles from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (Mosher 1925, pp. 226–7). In 1859, Charles Gounod had composed an opera based on Goethe’s play; the opera was first performed in London in 1863 (see Northcott 1918, pp. 14, 18).
Galvanism was medical treatment by electric currents.
CD had discussed cases of apparent bristling of the hair under the influence of terror in Expression pp. 295–8.


Emery, Anthony. 1996–2006. Greater medieval houses of England and Wales: 1300–1500. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Expression 2d ed.: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. Edited by Francis Darwin. London: John Murray. 1890.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Mosher, Orville W. Jr. 1925. Louis XI King of France as he appears in history and in literature (his character and his private life). Toulouse: Édouard Privat.

Northcott, Richard. 1918. Gounod’s operas in London. London: Press Printers.


Gives a graphic description of a woman being terrified by mistaking him for a ghost in an old house.

Letter details

Letter no.
Arthur Joseph Munby
Charles Robert Darwin
Source of text
Expression 2d ed., pp. 306–7 n. 21
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8667F,” accessed on 17 November 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20