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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1872: Job done?


'That troubles our monkey again' caricature of Charles Darwin
That troubles our monkey again' caricature of Charles Darwin from Fun, 16 November 1872
CUL DAR 140.4: 7
Cambridge University Library

‘My career’, Darwin wrote towards the end of 1872, ‘is so nearly closed. . .  What little more I can do, shall be chiefly new work’ (letter to Francis Galton, 8 November [1872]), and the tenor of his correspondence throughout the year is one of wistful reminiscence, coupled with a keen eye to the crafting of his legacy.  Bracketed by the publication in February of the sixth edition of  On the origin of species, intended to be Darwin’s last, and of Expression of the emotions in man and animals in November, the year marked the culmination of a programme of publication that can be traced back to his never-completed `big book’, Natural selection, begun in 1856.  Coming hard on the heels of The descent of man and selection in relation to sex, published in 1871, these books brought a strong if deceptive sense of a job now done: Darwin intended, he declared to Alfred Russel Wallace, to see whether he could now occupy himself without writing anything more on 'so difficult a subject, as evolution’ (letter to A. R. Wallace,  27 July [1872]).

By the end of the year Darwin was immersed in two of the studies that would characterise his final decade: the powers of movement and digestion in plants, and the role of earthworms in shaping the environment.  The former led to a series of books and papers, and the latter formed the subject of Darwin’s last book, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, published in the year before his death.  Despite Darwin’s declared intention to take up new work, both represent returns to lines of enquiry begun many years before.

In his private life also, Darwin was in a nostalgic frame of mind, picking up the threads with schoolfriends, old friends from student days, andBeagle shipmates. As the year went on, he exchanged reminiscences, and laments about advancing age and poor health, with family friends from childhood, some of whom he had not been in touch with for many years.

The last word on Origin

The year opened with Darwin, helped by his eldest son William, going over the final proofs for the sixth edition of Origin, which he had been revising since June the previous year.  He intended the edition to be a popular one that would bring his most persuasive statement of his theories to as wide an audience as possible.  ‘I am extremely anxious to spread my views’, he wrote to his publisher, John Murray, on 30 January, shortly after correcting the proofs, and Darwin’s concern for the consolidation of his legacy is palpable throughout the year.  He negotiated hard over the selling price, anxious that the volume should be affordable: ‘do you not think 6s is too dear for a cheap Edit? Would not 5s be better? . . . The public are accustomed to novels for 1s’, he wrote to Murray on 8 January, but Murray complained that the extensive changes made between the fifth and sixth editions were costly to incorporate, and despite Darwin’s best efforts, set the final price at 7s. 6d. (letter from R. F. Cooke, 12 February 1872).

Always closely involved in every stage of publication of his books, Darwin was keen to ensure that this edition was widely disseminated not only at home but around the world.  The state of the French translations of both Descent and Origin  was a particular frustration: `I naturally desire that my work should circulate in France in as perfect a condition as I can make it’, he wrote to the translator (letter to J. J. Moulinié, 23 September 1872). He recapped the history of the French editions of Origin  and expressed his concern that the most recent, the third, was both unreliable and sadly out of date, not even incorporating all the corrections made to the fourth English edition let alone the fifth.  Printing of the proofs of Moulinié’s translation of the fifth English edition had been interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, and was now halted so that the further changes made for the sixth edition could be incorporated into the partially complete translation. This complex operation, combined with Moulinié’s increasingly poor health, led to yet further delay, and the new translation remained unpublished at the end of the year (letter from C.-F. Reinwald, 23 November 1872).

To persuade his US publisher, Appleton’s, to bring out the new edition in the United States, Darwin arranged with Murray to have it stereotyped. Before the type was broken up, casts were made from which further printings, including the American one, could be much more cheaply produced than if the volume had to be reset.  The investment in stereotype reinforced Darwin’s intention to make no further changes to the text: `I have had it stereotyped, so that I cannot, thank God, answer any more criticisms’, he wrote to the comparative anatomist St George Jackson Mivart (letter to St G. J. Mivart,  11 January [1872]).

A worsening breach

The criticisms against which Darwin had taken the greatest trouble to defend himself in the sixth edition were those made by Mivart himself. In a new chapter on ‘miscellaneous objections to the theory of natural selection’, Darwin refuted point by point assertions published by Mivart at the beginning of the previous year in his book Genesis of species; for instance that the theory could not account for the incipient stages of such useful features as the long neck of the giraffe, protective mimicry, or the mouth parts of the baleen whale. Alfred Russel Wallace was one of several correspondents to congratulate him on the persuasiveness of his arguments: ‘I think your answer to Mivart, on initial stages of modification, ample & complete; & the comparison of Whale & duck most beautiful’ (letter from A. R. Wallace, 3 March 1872).

I consider that you have greatly misrepresented my views

Although Mivart was among those who wrote in January to wish Darwin a happy new year, before the month was out a brief but intense exchange of letters saw relations between them irretrievably break down. Mivart’s book had been followed by a highly critical and anonymously published review of Descent. Darwin’s supporters had rallied to his defence, and along with his good wishes Mivart enclosed a copy of an article replying to Thomas Henry Huxley’s scathing review of Genesis of species, and promised to send another that had been written in response to a disparaging paper by the American mathematician and philosopher Chauncey Wright. The republication of Wright’s paper had been arranged by Darwin himself (see Correspondence vol. 19, p. xxiv). By the beginning of the year both men believed not only that they had been misunderstood but that their personal integrity had been impugned: ‘I consider that you have greatly misrepresented my views & conclusions; & I hope I am not quite so bigotted a person as I am made to appear’, complained Darwin (letter to St G. J. Mivart, 5 January 1872). Piqued, Mivart flung back by return of post that he would willingly acknowledge himself at fault if only Darwin would renounce `fundamental intellectual errors’ (letter from St G. J. Mivart, 6 January 1872).

Darwin likened the affair to the disintegration of his relationship with the palaeontologist Richard Owen: ‘your several articles’, he wrote, ‘have mortified me more than those of any other man, excepting Prof. Owen; & for the same reasons, as I was silly enough to think he felt friendly towards me’ (letter to St G. J. Mivart, 8 January [1872]).  Despite Darwin’s request that he drop the correspondence, Mivart wrote again, still hoping for reconciliation, if only `in another world’ (letter from St G. J. Mivart,  10 January 1872).  Darwin, determined to have the last word in correspondence as well as in print, excused his own reply on the disingenuous grounds that it would have been ungracious in him not to thank Mivart for his letter.  He promised to send a copy of the new edition of Origin  but asked Mivart not to acknowledge it (letter to St G. J. Mivart, 11 January [1872]). 'I hate controversy,’ Darwin wrote later in the year, possibly with this episode partly in mind, `chiefly perhaps because I do it badly’ (letter to A. R. Wallace, 3 August [1872]). 

Darwin's theories under siege

The whole exchange had taken just one week, but the continuing influence of Mivart’s criticisms, in particular on the debate over the role of natural and sexual selection in human evolution, continued to trouble Darwin.  ‘At present natural selection is somewhat under a cloud’, he wrote to J. E. Taylor on 13 January, and he complained to the German zoologist Anton Dohrn on 3 February that Mivart’s book had 'produced a great effect in England’.  Dohrn, who was setting up the Zoological Station in Naples, and others sent him reassurances about the level of support for his theories abroad and Darwin, directing operations from the safe retreat of Down House, received these bulletins from the front as eagerly as any general. ‘Your theory is steadily gaining ground among the masses and thinking people of this country’, wrote Mary Treat from the United States; it was even being discussed from the pulpit: ‘Nothing brings out a crowd on Sunday’, she exclaimed, 'like the announcement that Darwinism is to be the theme. Surely the world moves!’ (letter from Mary Treat, 13 December 1872). 

'Here is a bee'

Darwin discussed the reception of his theory of sexual selection, about which he felt particular anxiety, with another German zoologist, August Weismann, and was delighted to find that Weismann accepted it at least in part (letter to August Weismann, 5 April 1872). ‘I wanted some encouragement’, he wrote to Hermann Müller in early May, ‘as extremely few naturalists in England seem inclined to believe it’ (letter to Herman Müller, [before 5 May 1872]). 

Müller had sent him a paper that delighted him by applying the theories of natural and sexual selection to bees (H. Müller 1872), and with his reply Darwin enclosed an account of research he had undertaken several years before, when his children were small, to track the flight paths of bees: ‘I repeatedly stationed five or six of my children, each close to a buzzing place, he wrote, ‘and told the one farthest away to shout as soon a bee buzzed there: “here is a bee”, and so on with the other children one after another, the words “here is a bee” were passed on from child to child without interruption, until the bees reached the buzzing place where I myself was standing’ (letter to Hermann Müller, [before 5 May 1872]).

Finishing Expression

By the time Origin was published in February, Darwin was in London, making the first of several long trips away from home during the year which were supposed to be recuperative, but which he found a mixed blessing: ‘I hope my Brain likes it,’ Darwin wrote about one of these holidays; ‘as for myself it is dreadful doing nothing’ (letter to T. H. Huxley, 22 October [1872]). He was far from idle during their five-week stay.  In addition to visiting colleagues such as the geologist David Forbes and receiving a visit from the traveller, anthropologist, and outspoken supporter of Darwinism, William Winwood Reade, Darwin was revising his manuscript on the expression of emotion, begun almost exactly one year before and resumed immediately he completed work on the proofs of Origin.

Aware that the illustrations for Expression would be important not only in supporting his argument but also in attracting interest in the book, Darwin had spent time and energy the previous year finding photographers, selecting plates, and researching photographic processes.  Returning to Down at the end of March, he now devoted several weeks to the hunt for artists who could adequately capture animal expressions for reproduction as woodcuts. 

Letters exchanged with one artist, Briton Riviere, about drawings of a hostile dog, show Darwin’s attention to detail: `the hairs on the neck and shoulders (and not on loins) ought to stand closer (a serried mass) and to be more erect’ (letter to Briton Riviere, 19 May [1872]).  Riviere had been suggested to Darwin by a family friend, Eleanor Bonham-Carter, and Darwin’s social network also led to an introduction to the other artist who undertook drawings of dogs, Arthur Dampier May.  May was the teenage protégé of the artist and writer Samuel Butler, son of an old Shrewsbury schoolfellow of Darwin’s, and grandson of Darwin’s former headmaster at Shrewsbury school.  Butler, whose later championship of Mivart and increasingly personal attacks on Darwin became notorious, had written on 11 May expressing concern that his recently, and anonymously, published book, Erewhon, might offend Darwin with its satirical approach to natural selection.  But Darwin was intrigued and amused rather than offended by `that clever book’ (letter to J. M. Herbert, 21 November 1872) and invited Butler to dinner the following week together with the sculptor Thomas Woolner.  The difficulty of getting suitable illustrations for Expression was evidently discussed, and Butler, at this stage a willing contributor to Darwin’s cause, wrote offering Arthur May’s drawings shortly afterwards (letter from Samuel Butler to Francis Darwin, [before 30 May 1872], and letter from Samuel Butler, 30 May 1872).

It was not just the illustrations for Expression that were causing Darwin concern; he was still uncertain about some aspects of the argument. 'I fear a man is most apt to fall into error’, he wrote to the ophthalmologist Frans Cornelis Donders, 'exactly where, from his ignorance, he feels no doubts’ (letter to F. C. Donders, 17 June 1872). Right up to the beginning of June, when he sent the manuscript to the printers, Darwin was still checking facts with expert correspondents, in particular Donders and the ophthalmic surgeon William Bowman, both of whom he consulted on the physiology of the eye.  His daughter Henrietta was reviewing the manuscript, and together they wrestled with the incorporation of material such as that on the origins of music provided by her husband, Richard Buckley Litchfield (letter to H. E. Litchfield, 13 May 1872). Delivery to the press brought only temporary respite; Darwin warned Donders to expect more queries once the proofs were back, and on Henrietta’s advice, made substantial changes including the excision of an entire section on the philosophy of language.  It had been hard work: 'I hope I have not killed you,’ he wrote to Henrietta; 'I know that I am half-killed myself’ (letter to H. E. Litchfield, 25 July 1872).

A battle for the independence of science

In the brief lull between sending off the manuscript of Expression in early June and receiving the proof-sheets, Darwin and his family went to stay with his eldest son, William, in Southampton, but his peace was interrupted when a long-simmering dispute involving his close friend Joseph Dalton Hooker came to a head.  Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, had been engaged in an increasingly bitter stand-off with Acton Smee Ayrton, first commissioner of works, about the limits of Ayrton’s authority in the day-to-day running of the gardens.  A series of skirmishes over the power to appoint gardeners and the installation of a new heating system in the glasshouses had escalated to the point where Hooker applied over Ayrton’s head direct to the Liberal prime minster, William Gladstone. 

May all your enemies be cursed, is my pious frame of mind

Hooker’s cause was taken up by his friends, in particular John Lubbock and John Tyndall, as one battle in the wider struggle to establish the independence of science from bureaucratic interference. Hooker had kept Darwin well informed: `The die is cast’, he wrote excitedly on 11 May, when the matter was first raised in Parliament. `Good God how I do hope that they will in the House of Lords pitch into that accursed fellow’ was Darwin’s wholeheartedly partisan reply (letter to J. D. Hooker, 14 May 1872). On 13 June, a messenger arrived in Southampton in great haste with a petition for Darwin to sign.  Organised by Tyndall, this `succinct statement of the case’, which ran to eight pages of small type, was delivered to Gladstone a week later (enclosure to letter from John Lubbock to W. E. Gladstone, 20 June 1872).  Darwin was quietly using his influence behind the scenes, taking advantage of his friendship with Lady Derby to relay his views on the dispute to her husband, the leader of the Tory party in the Lords. `May all your enemies be cursed, is my pious frame of mind,’ he wrote to Hooker on 14 June.  Lubbock called for discussion in the House of Commons on 21 July, and Derby addressed the Lords on 29 July. Although ultimately the affair ended in stalemate, press and public opinion came out on Hooker’s side and Darwin was jubilant, declaring that it was `enough to make one turn into an old honest Tory’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 12 July [1872]).

Darwin and Wallace: diverging views

Indignation on behalf of another friend, although in a rather more self-serving context, led Darwin to a second rare public intervention in August.  Alfred Russel Wallace had been attacked in print for his pro-Darwin review of Charles Robert Bree’s  An exposition of the fallacies in the hypothesis of Mr. Darwin, and Darwin wrote a cutting letter to Nature in Wallace’s defence (letter to Nature , 3 August [1872]). 

Although the two men were and remained close friends, differences of opinion between Darwin and Wallace on the relative importance of natural and sexual selection, and in particular on their role in human evolution, continued to widen.  Wallace’s favourable review of the physiologist Henry Charlton Bastian’s recent book on the origin of life (H. C. Bastian 1872; Wallace 1872d) left him sceptical but willing to be convinced. 'How grand is the onward rush of Science,’ he wrote, while still defending his own theory of inheritance against Bastian; 'it is enough to console us for the many errors which we have committed & for our efforts being overlaid & forgotten in the mass of new facts & new views which are daily turning up’ (letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 August [1872]). 

Other correspondents were not so accommodating: Anton Dohrn, who had written to report on progress in the establishment of the Naples Zoological Station, was scathing in his assessment of Wallace’s position (letter from Anton Dohrn,  21 August 1872).  Dohrn requested for the new library copies of Darwin’s books, which Darwin gladly agreed to donate (letter to Anton Dohrn, 24 August [1872]).

Exerting influence

Dohrn was by no means the only correspondent to seek Darwin’s help or advice during the year.  In addition to encouraging Chauncey Wright to publish on Mivart’s views, Darwin was a sounding board for Wright’s papers on the application of mathematical formulae to a study of phyllotaxy, at the complexity of which he poked gentle fun: 'I have not been able to understand all the mathematical reasoning;’ he wrote, 'for irrational angles produce a corresponding effect on my mind’ (letter to Chauncey Wright, 6 April 1872). 

A competing theory on the origins of leaf arrangement was the subject of several long letters from Hubert Airy, who also sought Darwin’s advice, and Darwin met both men in person for the first time when they visited, separately, during the year.  Darwin used his correspondence with Airy to support his son Leonard’s application to join the transit of Venus expedition, asking Airy to relay a message to the organiser, Airy’s own father, Sir George (letter to Hubert Airy, 24 August 1872).

In January, Darwin wrote to Mary Treat, encouraging her in the strongest possible terms to publish her work on the effects of nutrition on the sex of butterflies: 'Your observations & experiments’, he told her, 'are by far the best, as far as known to me, which have ever been made’ (letter to Mary Treat, 5 January 1872).

In June, Lady Derby sought Darwin’s help in securing an invitation for her son, Lord Sackville Cecil, to attend a séance (letter from M. C. Stanley, 4 June 1872). There was increasing curiosity in the press and polite society about the claims of spiritualists, and Darwin, through his cousin Francis Galton, had with some interest been following the career of William Crookes, an investigator of psychic phenomena. Darwin maintained an open mind: `It is rather dreadful to think what we may have to believe’, he wrote to Galton on 29 March.  Galton described a séance in great detail in a letter of 19 April, and passed on an invitation to Darwin which he, however, declined on the grounds of ill health.

Expression: innovation and translation

Concerns about the progress of Expression through the press were never far away. Although the engravings had at last been satisfactorily commissioned and executed, by August Darwin had become embroiled in a three-way correspondence over both translation rights and the photographic plates with his overseas publishers, and with John Murray’s assistant, the excitable Robert Cooke.  Darwin, as with Origin, was anxious to encourage foreign editions by keeping down the costs.  `Is not each country to pay something for the privilege  . . . ?’ queried Cooke despairingly, `or have you agreed to let them have it for love!!!’ (letter from R. F. Cooke, 1 August 1872).

It had been decided that the plates would be produced using the new process of heliotyping, a method for mass-producing photographs using printing plates, and sufficient numbers had to be printed not only for the English edition but also to supply the foreign editions. The plates for Expression were one of the first large orders fulfilled by the recently established London Heliotype Company, and miscommunication about the price and the difficulty of estimating the numbers required led to increasingly frantic letters from Cooke: 'We are in a precious quondary with these Heliotype Plates for yr new work,’ he wrote, having learned that production was threatened by a strike; 'We have supplied all the foreign markets & have not taken care of ourselves’ (letter from R. F. Cooke, 20 November 1872).

A best-seller

By early November, the competition to secure the translation rights, and the keen interest of the booksellers, encouraged an originally cautious John Murray to gamble on the book’s success: 'The modest way in wch you introduced to me your new work on Expression a little misled me as to its probable reception,’ he wrote the day after the trade sale, 'I had not made allowance for the immense popularity of its author’. It had, he said, become one of the most attractive dishes in his `Literary Banquet’ (letters from John Murray, 6 November [1872] and 9 November 1872).  Demand seemed likely to outstrip supply; the initial print run of 5000 was increased to 7000, but although the printers had the text ready, on the eve of publication they were still short by 3000 sets of plates, leading Cooke to suggest that they might need police protection in the face of a disappointed public (letter from R. F. Cooke, 25 November 1872). Among those who tried in vain to find a copy for sale was Frances Power Cobbe, who wrote to thank Darwin for sending her one; she and her companion, Mary Lloyd, were vying to read it first (letter from F. P. Cobbe, [26 November 1872]).

`Your last work is very much like our Gas, nearly exhausted’, Cooke wrote only two weeks later from a London plunged into temporary darkness by an industrial strike (letter from R. F. Cooke, 6 December 1872).  Caught out by the sudden decision for an immediate printing of a further 2000 copies, Darwin had little time to make corrections. 

The book inspired a large volume of correspondence, with many readers offering anecdotes and observations: a doctor recounted the unconscious contraction of his own muscles when attending women in labour (letter from J. T. Rothrock, 25 November 1872); others described the way their hands blushed (letter from M. I. Snow, 29 [November 1872 or later]), or gave examples of the power of voluntary vomiting (letter from James Dickson, 14 December 1872).  An Oxford academic and amateur photographer, who the previous year had published a sequel to his moderately successful children’s book, Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, wrote offering a photograph (see Correspondence vol. 20, plate p. 562); Darwin thanked Lewis Carroll, and accepted the gift, although he doubted he would ever use it (letter to C. L. Dodgson, 10 December 1872).

Darwin continued to amass evidence both for and against his conclusions in Expression. He resumed his correspondence with Donders and Bowman on the contraction of orbicular muscles in those born blind, and filed away other letters, but Murray’s confidence proved misplaced; demand for the book rapidly declined and so much stock remained on hand that there was no call for another edition during Darwin’s lifetime. Some of the information from correspondence in this and subsequent years was, however, incorporated in the second edition, produced by Francis Darwin after his father’s death.

Returning to worms

The year was not entirely devoted to manuscripts and proofs: 'I have taken up an old subject which formerly interested me,’ Darwin wrote to Asa Gray at the beginning of the year; 'namely the amount of earth brought to the surface by worms’ (letter to Asa Gray, 15 January 1872). Gray was asked to find correspondents in Canada who might be able to supply comparative observations, and Darwin’s protégé John Scott, now employed as a curator in the Botanic Garden in Calcutta, sent an intriguing packet that proved to contain wormcasts from India. Darwin’s niece Lucy Wedgwood, who had started her observations the previous year, was now asked to try `with straight blunt knitting needle’ (letter to L. C. Wedgwood, 5 January [1872]) to establish the angle of the holes, something Darwin admitted was not easy; he himself found stooping over wormholes made his head spin. 

There was a new name on the list of volunteers: by the beginning of May, Francis Darwin, the Darwins’ third son, had become engaged to Amy Ruck, the sister of an old schoolfriend; he married Amy in 1874.  Francis, still a medical student in London, was unable to follow the example of his sister Henrietta, who had married within weeks of her engagement the previous year, and unlike Henrietta’s engagement, this one went almost unremarked in Darwin’s correspondence. Amy’s induction into the family firm was however tacitly recognised by her recruitment into Darwin’s army of observers in the field: by February she was already his `geologist in chief for N. Wales’ (letter to Amy Ruck, 24 February [1872]).

Plants that move and eat

`Now, pray don’t run off on some other track till you have worked out and published about Drosera & Dionæa’, Gray had replied on hearing of the resumption of the worm work (letter from Asa Gray, 2 February 1872).  Darwin might have to delegate the investigation of wormholes to others, but experimenting on the mechanisms that allowed sensitive or insectivorous plants to move was something he needed no encouragement to do himself. 

On 23 August, the day after he finished going over the proofs of Expression, Darwin was back at work on Drosera, resuming a series of experiments begun the previous summer. The essential oils of cloves and caraway, opium, salts of ammonia, chloroform, and other chemicals, ordered from Darwin’s usual chemist, William Baxter, were not in this case for his health, but to test their effects when applied to the leaves of insectivorous plants.  Darwin also described pricking the leaf at certain points to induce paralysis, 'just like dividing the spinal marrow of a Frog’, and wrote teasingly to Gray about the 'nervous system(!?)’ of Drosera (letter to Asa Gray, 22 October 1872). By early November, despite an enforced three-week holiday in early October, when excessive use of the microscope led his head to `fail’ (letter to W. D. Fox, 29 October [1872]) he had begun writing up his results.

A society for 'pleasant letters'

`All letters are fatigue to me’, Darwin complained in December (letter from Paolo Mantegazza, 23 December 1872, CD note), and he exclaimed to Thomas Huxley that he would like a society formed, `so that everyone might receive pleasant letters & never answer them’ (letter to T. H. Huxley, 22 October [1872]). But not all letters were unwelcome, and correspondence allowed Darwin to nurture many friendships, old and new, throughout the year.

`Dear Mr Darwin, I have nothing to do, so I am going to write to you’, declared one of Darwin’s younger correspondents, Huxley’s seven-year-old son, Henry (letter from Henry Huxley, 17 and 20 January 1872), and an exchange later in the year when the Huxleys moved house demonstrates how close the two families had become.  Darwin sent a handsome house-warming present of £100 enclosed in a letter to Henrietta Huxley. He would, he argued, be entitled to give his friends a wedding present, and so, as moving house was `nearly as serious & dangerous an affair as marriage’ the gift was justified; he defied even Henrietta’s husband to pick a hole in his logic (letter to H. A. Huxley, 16 October [1872]).  Deeply touched, the Huxleys accepted in a letter that rivals Darwin’s own in wit and warmth, and Thomas Huxley proudly signed himself, `One of the family’ (letter from H. A. Huxley and T. H. Huxley, 17 October 1872).

The publication of Expression afforded Darwin a particularly welcome excuse to rekindle old connections. He recognised that it had broader appeal than his previous works, and his list of presentation copies includes far more names of friends and family members than usual. One such old friend was Sarah Haliburton, née Owen, to whose sister, Fanny, Darwin had been romantically attached as a young man. 'Although I have had no communication with you or the other members of your family for so long a time,’ he wrote, 'no scenes in my whole life pass so frequently or so vividly before my mind, as those which relate to happy old days spent at Woodhouse’ (letter to S. H. Haliburton,  1 November [1872]).

Haliburton, who still had one of his letters from the Beagle voyage, reminded him of a time when the height of his ambition was to secure a favourable mention in a scientific journal: `I think that ambition has been attained, & something more‘ she observed (letter from S. H. Haliburton, 3 November [1872]). They reminisced about his passion for hunting beetles, memories of which were also invoked in correspondence with his cousin and fellow beetle-enthusiast from student days, William Darwin Fox.  The two had not met for nearly ten years, but `old days with you were so vividly recalled by hearing about Panagæus!’ Darwin wrote (letter to W. D. Fox,  16 July [1872]). 

I feel as old as Methuselah

Darwin sent a copy of Expression to another old Cambridge friend, John Maurice Herbert, who when they were students had given him a microscope: `I can hardly call to mind any event in my life which surprised & gratified me more’ (letter to J. M. Herbert, 21 November 1872).  Fox and Herbert were applied to for news of other friends from Cambridge days, and Darwin sought out old schoolfriends such as the ornithologist Thomas Campbell Eyton. Admiral Sulivan sent word of their Beagle shipmates, complaining that a recent photograph of the former midshipman Philip Gidley King made him feel his age. 'I’, responded Darwin, 'feel as old as Methuselah’ (letter to B. J. Sulivan, 24 January 1872), a sentiment he repeated to several correspondents. 

His own health was slightly better than in the previous year, but he continually worried about his children; two of his sons spent some time on the continent for the sake of their health (see letter to W. D. Fox, 16 July [1872] and n. 3), and when Fox asked Darwin if he was a grandfather, he replied, `Henrietta has no child, & I hope never may; for she is extremely delicate’ (letter to W. D. Fox, 16 July [1872]). By December, Darwin and his brother Erasmus were conferring over their wills, and he poured out such a litany of ill health to one correspondent that Emma protested: `My wife commands me to say, & I can say with perfect truth that this letter gives a false impression if it implies that I am not a happy man’ (letter to J. M. Herbert, 21 November 1872).

The year brought a number of accolades from Darwin’s scientific colleagues, including the offer of the rectorship of the University of Aberdeen, which Darwin gracefully declined on the habitual grounds of ill health (letter from J. S. Craig, 4 November 1872, and letter to J. S. Craig, 7 November 1872). But recognition was far from unwelcome: expressing his gratitude at his election to foreign membership of the Royal Academy of Science of the Netherlands, Darwin declared the 'sympathy of his fellow workers’ to be 'far the highest reward to which any scientific man can look’ (letter to F. C. Donders, 29 April [1872]).


About this article

Based on the introduction to The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20: 1872

Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Janet Browne, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Francis Neary, Alison M. Pearn, Anne Secord, Paul White. (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Order this volume online from Cambridge University Press