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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1880: Sensitivity and worms


Desmodium gyrans: day and night. Original drawings by G. H. Darwin for Charles Darwin’s Movement in plants, p. 358, fig. 149.
Desmodium gyrans: day and night. Original drawings by G. H. Darwin for Charles Darwin’s Movement in plants, p. 358, fig. 149.
DAR 209.10: 24–5.
By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

‘My heart & soul care for worms & nothing else in this world,’ Darwin wrote to his old Shrewsbury friend Henry Johnson on 14 November 1880. Darwin became fully devoted to earthworms in the spring of the year, just after finishing the manuscript of Movement in plants, his most ambitious botanical book. Both projects explored the complexities of movement, forms of sensitivity, and the ability of organisms to adapt to varying conditions. The implications of Darwin’s work for the boundary between animals and plants, especially the origins of the nervous system, were picked up by some of his readers who had trained in zoology. New studies of animal instincts by George John Romanes drew upon Darwin’s early observations of infants, family pets, and zoo animals begun in the late 1830s. Other correspondents raised questions touching on the distinction between human races, the foundations of the moral sense, and the harmony of evolution and creation. Many letters flowed between Darwin and his children, as he took delight in their accomplishments, and they continued to assist him in his experiments and observations. Financial support for science was a recurring issue, as Darwin tried to secure a Civil List pension for Alfred Russel Wallace, and continued his aid for James Torbitt and the quest for a blight-resistant potato. The year opened and closed with an irksome controversy with Samuel Butler, prompted by the publication of Erasmus Darwin the previous year.

Controversy and Erasmus Darwin

Darwin’s most recent book, Erasmus Darwin, had been published in November 1879. It was received well by his relations, many of whom had provided manuscripts and memories of his grandfather passed down over several generations. He continued to receive letters about Erasmus’s life and other bits of family history. On 1 January, a distant cousin, Charles Harrison Tindal, sent a cache of letters from two of Darwin’s grandfather’s clerical friends, full of lively discussions on the philosophy of Berkeley and Rousseau, the politics of the East India Company, and elements of pig anatomy. ‘The extract about the eagerness of the two learned divines to see a pig’s body opened is very amusing’, Darwin replied, ‘& that about my grandfather’s character is of much value to me’ (letter to C. H. Tindal, 5 January 1880). Darwin had employed a genealogist, Joseph Lemuel Chester, to investigate a little-known uncle of Erasmus with extensive landholdings in Lincolnshire. Chester found much pleasure and inspiration burrowing away in archives and registry offices, and produced a twenty-page history of the Darwin family reaching back to the seventeenth century: ‘Sometimes a single fact in the life of one person has been the turning point of events that have influenced the whole Kingdom, & even the world’ (letter from J. L. Chester, 3 March 1880). Darwin’s sons George and Leonard also continued to research the family, and George was obliged to meet some of the distant relations and conciliate a few whose ancestors had not featured in Darwin’s Life. ‘In an endeavour to explain away yr. treatment of [William Alvey Darwin],’ George wrote on 28 May 1880, ‘I … said you were anxious not to overburden the book with family details. … I seem to have got rather in to the thick of all these cousins & think I must pay a round of visits.’ One cousin, Reginald Darwin, warmed to George: ‘he had been alarmed at a Wrangler, and expected a tall thin man in spectacles, and was delighted to find an ordinary mortal who could laugh’ (letter from W. E. Darwin to Charles and Emma Darwin, 22 July 1880).

Sales of Erasmus Darwin were moderate and reviews generally positive, but the reception of the book was soon coloured by controversy. The work had been co-authored with Ernst Krause, whose essay on Erasmus’s scientific work complemented Darwin’s biographical piece. Krause’s essay was based on an article he had written for the German journal Kosmos in February 1879, an issue produced in honour of Darwin’s birthday. Krause enlarged and revised the essay for the book, partly in order to address a publication by Samuel Butler, Evolution old and new, which had appeared in May 1879. Krause wanted to correct Butler’s ‘immeasurably superficial and inaccurate piece of work’, although Darwin advised him not to ‘expend much powder & shot’ (Correspondence vol. 27, letter from Ernst Krause, 7 June 1879, and letter to Ernst Krause, 9 June [1879]). The final text of the Krause’s essay did not mention Butler’s book directly, but it did allude to it unfavourably in the last sentence. When Butler read Erasmus Darwin, he noted the reference to his work, and seized upon an inconsistency in the preface, where Darwin stated that Krause’s piece had been written in 1879 (before Evolution old and new was published). Butler wrote to Darwin on 2 January 1880 for an explanation: ‘Among the passages introduced are the last six pages of the English article, which seem to condemn by anticipation the position I have taken as regards Dr Erasmus Darwin in my book Evolution old & New, and which I believe I was the first to take.’ Darwin tried to resolve the matter in private, explaining that such revision was ‘common practice’, and offering an apology: ‘it never occurred to me to state that the article had been modified; but now I much regret that I did not do so’ (letter to Samuel Butler, 3 January 1880). At the top of Butler’s letter, Emma Darwin wrote: ‘it means war we think’. William agreed: ‘there was something of the viper in the tone of the letter, I fancy he wants a grievance to hang an article upon’ (letter from W. E. Darwin, [28 January 1880]).

Butler had once been an enthusiastic supporter of Darwin, but he had grown critical of natural selection and the apparent lack of purpose that such a theory implied. He found inspiration in earlier developmental theories, and in some of Darwin’s harsh critics, especially St George Mivart. Butler was unsatisfied with Darwin’s reply, and ‘decided on laying the matter before the public’ (letter from Samuel Butler, 21 January 1880). He stated his case in the Athenæum, a leading literary weekly. He accused Darwin of purposely misleading his readers, and implied that the whole book had been written as an attack on himself. Darwin was extremely vexed by the accusations and uncertain about what to do. He drafted two versions of a letter to the Athenæum, sending one or both to his daughter Henrietta (letter to H. E. Litchfield, 1 February [1880]). ‘The world will only know … that you & Butler had a controversy in which he will have the last word’, she warned (letter from H. E. Litchfield, [1 February 1880]). ‘He is a virulent Salamander of a man who will fight to the end’, added her husband Richard (letter from R. B. Litchfield, 1 February 1880). Even the great controversialist Thomas Huxley recommended silence: ‘take no notice whatever … I am astounded at Butler—who I thought was a gentleman … Has Mivart bitten him & given him Darwinophobia? It is a horrid disease’ (letter from T. H. Huxley, 3 February 1880).

All went quiet until November, when a new book by Butler appeared (Unconscious memory) mentioning the affair at several points. The charge of wilful deceit was repeated, and fresh accusations were brought against Krause for quoting passages of Buffon and Coleridge from Butler’s text without acknowledgment. Krause wanted to mount a defence, squashing the ‘mosquito inflated to an elephant’ (letter from Ernst Krause, 9 December 1880). Again, Darwin felt compelled to reply, and family members rallied round, debating the best course of action. The affair highlighted some of the difficulties Darwin faced in engaging a critic outside the medium of correspondence or scientific publishing, a critic whom he clearly regarded as non-scientific. Seeking engagement with Darwin and failing to obtain it, Butler was outraged at his exclusion from scientific debate. The matter spilled over into January 1881. With Henrietta’s aid, the advice of a leading journalist was sought. Leslie Stephen’s reply on 12 January [1881] echoed that of Huxley: ‘take no further notice of Mr Butler whatever.’

Power of movement

With Francis’s assistance, the last of Darwin’s botanical works was completed in the spring. Father and son had been experimenting steadily for over two years and finally concluded their observations in the early months of the year. Among the final objects of study was root-growth in Megarrhiza californica (a synonym of Marah fabacea, California manroot). Darwin had raised the plant from seeds sent by Asa Gray in December 1879. His observations differed, however, from the description of germination in the genus given by Gray in an article and textbook (A. Gray 1877 and A. Gray 1879, pp. 20–1). ‘I think you cannot have watched the whole process,’ he told Gray on 19 January; ‘Some [seeds] were placed by me on, and others half an inch beneath the surface, and others deeper—, but none of the cotyledons were lifted up. … The sole use of this wonderful manner of growth which occurs to me is to hide the enlarged root, at least at first, beneath 2½ inches of soil as a protection against enemies.’ ‘Your letter … made me open my eyes’, Gray replied on 3 February, but he affirmed his original description. Darwin was puzzled: ‘If my letter opened your eyes, yours has opened mine much wider. … It is very strange that plants, if they belong to the same species, should behave so differently.’ (Letter to Asa Gray, 17 February 1880.) But Gray had based his description of Megarrhiza on specimens grown in pots. On receiving Darwin’s letters, he requested more seeds and information on the germination of the plant in its native habitat. He forwarded a letter from a botanist and schoolteacher in California, Volney Rattan, whose description agreed with Darwin’s (letter from Asa Gray, 4 April 1880).

Having finished the manuscript, Darwin was puzzled about what to call it. He first suggested ‘The Circumnutating Movements of Plants’, writing to his publisher’s business partner Robert Cooke on 23 April, ‘My family shake their heads in the same dismal manner as you & Mr. Murray did, when I told them my proposed title’. He finally settled on ‘Power of Movement in Plants’, but was doubtful of the book’s popularity and so proposed publishing at his own expense. The costs were considerable because of the large number of woodcuts and diagrams. When Cooke calculated the expense against prospective sales, he complained: ‘Where is the profit for Author or publisher?’ (letter from R. F. Cooke, 20 July 1880). ‘I must take the risk & loss on my own shoulders’, Darwin replied: ‘As I have made some money by science, I must now lose some for science’ (letter to R. F. Cooke, 21 July 1880). The worries were ill founded, however, for the book sold out quickly, and 500 more copies had to be printed at the end of November.

‘It always pleases me to exalt Plants in the organic scale’, Darwin wrote to Alphonse de Candolle on 28 May 1880. Readers trained in zoology realised the implications of the work for the plant–animal boundary, the origins of the nervous system, and the nature of ‘sensitivity’. Francis Balfour described Movement in plants as ‘a complete revelation— The remarkable nervous system without nerves, for I do not know what else to call it … must have a most important bearing on speculations as to the origin of the nervous system in animals— One is almost led to wonder why a nervous system has become developed, when it is possible for so perfect an arrangement can exist without any corresponding structural differentiations’ (letter from F. M. Balfour, [22 November 1880]). George Romanes, who had worked on the nerves of marine animals, suggested on 10 December that Darwin try experiments with bursts of light similar to those Romanes had performed on hydromedusa: ‘How about the period of latent stimulation in these non-nervous and yet irritable tissues? And especially with reference to luminous stimulation it would be most interesting to ascertain whether the tissues are affected by brief flashes of light.’

After a favourable review appeared in The Times, Darwin was congratulated by an old Shropshire friend, Sarah Haliburton. She was one of the daughters of William Mostyn Owen, the squire of Woodhouse, where Darwin had gone hunting in his youth. ‘Yesterday I read ... “Of all our living Men of Science, none have laboured longer, or to more splendid purpose than Mr Darwin”, & it recalled to my mind, your boyish assertion made many many years ago, that “if ever Eddowe’s Newspaper alluded to you, as “our deserving Fellow Townsman”, your ambition would have been amply gratified”‘ (21 November [1880]). ‘I had quite forgotten my old ambition about the Shrewsbury newspaper’, Darwin replied on 22 November, ‘but I remember the pride which I felt when I saw in a book about beetles the impressive words “captured by C. Darwin”. … This seemed to me glory enough for any man!’ Renewed contact with Sarah put him in mind to call on her sister, Fanny, with whom he had been on romantic terms before the Beagle voyage and her marriage to the politician Robert Biddulph. But the meeting seems to have been forestalled: ‘I had hoped to call & see whether Mrs. Biddulph would admit me, & had got her address, but a Russian naturalist came to luncheon & dinned me half to death & then an American naturalist, & I was half dead. … In former years I was, also, rarely fit to see anybody’ (letter to S. H. Haliburton, 13 December 1880).

Instinct and worms

After finishing the manuscript of Movement in plants, Darwin began writing what would be his final book, Earthworms. ‘My essay will be barely scientific’, he pretended, ‘but the subject has amused me’ (letter to W. C. McIntosh, 18 June 1880). Members of the family were enlisted to study worm burrows on agricultural land and the intake of stones and flints to aid digestion. He asked Francis to check for castings on old furrows in Wales, and wrote to William on 18 June, ‘I very much wish to examine under the microscope more of such particles of brick, tile, slate or any other artificial object, which could hardly have been worn except in the worm’s gizzard.’ While on honeymoon with his new wife, Ida, in the Alps, Horace spotted worms at high elevations, though he was more interested in new modes of transport: ‘We tramwayed to the bottom of the hill & walked up & trammed back. Then we saw a steam tram—imagine my excitement’ (letter from Horace Darwin to Emma Darwin, [18 September 1880]). Darwin’s Wedgwood nieces, Sophy and Lucy, were asked to recall observations made years ago on Leith Hill common: ‘If Lucy is with you, I know that she would readily look from her well-known affection for worms— I am also becoming deeply attached to worms.— Can Lucy remember what sort of lantern she used when she looked at the worms. We find that the light frightens them’ (letter to Sophy Wedgwood, 8 October [1880]).

The role of instinctive behaviour, which featured largely in Darwin’s study of worms, was a growing field of investigation. On reading Souvenirs entomologiques by Jean-Henri Fabre, Darwin suggested a further line of research on the homing ability of insects. The experiment involved placing ants in a circular box that could be rotated on an axle so as to confuse their sense of direction. ‘I formerly wished to try it with pigeons’, he told Fabre on 31 January; ‘If this plan failed, I had intended placing the pigeons within an induction coil, so as to disturb any magnetic or dia-magnetic sensibility which it seems just possible that they may possess.’ Fabre described an analogous practice performed in Belgium on cats: ‘it is customary to turn a cat round in a bag if one wants to take it elsewhere, and thus one looks to prevent its return’ (letter from J.-H. Fabre, 18 February 1880). Darwin shared the letter with Romanes, who later tried the experiment with cats on Wimbledon Common, driving them several miles into the country, and letting them out of their respective bags (letter from G. J. Romanes, [6, 13, or 20] March 1881). Romanes was at work on a lengthy study of animal intelligence and sent Darwin a diagram showing the evolution of emotions and intellect across the animal world. Darwin was reminded of his early observations of infants, pets, and zoo animals, which had formed the basis of his writing in Descent and Expression. He offered detailed comments on 5 February: ‘I should have thought that the word ‘love’ (not sexual passion) as shown very low in scale to offspring & apparently to comrades, ought to have come in more prominently in your table than appears to be the case.’ In his reply of 6 February, Romanes clarified: ‘By ‘Love’ I intend to denote the complex emotion (dependent on the representative faculties) which, having been so lately smitten myself, I am perhaps inclined to place in too exalted a position.’ Romanes was soon married to Ethel Duncan. After the first child was born, the men joked about keeping a monkey in the nursery ‘for purposes of comparison’. Darwin encouraged the experiment, but conceded, ‘Mrs. Romanes is quite right not to allow the monkey to enter the nursery, for how dreadful it would be if the monkey received more attention than the baby!’ (letter from G. J. Romanes, 17 December 1880, and letter to G. J. Romanes, 20 December 1880).

Questions and visitors

Darwin’s fame and the broad implications of his work continued to attract correspondents with diverse backgrounds and interests. In February, a 12-year-old boy asked politely, ‘What causes the different shades of colour in the inhabitants of the earth … If in a few words you could give me any idea of the reasons, I should be greatly obliged’ (letter from W. Z. Seddon, 2 February 1880). Darwin sympathised with the pupil; ‘I wish that you or anybody else could account for the colours of the different races of man.’ He referred him to the brief explanation in Descent of man, ‘which,’ he added, ‘hardly anybody has accepted’ (letter to W. Z. Seddon, 4 February 1880). On 16 February, ‘an ardent student’, Henry Faulds, sought help in collecting finger and palm impressions from ‘living men of all races’, pointing out the possible forensic use of the data, and, since he had a few palm prints from monkeys, the light that might be thrown on human evolution. Darwin rightly thought the ‘queer subject’ of interest to Francis Galton, who had already taken thumb impressions of criminals, and who suggested extending the study to public-school pupils (letter to Francis Galton, 7 April 1880, and letter from Francis Galton, 8 April 1880). Darwin was queried about human mortality and gave a cautious reply: ‘I suppose that no one can prove that death is inevitable, but the evidence in favour of this belief is overwhelmingly strong. … As evolution depends on a long succession of generations, which implies death, it seems to me in the highest degree improbable that man should cease to follow the general law of evolution, and this would follow if he were to be immortal. This is all that I can say’ (letter to A. Gapitche, 24 February 1880). When approached by the radical socialist Edward Aveling for permission to dedicate a popular book to him, Darwin was more hesitant. The book, The student’s Darwin, was based on a series of articles that had appeared in the radical weekly National Reformer. Darwin was grateful for the honour, but declined: ‘though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me … that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science. … I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion’ (letter to E. B. Aveling, 13 October 1880). Finally, Darwin received a tribute in the form of eugenic verse from a French poet and physician. ‘La Lutte pour la vie’ (The struggle for life), described the relentless battle of the strong against disease, infirmity, idiocy, and excess; even the ‘noble science’ of medicine should heed the warning: ‘The weak must not procreate the race/ If they do not want to leave an indelible trace’ (letter from Jules Rouquette, 2 April 1880).

Despite Darwin’s own weakness, which was often used to keep visitors at bay, admirers were admitted to Down House in record numbers. Forty-three members and friends of the Lewisham and Blackheath Scientific Association were received in the drawing room and veranda on 10 July. According to the report of the visit, Darwin ‘exhibited and described some of his most prized curiosities’, including the albums he had received from German and Dutch naturalists on his 70th birthday, and some of his recent work on earthworms. He then retired from faintness and fatigue, ‘bidding his visitors adieu’. The group went on to the White Hart Hotel in Orpington, where they toasted Darwin’s health, and a member pronounced him ‘one of the most painstaking of naturalists … most genial of men … [and] perhaps the most vehemently abused person in existence’ (Proceedings of the Lewisham and Blackheath Scientific Association (1880): 19–20). In November, a delegation from the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union visited Down to present Darwin with a memorial address. ‘We hope there will not be too many for your convenience,’ the secretary wrote, ‘but the difficulty has been to limit the number of our members who wish to do honour to the greatest biologist of our time’ (letter from W. D. Roebuck to G. H. Darwin, 25 October 1880). The president of the society explained to Emma that the members of the union wished to congratulate Darwin ‘on his having lived to see his great doctrines …“Come of Age”‘ (letter from W. C. Williamson to Emma Darwin, 2 September 1880). In April, Thomas Huxley had delivered an address at the Royal Institution, ‘The coming of age of the Origin of species’. Darwin admitted that the meaning of the title had eluded him: ‘I had read the announcement of your Lecture & thought that you meant the maturity of the subject, until my wife one day remarked, “yes it is about 21 years since the Origin appeared”‘ (letter to T. H. Huxley, 11 [April] 1880). While praising Origin, Huxley had failed to mention natural selection in the address, preferring to emphasise the wide acceptance of evolution in general: ‘I saw your motive’, Darwin remarked; ‘But at the same time it occurred to me that you might be giving it up. … If I think continuously on some half-dozen structures of which we can at present see no uses, I can persuade myself that natural selection is of quite subordinate importance. On the other hand when I reflect on the innumerable structures, especially in plants, which 20 years ago would have been called simply ‘morphological’ & useless, & which are now known to be highly important, I can persuade myself that every structure may have been developed through natural selection’ (letter to T. H. Huxley, 11 May 1880).

Worthy causes

In the autumn, Darwin renewed his efforts to obtain financial assistance for the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. In the previous year, he had consulted Joseph Dalton Hooker about the possibility of a Civil List pension, but Hooker was against it, fearing that Wallace’s spiritualism and an ill-judged wager on the sphericity of the earth might damage the cause. Nor was he in absolute poverty: ‘Wallace’s claim is not that he is in need, so much as that he can’t find employment’ (Correspondence vol. 27, letter from J. D. Hooker, 18 December 1879). For some years, Wallace’s main source of income had been writing for periodicals. He had applied for various institutional posts, but without success. On 20 March, Darwin heard more about Wallace’s plight from the geologist Alfred Tylor: ‘Is it not possible that some small appointment should be found for him? He feels the labour of working for the Booksellers rather trying I fear when he is not very strong  He is 57 years of age and has been much discouraged since he was unsuccessful in his application for the manager of Epping Forest’. In October, Darwin had discussions with John Lubbock and Huxley and was encouraged about Wallace’s prospects for a government pension. Civil List pensions had been established in 1834 and were occasionally awarded for ‘useful discoveries in science and attainments in literature and the arts’. The decision largely rested with the prime minister, who recommended candidates to the Crown. Darwin asked Arabella Buckley, who had served as Charles Lyell’s secretary, to draft a statement of Wallace’s claims: ‘If I were to ask Wallace any of these questions he would think me mad or impertinent’ (letter to A. B. Buckley, 31 October [1880]). Buckley reported back on 7 November: ‘At first he hesitated but when I represented that such men as Joule & Faraday had received it he said “I confess it would be a very great relief to me and if such men as Darwin & Huxley think I may accept it I suppose I may"‘. Darwin was committed to the cause: ‘I hardly ever wished for anything more than I do for the success of our efforts’ (letter to A. B. Buckley, 9 November 1880). He worked with Huxley on a memorial. One of the achievements they highlighted was Wallace’s extensive work on geographical distribution. Darwin and Hooker both praised his most recent book on the subject, Island life, which appeared in October 1880. ‘It is splendid,’ Hooker wrote on 22 November, ‘what a number of cobwebs he has swept away.— that such a man should be a Spiritualist is more wonderful than all the movements of all the plants.’ The document was finished in early December and signatures were gathered from leading scientific figures. Hooker agreed to sign, though he still worried about Wallace’s spiritualism, writing on 26 November: ‘I am doubtful as to whether it should not be mentioned privately to the Minister. I am writing to Huxley to this effect.’ Huxley concurred, for Darwin later urged that the religious matter be left out of the official memorial: ‘I cannot see that there is the least necessity to call any minister’s attention to Spiritualism, or to repeat (what you said) to Gladstone—that Spiritualism is not worse than the prevailing superstitions of this country!’ (letter to T. H. Huxley, [after 26 November 1880]). The memorial was eventually submitted to Gladstone in January 1881 and was successful. For a copy of the draft and further details, see Appendix VI.

Government assistance was sought for another worthy cause: potatoes. Darwin had tried for four years to aid the Irish businessman James Torbitt in his efforts to breed a blight-resistant variety. Appeals for state support had not succeeded, and so private subscriptions were raised, with Darwin, Thomas Farrer, and James Caird leading the campaign. In February, Darwin learned that Torbitt was again in financial trouble. ‘If you are not utterly weary of the subject’, he wrote to Farrer on 14 February 1880, ‘will you read this letter— It seems that Mr T is too poor to go on without aid, and it will be a grievous shame … I would subscribe £50 but I have not strength or time to go begging for the remainder’. Torbitt had had mixed success with his varieties, but was still optimistic: ‘I think that in a few years, if not lost, they will be worth some millions per annum to England’ (letter from James Torbitt, 5 March 1880). Darwin met with Farrer and quickly raised £150, but he was not sanguine about government assistance. ‘As far as I can see political men care only about their party quarrels’ (letter to James Torbitt, 9 May 1880). Politicians grew concerned however, after severely damaged potato crops in Ireland brought hardship, with many labourers in destitution, farmers facing eviction, and threats of violence against English landlords from the Irish Land League. In May, a parliamentary committee was established to report on the best means of producing disease-resistant varieties. Torbitt hoped that his work would finally be appreciated. He tried to interest the chief secretary for Ireland, William Edward Forster, and when that failed, he decided to appeal directly to the prime minister, drafting a letter to William Gladstone on 15 December 1880: ‘It would mean a supply of home grown food sufficient to defy foreign competition, and at the same time maintain intact, the rental of England—and to Ireland it would mean peace.’ Torbitt’s plan was to distribute potatoes ‘gratis to the people’ through the Post Office, ‘until the whole kingdom should be flooded with disease-proof new varieties’ (letter from James Torbitt, 23 December 1880, enclosure.) Following Darwin’s advice, Torbitt did not send his letter directly to Gladstone, but to the press. It was printed in a number of provincial newspapers, but Torbitt’s grand plan was not realised.

Loss and family

The year was marked by the loss of several close family members. Emma’s brother Josiah Wedgwood III died on 11 March. Like Emma, he had married a cousin: Caroline, Darwin’s elder sister. The couple had settled at Leith Hill Place in Surrey, which became a regular destination for Charles and Emma, and also a site of scientific observation for the Wedgwood nieces. Later in the year, Emma’s sister Elizabeth Wedgwood died at her home, Tromer Lodge in Down. ‘As good & generous a woman as ever walked this earth,’ Darwin wrote to Romanes on 14 November [1880]. Darwin was also touched by the loss of his second cousin William Darwin Fox. They had been at Cambridge together, and had shared an enthusiasm for hunting and beetle collecting. Fox had become a country vicar, the vocation that Darwin once assumed he would follow himself. Despite their divergent paths, the men had continued to correspond over the years. On learning that Fox was gravely ill, Darwin wrote to his son, ‘in the course of my life, now a long one, I can truly say that I have never known a kinder or better man.— I can therefore feel what a loss he will be to you all.’ After Fox’s death, he wrote again in sympathy, ‘I have now before my eyes his bright face as a young man, so full of intelligence & I hear his voice as clearly as if he were present’ (letters to C. W. Fox, 29 March 1880 and 10 [April] 1880).

Feeling increasingly old himself, Darwin took delight in his children’s accomplishments. He consoled George about his poor health and difficulties with physical theory. He encouraged William’s interest in geology, and longed to see Francis elected fellow of the Royal Society. He rejoiced to see Horace and Ida settled in their new home in Cambridge, and spent extended periods with Henrietta and Richard Litchfield in London. The children returned his support and affection with scientific assistance, editorial advice, and an extravagant present. Unable to bear the thought of their father suffering from the cold, they clubbed together to buy him a winter coat. Darwin was truly warmed by the gift: ‘I have just found on my table your present of the magnificent fur-coat. If I have to travel in the winter, it will be a wonderful comfort … The coat, however, will never warm my body so much as your dear affection has warmed my heart’ (letter to the Darwin children, 17 [January 1880]). At the year’s end, a Christmas card from another old friend, John Maurice Herbert, inspired happy memories of youth and reflections on his lifetime of ‘grinding’ labour in science as an abiding pleasure: ‘my memory often goes back to Cambridge days … Oh dear, life was worth then living, not that I have anything to complain of. … I go on working at Science & in fact I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts & grinding out conclusions, & am never happy except when at work’ (letter to J. M. Herbert, 25 December [1880]).

About this article

Based on the introduction to The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 28: 1880

Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Francis Neary, Alison M. Pearn, Anne Secord, Paul White. (Cambridge University Press 2021)

Order this volume online from Cambridge University Press