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Darwin Correspondence Project

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Monkey suspended at Darwin’s honorary LLD ceremony
Monkey suspended at Darwin’s honorary LLD ceremony
Reproduced from an image held at Christ's College, Cambridge (Darwin Centenary papers) by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of the College

Darwin in letters, 1877: Flowers and honours

Ever since the publication of Expression, Darwin’s research had centred firmly on botany. The year 1877 was no exception. The spring and early summer were spent completing Forms of flowers, his fifth book on a botanical topic. He then turned to the mysterious role of the waxy coating (or ‘bloom’) on leaves and fruit, and to the movement of plants, focusing especially on the response of leaves to changing conditions. He also worked intermittently on earthworms, for the most part gathering observations made by others.

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Amy Richenda Darwin (née Ruck)
Amy Richenda Darwin (née Ruck)
CUL 416.c.95.249
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1876: In the midst of life

1876 was the year in which the Darwins became grandparents for the first time.  And tragically lost their daughter-in-law, Amy, who died just days after her son's birth.  All the letters from 1876 are now published in volume 24 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, and a new chapter to Darwin's 'Life in letters' has been added here. 

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William Winwood Reade
William Winwood Reade
CUL Misc.7.91.18
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1875: Pulling strings

‘I am getting sick of insectivorous plants’ Darwin confessed in January1875. He had worked on the subject intermittently since 1859, and had been steadily engaged on a book manuscript for nine months. January also saw the conclusion of a bitter dispute with the zoologist St George Jackson Mivart. In April and early May, Darwin was occupied with a heated debate over vivisection, and at the end of the year, he campaigned vigorously on behalf of a young zoologist, whose blackballing by the Linnean Society infuriated him: ‘I have not felt so angry for years.’

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'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

Darwin in letters, 1872: Job done?

'My career’, Darwin wrote towards the end of 1872, 'is so nearly closed. . .  What little more I can do, shall be chiefly new work’, 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’.

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, and Beagle 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.

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Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Darwin, 1871, photograph by Oscar Gustaf Rejlander
CUL DAR 257: 14
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1871: An emptying nest

The year 1871 was an extremely busy and productive one for Darwin, with the publication in February of his long-awaited book on human evolution, Descent of man. The other main preoccupation of the year was the preparation of his manuscript on expression. Darwin continued to investigate the mechanisms of various emotions, such as grief, shame, and astonishment, drawing on the expertise of physicians and physiologists, as well as zoo-keepers, pet owners, parents of young children, and professional photographers. The year  also brought a significant milestone for the family, as Darwin’s eldest daughter Henrietta was married in August. 

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George Bentham
George Bentham, Journal of Botany, British and foreign, plate facing p353
CUL Q370.c.32.13
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1861: Gaining allies

The year 1861 marked an important change in the direction of Darwin’s work. He had weathered the storm that followed the publication of Origin, and felt cautiously optimistic about the ultimate acceptance of his ideas. The letters from this year provide an unusually detailed and intimate understanding of Darwin’s problem-solving method of work. The beginning of the American Civil War and the possibility of British involvement brings an unusally political flavour to the correspondence with tensions increasingly evident between two of his closest friends and supporters, Joseph Hooker and the American Asa Gray. 

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William Bernhard Tegetmeier
William Bernhard Tegetmeier
CUL DAR 193: 22
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1856-1857: the 'Big Book'

In May 1856, Darwin began writing up his 'species sketch’ in earnest. During this period, his working life was completely dominated by the preparation of his 'Big Book', which was to be called Natural selection. Using letters are the main source for much of his research he amassed data, carried out breeding experiments, and struggled with statistical analysis. Several of his experiments: seeds would not germinate; beans failed to cross; newly-hatched molluscs refused to do what he hoped.  Most significant in terms of Darwin’s future, however, was the beginning of his correspondence with Alfred Russel Wallace.

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Anne Elizabeth (Annie) Darwin
Anne Elizabeth (Annie) Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 165
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1851-1855: Death of a daughter

The letters from these years reveal the main preoccupations of Darwin’s life with a new intensity. The period opens with a family tragedy in the death of Darwin’s oldest and favourite daughter, Anne, and it shows how, weary and mourning his dead child, Darwin persevered with his scientific work, single-mindedly committed to the completion of his barnacle research.  His four-volume study was finally published after eight years of work. Darwin's professional circle was enlarged both by new friendships with noted scientists such as the physiologist Thomas Henry Huxley, and the American botanist Asa Gray, but also by contact with a network of animal breeders, nurserymen, and pigeon-fanciers.

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker
CUL DAR 257: 114
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1847-1850: Microscopes and barnacles

Darwin's study of barnacles, begun in 1844, took him eight years to complete. The correspondence reveals how his interest in a species found during the Beagle voyage developed into an investigation of the comparative anatomy of other cirripedes and finally a comprehensive taxonomical study of the entire group. Despite struggling with a recurrent illness, he continued to write on geologicy, and published notes on the use of microscopes.  Three more children, Elizabeth, Francis, and Leonard, were born during this period, but the death of Darwin's father in 1848 left the family well-provided for.  

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker, from the portrait by George Richmond, 1855
CUL 456.c.91.891
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1844–1846: Building a scientific network

The scientific results of the Beagle voyage still dominated Darwin's working life, but he broadened his continuing investigations into the nature and origin of species. Far from being a recluse, Darwin was at the heart of British scientific society, travelling often to London and elsewhere to attend meetings and confer with colleagues, including the man who was to become his closest friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker. Down House was altered and extended to accommodate Darwin’s growing family; and, with his father’s advice, Darwin began a series of judicious financial investments to ensure a comfortable future for all those under his care.

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