Charles Darwin and the household letter

Charles Darwin house

Down House, home of Charles Darwin. Photo: Blogger’s own.

Back in 2001, I visited Down House, the home of naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin. This visit happened to be on the same day that hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

After we learned what was going on back in the U.S., my British friends and I had spent time in front of the television, watching the news as it unfolded. (See my previous post, A British story from September 11, 2001.) After a while, we shut off the TV and decided to go out and do something normal, so we made the drive to Down House in Downe, Kent.

Charles, his wife Emma Wedgwood Darwin (yes, Wedgwood as in the famous pottery manufacturers), and their eight kids lived in Down House for decades. The house and gardens are beautiful (to see the inside of the house and the gardens, click here). I was still reeling from what had happened in the U.S., so exploring this place had a calming effect.

But apart from the beauty of the house and gardens, one memory that I took away from this visit was a letter written by Charles Darwin which was displayed on a wall (I think it was in one of the downstairs rooms). As I recall, the letter was a chatty one, discussing some ordinary household matters and mentioning Emma, and I remember thinking that more than anything, it was a good insight into the mind of Charles Darwin and his day-to-day life.

I’d heard Darwin discussed for years when I was in high school and college, but actually visiting the place where he and his family lived was different. You get a new perspective on him, seeing him as somebody’s husband and someone’s dad. With so many famous people, I’ve noticed, you tend to focus on them and their accomplishments, and forget that they have a family — parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws.

The way the house is arranged by the National Trust, it’s as if the occupants had just stepped out for a moment and intended to come back. The house makes it easy to imagine all those kids running around, galloping up and down the stairs and playing outside on the sandwalk and in the summerhouse while Darwin strolled along the sandwalk path for exercise and uninterrupted thinking. Emma, I think, would have been busy seeing to household matters or maybe sitting outside with her sewing or a good book.

Darwin took some grief for his theories during his lifetime; I wonder what his kids thought of that and if they got teased for it at school? Maybe. But I was glad to see that several of his children went on to have distinguished careers (science ran in the family!).

I have also read that there are some Darwin descendants around and they have science-related careers. I guess science is still running in the family.



Filed under Writing

11 responses to “Charles Darwin and the household letter

  1. Sounds great. Unfortunate timing but better there than here.

    I feel that way about Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott was raised and so well described (and used for the most recent movie) in Little Women. If you’re a ‘pretend’ kind of person, you get to pretend you live there, which is what I always do. I love it when they make it feel real, like the original owners still live there.

  2. A lovely post, and so very insightful. I also see the makings of a nice novel, “The Proper Mrs. Darwin.” (Hint, hint)

  3. I love visiting other people’s houses, despite feeling like an intruder.

  4. If you’re ever in Hartford, Connecticut, I recommend a stop at the Mark Twain house and the Harriet Beecher Stowe house. They’re right next door to one another and afford glimpses both into the lives of these important writers and into the period in which they lived and worked.

  5. How very cool you were there – even at that particular time.
    All the ordinary things of life there – from a different era, but similarities to real life now.
    There’s a perspective to be gained about life and existence when removed from technology. What is real, anyway?
    Great post. Enjoyed it.

  6. You’re right, it feels as though people are still using the house… and how I would love to… to live in that financial ease, comfort elegance and beauty was such a privilege… which many people seemed to enjoy, judging by the hundreds of thousands of houses like that hidden away in the English country-side…such an enjoyable post…


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