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.