Francis Darwin, [c. 1884]. [Preliminary draft of] 'Reminiscences of My Father's Everyday Life'. CUL-DAR140.3.1--159


Mr. Charles Darwin's Letters
Will you allow me to mention that I am collecting my father's letters with a view to a biography. I shall be much obliged to my father's friends and correspondents who may have letters from him, if they will kindly allow me to see and make copies of them. I need hardly add that no letter shall be published without the full consent of its owner.
Down, Beckenham, May 25 Francis Darwin
Nature 1 June 1882

Francis DarwinIT had been only six weeks since Charles Darwin's funeral in Westminster Abbey, and already the Darwin family had taken the first step towards what would result five years later in the publication of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. At the initiative of first son William and third son Francis, notices like the one above appeared in many scientific journals and publications of general interest in the months that followed Darwin's death.

Prompt action on the family's part was motivated by a desire to pre-empt any other publication of Darwin's correspondence before the family could publish their own. Francis Galton, then acting editor of Nature, wanted to run a short series of biographical articles about Darwin soon after his death. Francis Darwin consented to the publication but refused Galton permission to include any of his father's letters. (Letter to Francis Darwin, 28 June 1887. DAR106-107) The family struggled to keep tight control over Charles Darwin's letters in order to protect his posthumous image.

In order to create an epistolary biography, the Darwin family depended on the cooperation of Darwin's former correspondents. The project was undertaken with the same collaborative coordination that Darwin himself had relied on throughout his scientific career. In addition to the return of letters, William and Francis asked many of their father's former friends to contribute their own recollections of Darwin. As loyal to him in death as they had been in life, Darwin's closest circle of friends willingly devoted their efforts to the project.

Upon amassing a large collection of letters and recollections, the family faced the daunting task of compiling and editing the material. The role of editor fell to Francis, whom Galton once referred to as the 'historian of the Darwin family.'

Of Darwin's seven children, Francis was the best choice of editor for two reasons. He had returned to Down in 1874 to help his father with his experiments; thus he had observed firsthand his father at work. Besides his working relationship with his father, Francis was also the one with a literary talent. His son, Bernard Darwin, in his autobiography, recounted childhood memories of his father's creativity playing the 'Poetry Game' (p. 37). Francis' niece, Gwen Raverat, put the matter more frankly: 'He [Uncle Frank] was the musician, the writer, the artist, in a family which might well have been called benevolently Philistine' (p. 188).

Regardless of his literary bent, Francis, of all the Darwin children, had followed most closely in his father's footsteps. He was the only son to become a naturalist in the traditional sense of the word as his father had been. He displayed an enthusiastic appreciation for the beauty of nature in his non-technical writing, but he did not countenance any approximation or imprecision in his technical writing—or that of others. For instance, he disapproved of Henry David Thoreau's observations at Walden:

It has been said that Thoreau . . . knew the look of the country-side so intimately that had he been miraculously transferred to an unknown time of year, he would have recognised the season ‘within a day or two from the flowers at his feet.' If this is true, either American plants are much more business-like than ours . . . or else Thoreau did not test his opinions too severely. (p. 237)

Like his father, Francis Darwin studied medicine; and though he completed his M.B. at St. George's Hospital in London, he never practiced. The summer following his father's death, Francis and his mother moved to Cambridge where he could better pursue his botanical studies and she could escape the lonely winters at Down. He lectured in botany at Cambridge from 1884 until 1886. From 1892 to 1895, he served as deputy to Professor Babington and donated his stipend to the reorganization of the botany curriculum. In his courses on plant physiology, Francis followed a pedagogy of hands-on experimentation, an approach that broke with traditional lectures. He collected his set of experiments in a textbook co-authored with E. Hamilton Acton called The Practical Physiology of Plants, published in 1894. In 1895 he published his own introductory-level textbook The Elements of Botany, which contained the substance of lectures in botany he had given to medical students. After resigning his readership at Cambridge in 1904, he joined several learned societies. He received honorary degrees from many institutions and in 1913 was knighted, an honour not accorded his father. Francis Darwin died in September 1925, 'regarded with affectionate respect by great numbers of people' according to his obituary (p. 584).

This, at least, was the public figure of Francis Darwin memorialized in the papers. Those who knew him personally add a melancholy wash to the portrait of the respected botanist. Bernard Darwin found cause for his father's melancholy in the untimely death in 1876 of Amy Ruck, his first wife, as result of childbirth. Bernard described his father as 'heart-broken by the blow, from which in a sense I doubt if he ever recovered, picking up the pieces of his life and clinging desperately to the child that was left to him' (Darwin 1955, p. 24). Francis remarried twice, both marriages ending with his wife's death.

Although an esteemed scientist in his own right, Francis Darwin remained in the shadow of his father. But then what child could ever step outside such a vast paternal penumbra? As rightly predicted by the obituary in Nature, Francis Darwin 'will probably remain best known as the author of his father's Life' (p. 584).

As editor of Life and Letters, Francis strove to minimize his editorial presence as much as possible so as not to compete with his father's letters. The one notable exception to this policy of self-effacement was the chapter called 'Reminiscences of My Father's Everyday Life,' which Francis wrote himself. Once Life and Letters was published, Francis' contribution was praised by those reviewers who mentioned it. The reviewer for The Scotsman described the anecdotal details as 'charming.' The reviewer for The Athenaeum likewise found the nostalgic piece 'a touching chapter.' Having read 'Reminiscences' in manuscript form, Emma Darwin, Francis' mother, remarked in a letter, 'The picture is so minute and exact that it is like a written photograph, and so full of tender observation on Frank's part.'

Robert Brown

August 2006

Darwin, Francis. [c. 1884]. [Preliminary draft of] 'Reminiscences of My Father's Everyday Life'. Text CUL-DAR140.3.1--159

See the original manuscripts:

CUL-DAR140.3.1--159 (partial fair copy)




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