RECORD: Darwin, Leonard. 1929. Memories of Down House. The Nineteenth Century 106:118-123.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed and corrected by John van Wyhe. RN1
MEMORIES OF DOWN HOUSE
DOWN HOUSE was the home of Charles Darwin during the last forty years of his life, and there he wrote nearly all his more important works. At the meeting of the British Association at Leeds in 1927, Sir Arthur Keith suggested the idea that it should be purchased to serve as a memorial to the author of The Origin of Species, and to his surprise Mr. G. Buckston Browne at once volunteered to take the whole charge on himself. He not only bought the house and put it into excellent order at great expense, but also handed it over to the British Association with a generous endowment. A good deal of the old furniture has been collected, and the old study has been brought back to its original appearance with wonderful accuracy. The garden in front of the house, which all who knew Down in old days loved so well, now shows little signs of change, thanks to the attention paid to it by Professor Myres, secretary to the British Association. During this process of restoration I paid several visits to Down, and was thus enabled to see perhaps better than anyone else how everything depended on Mr. Buckston Browne, and also with what energy both he and all concerned devoted themselves to what appeared to be a labour of love. Visitors who attended the opening ceremony on June 7 this year could not have had any idea of the amount of hard work involved.
During these recent visits to the house where I was born, and where I spent all the happy years of my early life, many memories came back to my mind, a few of which may be worth recording as throwing sidelights on my father's character. In an autobiographical fragment my father described his earliest recollections as 'obscure pictures,' and stated that they concerned only 'affairs personal' to himself; and it is the same with me in regard to Down House. If I select some scenes to describe in which I am a chief actor, it is because as regards my early life I have no memories of a different kind from which to choose.
Visitors to Down when entering the garden see in front of the lawn a large and nearly flat grass field, containing a few scattered groups of trees. At the further end of that field there was at one time a large holly tree, and one of my obscure pictures is of
climbing it in winter with my younger brother in our Sunday best, with effects on our black jackets which can only be fully realised by those who have had similar experiences. This necessitated an interview with my father, about which my memory becomes unaccountably dim. All I know is that it was rather awful—mentally, not physically—but only just sufficiently awful to wipe out for the rest of my life every desire to climb trees in my Sunday best. As a counterpart to this recollection I may add that some of my relatives, a good deal older than myself, have given me the impression that they had regarded us at the time as a decidedly spoilt group of children; though, in my opinion, the spoiling did not go beyond the limit of what was really for our benefit.
Beyond this field lies the Sand Walk, a narrow strip of woodland with a walk round it, along which my father took his daily solitary exercise. Little could have escaped his notice here, and amongst other things he observed a strange habit of the humble-bee. At some season of the year they followed one another at intervals along the hedge connecting the Sand Walk and the kitchen garden, hovering for a second or two before some apparently well recognised spot, and then passing on to one of the next buzzing places, as we used to call them. My father was puzzled and called on us boys for help in his investigations—though whether we really were helpful may well be doubted. Our part was to shout when a bee was seen coming along the line, and sometimes to run after it in the endeavour to trace it further on its course. In fact our proceedings now appear to me as if they had partaken of the character both of a game of play and of a scientific inquiry; and in so far as we were at play, my father was like a boy amongst other boys. Regarding it as a scientific inquiry, my father's intense keenness to ascertain the truth certainly impressed us all greatly; whilst the fact that it never even for a moment occurred to him to try to hide his entire ignorance of the meaning of the habit which we were watching was probably not without beneficial educative effects. I hope that someone living at Down House in the future will solve this little riddle of the humble-bee which my father failed to solve.1
Beyond the Sand Walk lay a quiet, solitary valley, now rendered less solitary by the presence of golfers, and one memory in connexion with it of a later date comes back to me with especial vividness. My father, my sister and I were walking there on a beautiful sunny evening when the charm of the quiet scenery was, I am sure, affecting his mind. At all events, in reply to something which my sister had said, he declared that if he had to live his life over again he would make it a rule to let no day pass without reading a few lines of poetry. Then he quietly added that he
1 See More Letters, vol. ii., p. 97.
wished he had 'not let his mind go to rot so.' I should not dare to quote these words if I had not an opportunity of also recording my firm conviction—a conviction which certainly was shared by all my brothers and sisters—that not only did my father thus give a decidedly erroneous impression of the changes which had taken place in his mind, but that the passages in his autobiography dealing with this subject have been constantly misunderstood and misinterpreted in the Press. I have known many other men who had entirely given up the habit of reading poetry; but I have no recollection of any other person who realised what he might have lost by so doing. The very strength of my father's expressions prove that he was longing for some outlet for his aesthetic emotions—an outlet which he was no doubt then obtaining to some extent through the quiet beauty of his surroundings. At any rate, it seemed to all of us onlookers that his appreciation of natural scenery remained quite undimmed to the end of his life.
And here I wish I could paint in words a picture of my father lying quietly on the sofa in the drawing-room, whilst my mother was playing, and playing beautifully, some slow movement of Beethoven. Little was said, but I am sure that the music was not without effect on my father's mind. And if what he had thus gained had gone out of his mind when he was writing his autobiography, the explanation is to be found in the modesty of his nature, which led him to concentrate his attention on possible defects in his own character and to ignore probable merits. Whatever loss of aesthetic sensibility may have occurred through want of outlets, it certainly must not be attributed to his scientific labours. For the cause of any such change we must look entirely to his health, which forced him to employ every ounce of his available strength in the directions which seemed to him to be most beneficial. And as my father's life cannot be understood without reference to what he suffered, perhaps two trifling personal recollections are here worth mentioning.
As a young lad I went up to my father when strolling about the lawn, and he, after, as I believe, a kindly word or two, turned away as if quite incapable of carrying on any conversation. Then there suddenly shot through my mind the conviction that he wished he was no longer alive. Must there not have been a strained and weary expression in his face to have produced in these circumstances such an effect on a boy's mind? The second incident is much more vividly recorded in my recollection. My elder brother one day asked my father whether he could not take some rest away from home in order to regain his strength. To this my father replied that the truth was that he was never quite comfortable except when utterly absorbed in his writing. He evidently dreaded idleness as robbing him of his one anodyne, work.
No doctor seemed to know from what he was suffering, and in his own opinion it was not the result of sea-sickness on his long voyage, severe though that trouble had been Though it is very rash for a layman to speak on such subjects, yet I cannot refrain from recording my belief that it was pyorrhoea, or some other form of auto-poisoning, and that any excitement made the poison flow more freely. It is in any case a fact that for many years an hour's interesting conversation in the afternoon with a visitor would bring on several hours' vomiting during the succeeding night, whilst he was hardly ever without some symptoms of indigestion. When looking at the chair in the study at Down, where he sat with a board across the arms when writing The Origin of Species, the difficulties in regard to health against which he had to contend should never be forgotten. At one time, perhaps for a short time, he used to keep a stinging lotion of some kind on the chimney-piece, so that he could reach out for it at any moment, and by dabbing it on to his forehead help himself to carry on in spite of his aching head. In my boyhood all this seemed natural enough, but now I marvel how he got through such a mass of work. It was only done by declining to undertake extraneous duties—and here his bad health was a real help—and by never wasting a single minute of his short day's work. But it was a long, long struggle. In regard to what has here been said about my father's autobiography, it should be known that it certainly was not written with the view to publication, and that the expressions he used were not selected with that care which he would have exercised if he had thought that there was the slightest chance of its being subject to carping criticism. The same is true in a measure in regard to some of his correspondence. His mornings were devoted to his most arduous work, letters being left unanswered until the afternoon, even though he had not by that time recovered from the strain of writing for publication. Especially in correspondence with intimate friends, who well knew how to discount any over-strong impression he might have used, phrases were in consequence sometimes included which he would have omitted if he had known that they would ever be read by other eyes. For instance, certain very plain-spoken passages in his letters may fairly be held to indicate that he was entirely at variance with Lamarck on certain points; but they should never be quoted without reference to his well-pondered words concerning that 'justly-celebrated naturalist' and his 'eminent service' to natural science, which are to be found in the Historical Sketch preceding all the later editions of The Origin of Species. Greater weight should always be given to published as compared with unpublished words.
Both in conversation and in writing my father felt a difficulty
in quickly choosing the right words; and on this account, and also because he disliked expressing an opinion unless he had had time to weigh both sides of the question, he was generally anxious to avoid all controversy. After a keen discussion concerning vivisection had been in progress at Down in the evening for some little time, he did, however, join in on one occasion in order to express his views very firmly. What he said I do not remember, but it was probably to emphasise his deep detestation of cruelty, whilst at the same time maintaining that the sufferings of both men and animals would in the long run be lessened as the result of vivisection if very carefully safeguarded. He ended by asking us to say not another word on the subject, or he would lie awake all night thinking about it.2
I must, however, end on a more cheerful note, or I shall give on the whole a false impression. My father spoke of his life as a happy one, and this was certainly true, though it was greatly marred by very long periods of discomfort and suffering, which mercifully got decidedly less frequent towards the end of his life. Visitors generally failed altogether to realise how bad was his health, for he always brightened up in conversation. He made no effort, it is true, to be brilliant or witty in his talk, but the fact that it was so obviously natural and unforced gave it a peculiar charm. That my father's friends realised that he had a sense of humour may perhaps be illustrated by the following anecdote. In company with Dr. Ogle, a keen student of evolution, he was wandering about the garden when he paused to pick some flower, and then said that it was staggering to have to believe that the beautiful adaptation which it showed was the result of natural selection. To this Dr. Ogle quietly replied: 'My dear sir, allow me to advise you to read a book called The Origin of Species.'
Amongst the obscure pictures of my early childhood there is one of a rather awful ceremony which for a few years used to take place annually. Each Whit Monday a small group of men marched on to the lawn with a banner flying. This was the Down coal and clothing club, which my father, as treasurer, then came out to address. After a little I generally heard a laugh run through the whole gathering, and I have often since wished that I had had courage enough to have gone sufficiently near to have been able to hear and record my father's jokes. This club fell under the influence of a few unscrupulous men, and it was wound up, my father feeling rather bitterly the failure of his effort to assist his neighbours. His connexion with this club, and his having sat for some few years as a magistrate, are worth recording as showing that he certainly would have been active in his civic duties had his health permitted.
2 For a similar remark in a letter see Life and Letters, iii., p. 200.
Most of the memories of my old home at Down unfortunately cannot be translated into words. The one I best like to recall to my mind is that of my father sitting in the verandah in his tall wicker chair, looking very peaceful and contented, with my mother near by, and his little dog Polly not far away. Though it is not for me to speak of the effects on scientific thought which may be the result of this memorial to my father, yet surely I may, with this picture before my eyes, conclude these brief notes by declaring that to keep alive the memory of one who had such an intense love of truth, who felt such a burning sympathy with all suffering, whether of man or animals, and whose modesty of nature was such that it could not be touched by any fame or any praise—to keep alive such a memory will benefit mankind far beyond the confines of science.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
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