RECORD: Huxley, Leonard. 1921. The home life of Charles Darwin. R.P.A Annual [Rationalist Press Association] pp. 5-9.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned and OCRed by John van Wyhe. RN1
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THE Editor of the "R. P. A. Annual" desires It to be clearly understood that each contributor is alone responsible tor the opinions he expresses, and that he In no way commits the R. P. A. or any of the other contributors to an endorsement of his views. The aim of the Editor is to provide a platform for all liberal thinkers in general agreement with Rationalism as defined In the Memorandum of the R. P. A.
THE HOME LIFE OF CHARLES DARWIN
By LEONARD HUXLEY, LL.D.
CHARLES DARWIN—the name stirs the imagination. Eound v a great discoverer, whether in travel or in science, the light of fame is suffused with romance. Stout Cortez stands eternally illuminated on his peak in Darien, the brighter for the shadows in the dark forest below through which he had toiled and struggled in pain and obscurity. And here, his vast labour brought to a head, the Cortez of a new Pacific laid open an unguessed-at ocean for the sailing of the ships of thought. A conception such as his enters so deeply into human life, comes so close to human feelings, that from being an abstraction of the intellect it gains some of the qualities of poetry, and the discoverer merges in the seer. It was a poet who sang of a poet:—
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain, And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again ? How strange it seems and new !
To-day the plain man may adapt this saying when he meets one of the, alas, diminishing band who spoke to Charles Darwin, who knew him in his habit as he lived, who felt in direct contact with his personality what others may perceive only as in a mirror—the benignance which lay about his greatness and, for those near him, despite his physical ills, consistently furnished " the warm precincts of the cheerful day " to dwell in with serenity. It was felt assuredly by the child mind that had not grown to capacity of appraising or analysing its nature. Memory leaps back half a century to certain weeks of spring merging into summer when a whole tribe of us were transplanted from London to the country delights of the old house at Down. The air of peace and happy interest still seems to issue from the wise and kind personalities of our host and hostess, pervasive but never invasive, as hosts in excess of hospitable zeal may sometimes be towards children. I can but hope that we in return did not spill ourselves too riotously outside our appointed quarters into the corner of the house sacred to quiet and study.
One of the prettiest illustrations of the terms on which he stood with the children is the story of how one of his sons, when about four years old, tried to bribe him with sixpence to come and play in working hours. Working hours were sacred, ' but that any one should resist sixpence seemed an impossibility." Or, again, how once he came into the drawing-room and found his son Leonard dancing about on the sofa—a thing forbidden for the sake of the springs. Exclaiming " Oh, Lenny, Lenny, that's against all rules," he received for answer: " Then I think you'd better go out of the room."
"I do not believe," writes Sir F.Darwin, "he ever spoke an angry word to any of his children in his life ; but I am certain it never entered our heads to disobey him."
In another passage he writes: " The 'Expression of the Emotions shows how closely he watched his children; it was characteristic of him that (I have heard him tell), although he was so anxious to observe accurately the expression of a crying child, his sympathy with the grief spoiled his observation. His note-book, in which are recorded sayings of his young children, shows his pleasure in them. He seems to retain a sort of regretful memory of the childhoods which had faded away, and thus he wrote in his Becollections : ' When you were very young it was my delight to play with you all, and I think with a sigh that such days can never return.' "
While his affectionate manner towards them and his deep interest in all their plans and doings were unceasing, even to detailed concern over pets of theirs, such as cats, for which he had no special taste, he never invaded their sense of individual freedom. He was too great and too simple of character for such intimacy to weaken respect or obedience. The children felt that he always put his whole mind into answering any of their questions, and with his utter sincerity and modesty of statement it came to pass that whatever he said was absolute truth and law to them. As his daughter wrote : " He always made us feel that we were each of us creatures whose opinions and thoughts were valuable to him, so that whatever there was best in us came out in the sunshine of his presence." Nor did he fail to appreciate their powers—too highly, they often felt, in the warmth of his sympathy. Yet it was sympathy that made them not puffed up, but humble and grateful before the radiant simplicity of his greatness. He was happy in his children and the great gifts, personal and intellectual, which they inherited and developed. They readily gave help in his experiments, were secretaries in his correspondence and literary work—functions which came to centre in the son whose career led him to botany; while Mrs. Darwin and his unmarried daughter were always at hand to read or to aid as amanuenses or literary critics on the domestic hearth— daily services which never failed to evoke an expression of gratitude.
One trial, too common in the live3 of men of science, Darwin was spared. He never had to struggle against the res angusta domi. He inherited ample means from his father; there were no extravagances in his life, and there was room for him to exercise his fine generosity, both within and without his immediate circle. So far was he from the common desire of gain that in his later years he had the kind and generous plan of dividing his surplus at the year's end among his children.
The rare attendance at public functions, such as a meeting of a learned society or a scientific congress, was a severe exertion for which he paid heavily. The quiet home routine was varied only by visits to ' cures," by summer holidays with the family, by brief visits away, and the coming of visitors to Down—strangers who would run down from London for lunch, friends for the week-end or relatives for a longer stay. As for his summer holidays, unless he were suffering the reaction from overwork, the release from the close tension of every day left him ready to enter on them with an infectious youthfulness of enjoyment which brought him very close to his young folk. When in London he was able to pay brief visits to his scientific friends, choosing the early morning, which was the only time when he could make an effort of the kind without suffering for it. I well remember his arrival now and then at my father's house, somewhere between half-past nine and ten, and the special preparations made for him by placing a hassock in the biggest armchair, for with his long legs he found sitting low uncomfortable. But half an hour was the limit of his stay; to talk longer meant a bout of illness, and in order to economize time he would have ready the particular questions he wished to discuss. Similarly, he limited scientific discussion with his visitors at Down. In the years when the Origin was in the making it was a great pleasure to get his closest friend, Sir Joseph Hooker, to come for a long stay, bringing his work, so that they could talk a while each day over any problems that demanded solution.
The real charm and power of his conversation naturally passed over the heads of youthful visitors. I cannot myself add anything to the description of it given in the Life, save that even a shy child was spared any painful access of shyness in his presence. To his visitors in general he was a singularly attractive host. Their presence stimulated him, and under this stimulus he appeared to his best advantage, full of light-hearted humour and fun as well as serious matter, yet with a total absence of pose or pontification, even if he often had most of the talk to himself. " It was this happy absence of pose, and the natural and simple way in which he began talking to his guests, so as to get them on their own likes, which made him so charming a host to a stranger. His happy choice of matter for talk seemed to flow out of his sympathetic
nature and humble, vivid interest in other people's work." Unlike a certain great talker of the past, omniscience was neither his forte nor his foible; on the contrary, he was so genuinely modest as to the range of his own knowledge, vast as it really was, that he would almost embarrass a younger man to whom he would ascribe the knowledge he lacked himself.
If the cordiality of his welcome charmed the strangers who were his guests, much more did he win and keep the warm affection of his intimate friends, whether scientific or not. As Nelson among his captains, so was Darwin among the men to whose work in science he had given a new illumination and a new direction. Not admiration only, but affection, gave him something more than followers—a band of brothers. In the noble letter in which he conveyed to my father, when broken down by illness, the generous gift of eighteen friends that should enable him to break off work and recover his health, he describes it as a gift from them all as to an honoured and much-loved brother. The affection for him felt by his friends made them the readier to hit hard in his defence when he was attacked, and too many of these attacks were either ignorant or unfair. Moreover, they could not endure that he should waste his narrow margin of strength upon mere controversy. He should be, they declared, like one of the blessed gods of Olympus, while the inferior deities did battle for him below.
Some music and much pleasant fiction have been mentioned as daily recreations with which Darwin refreshed his mind after the stress of work. Eor such relief he " often blessed all novelists." All through his life he took pleasure in good singing and piano-playing Such as he could enjoy at home without going to a concert in London: a visit from Hans Eichter was a red-letter day. And this although his musical ear was so deficient that he could not hum a tune correctly nor identify a favourite piece, albeit remaining constant to what he liked. Nevertheless, he records acquiring a strong taste for music through the society of musical friends when he was an undergraduate. To hear the anthem in King's College Chapel " gave him immense pleasure, so that his backbone would sometimes shiver." These musical friends, however, used to amuse themselves by putting him through an examination to see how many tunes he could recognize when played rather faster or slower than usual—a grievous puzzle. ,
At that period, also, he cultivated a taste for pictures and good engravings ; fine scenery long gave him a sublime delight; and from his boyhood he was a considerable reader of poetry. But from the age of thirty these literary and artistic tastes gradually left him, to his regret. Even music was in danger of setting him thinking too energetically on the subject of his work; and fine scenery, which still appealed to him, appealed much less strongly. Thus he is often
held up as a "horrid example" of science causing the atrophy of the artistic sense; but this is not quite a true bill. The ultimate cause lay in the oppression of his forty years' ill-health. As he remarks himself, nothing availed to make him forget his daily discomfort except the joy and excitement of his scientific work. Thus the essential bent of his mind became all-predominant; his other faculties fell into the background. In this he differed from his chief scientific friends, whose aesthetic faculties continued to have full play; but it is noteworthy that the good people who pillory this one " horrid example " ignore the numerous instances to the contrary in Darwin's own circle.
The allowed existence of an aniina naturaliter Christiana is an undesigned admission that morality and its most refined ideals, blending with the religious sphere, exist independently of the doctrines which often claim the sole parentage of morality. Such a soul, it may be said, was Darwin's; simple, compassionate, tender, full of consideration for others; easily moved to righteous indignation by anything savouring of cruelty; free from worldly ambition or guile, bearing a lifelong burden of pain patiently and indeed cheerfully. By one of the minor ironies of history, the man whose researches were to unsettle the foundations of contemporary orthodoxy went to Cambridge with a view of taking orders ; for medicine, as set before him at Edinburgh, repelled him. Had this intention been fulfilled, we might have known another and perhaps a greater Gilbert White of Selborne. But his studies led him away from simple acceptance of the articles of the Church, and the project died a natural death. With reflection on the evidences adduced, with the gradual shaping of the evolutionary theory which dissolved Paley's 'argument from design" and the conception of perfect beneficence in the creative power, he passed slowly and without distress from orthodoxy and a belief in revelation to a vague Theism, finally reaching the conclusion " that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty." The circle of his personal life is an exemplar of high endeavour and beautiful practice, without the adventitious aid of the unproved, and often indeed the improbable.
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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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