RECORD: James, Henry. [1869]. [Recollection of Darwin]. In Dupee, Frederick W. ed. 1956. Autobiography: A small boy and others, notes of a son and brother, the middle years. New York: Criterion Books, p. 515.

REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared by Kees Rookmaaker and John van Wyhe 11.2010. Introduction by Peter Lucas 12.2011. RN2

NOTE: See the record for this item in the Freeman Bibliographical Database by entering its Identifier here. This recollection is reprinted in Thomas Glick, What about Darwin? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2010.

The 'young Yankee' and the Darwin family

Peter Lucas

Henry James's youthful visit to Down House on the first stage of his first (adult) European tour marked the beginning of an enduring link with the Darwin family.  His own brief reference to the visit is enriched by the rare glimpse of the aspiring novelist seen through the eyes of another acute observer, Darwin's daughter Henrietta.  'This autumn was one of unusual sociability', she wrote of 1868, 'we also had much intercourse with Charles [Eliot] Norton, of Cambridge, Mass., and his family, who were staying for some time at Keston Rectory, a neighbouring parish to Down.  A warm friendship sprang up between the two families, and this intimacy led to my brother William's marriage many years later to Mrs Norton's sister, Sara Sedgwick' (Litchfield 1915 II: 191-192).  In the following spring her mother's diary recorded for 27 March 1869, 'Mrs C Norton & Mr James' (CUL-DAR242.33).  On the following day, 'Easter Sunday', Henrietta gave an account of the occasion to her brother George:

We meanwhile had a lunz party - Mrs Charles Norton asked leave to bring a young Yankee who had a great wish to have a sight of Father & hear him emit one roar – They were very modest & said half an hour would amply serve their purpose – but of course we said come to lunz - The Yank was a v. nice man – m. easier & m. talkable than most Englishers – perf at his ease & straightforward - He is quite young & has already crossed the Atlantic 7 times but he says that is nothing' (CUL-DAR245:292; a transcription in CUL-DAR251:336).

Susan Norton née Sedgwick and her sister were the 'American cousins' whom in Trinity College in May of the same year the geologist Adam Sedgwick, then in his 85th year, 'entertained … with the hilarity and vigour of twenty years before' (Clark & Hughes 1890 II: 446).  Sara, the younger, married William Darwin in November 1877 (Litchfield 1915 II: 228-229).  Bernard Darwin remembered 'her slow rather musical Bostonian voice … Aunt Sara was an American from Cambridge; she was the kindest of the kind but a little formidable … She was a Sedgwick, and Sedgwicks, Eliots and Nortons are not to be lightly encountered' (Darwin 1955: 42). 

Sara was especially close to Alice James, the doomed sister in that family with four older brothers, one reason perhaps why after Sara's marriage the novelist was quick to visit the couple at Bassett, 'a very pretty roomy villa, with charming grounds and views, completely in the country, though in the midst of a very agreeable residential suburb of Southampton', as he described it to his elder brother William on 28 January 1878 (Edel 1975: 150).  Of a later visit, he wrote on 11 December 1883: 'I am just back from a little Saturday-to-Monday visit to Sara Darwin ... Darwin is better than ever – a jewel of a husband & a most modest flower of human beings … There was no one there but Miss Darwin, who struck me as dullish & queer, but probably harmless;1 & William & I took a ten-mile walk on the lovely frosty Sunday, through a country delightfully rural and old-English, & then came back and lunched on cold pheasant & hock' (Horne 1999 : 151).  Sara died in 1902 but one of the private diaries which escaped James's holocaust of his papers shows the two men still in touch the month before the assassination at Sarajevo, 45 years after the young Yankee's 'lunz' at Down House: '9 May 1914 Saturday  Wm Darwin lunches with me, 1.45.  Went with him to the Royal Academy afterwards and thence home with him to tea' (Edel and Powers 1987: 399).

1 She must be Henrietta's younger sister Elizabeth, Bessy, 'rather more of a silent entity' (Browne 2002: 334).


Darwin, Bernard 1955.  The world that Fred made; an autobiography. London: Chatto & Windus.
Edel, Leon ed 1975. Henry James Letters Volume II 1875-1883. Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 
Edel, Leon and Powers Lyall H. ed 1987.  The Complete Notebooks of Henry James. New York Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Horne, Philip ed 1999.  Henry James: A Life in Letters. London: Penguin Group.
Litchfield, Henrietta ed 1915.  Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters 1792-1896. London: John Murray.

[page] 515

I found the Charles [Eliot] Nortons settled for the time in London, with social contacts and penetrations, a give and take of hospitality, that I felt as wondrous and of some elements of which they offered me, in their great kindness, the benefit; so that I was long to value having owed them in the springtime of '69 five separate impressions of distinguished persons, then in the full flush of activity and authority, that affected my young provincialism as a positive fairytale of privilege. I had a Sunday afternoon hour with Mrs. Lewes at North Bank [...] and then the opportunity of dining with Mr. [John] Ruskin at Denmark Hill, an impression of uneffaced intensity and followed by a like—and yet so unlike—evening of hospitality from William Morris in the medieval mise-en-scene of Queen Square. This had been preceded by a luncheon with Charles Darwin, beautifully benignant, sublimely simple, at Down; a memory to which I find attached our incidental wondrous walk—Mrs. Charles Norton, the too near term of her earthly span then smoothly out of sight,1 being my guide for the happy excursion — across a private park of great oaks, which I conceive to have been the admirable Holwood and where I knew my first sense of a matter afterwards, through fortunate years, to be more fully disclosed: the springtime in such places, the adored footpath, the first prim roses, the stir and scent of renascence in the watered sunshine and under spreading boughs that were somehow before aught else the still reach of remembered lines of [Alfred Lord] Tennyson, ached over in nostalgic years. The rarest hour of all perhaps, or at least the strangest, strange verily to the pitch of the sinister, was a vision, provided by the same care, of D. G. Rossetti in the vernal dusk of Queen's House Chelsea — among his pictures, amid his poetry itself, his whole haunting "esthetic," and yet above all bristling with his personality, with his perversity, with anything, as it rather awfully seemed to me, but his sympathy, though it at the same time left one oddly desirous of more of him.

Henry James (1843-1916), American novelist.

1 Susan Norton died in Dresden in February 1872 after giving birth to her sixth child.(Peter Lucas)

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