RECORD: Forster, Laura May. 1883.01 [Recollections of Darwin.] CUL-DAR112.A31-A37 (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker 8.2008. RN1
NOTE: Editorial symbols used in the transcription:
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Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
[in another handwriting] Miss L. M. Forster
My dearest [illeg]
After 6 days rain our weather is mending, but rain or fine this place has a most exhilarating effect on me. I could be good & happy looking out of the window all day long whatever the weather. I never did feel so much benefit from any charge & consider it is because I never tried mountain air before. We are not really very high, about 1300 feet above the sea, but with mountains all round, so that much the same air
must weep over us, tho' here tempered by the snow & absence generally of cloud which sits on the higher mountain tops.
I am living the kind of peaceful life in wh. sweet memories most frequently come back to one, & amongst them my promise to bring Dr. Darwin before you to the best of my power stands out most clearly. It is more than ten years since my first visit to Down, & so much has come to me since then in our growing friendship, that had his outward form & manner been less striking I should have had little to say of my 1st recollections of
him. But his fine head & majestic figure, his deeply sunk eyes, full of penetration & kindliness, his gracious manner & sweet voice, would have made him remarkable in a normal crowd. As time went on I felt that there was nothing to correct, but everything to enlarge & deepen my admiration for him. The tenderness of heart & general benevolence he felt for all with whom he came in real contact, turned into warm & stedfast friendship for those who had the privilege of sharing more closely in his home life, whilst his deep love for his family gave inexpressible
sweetness to every hour of the day. Other men may feel as manly, but few have the power to draw constantly the pleasure they are receiving from those around them, & that alone made the atmosphere at Down one of exceptional beauty whether in sorrow or in joy — his gratitude — tenderness came from such fathomless depths that the expression of truth was ceaselessly fresh and strong, & I often wondered at the spirit that would so perpetually manifest itself, without once making up a sense of repetition, or a feeling that his graciousness was intentional.
It was part of the largeur
of his nature that whilst he was one of the most accurate of men, he was one of the most spontaneous, & whilst his own powers of observation were exceptionally keen, he would never let a preconceived idea of his own influence his judgement of any facts observed by others. I think that the [amiability], sometimes amounting to diffidence, with which he expressed any general opinion, came partly from his extremely receptive attitude of mind, as if questioning would not cease over in the act of association. I do not mean by this that he would not test & weigh & examine most carefully all evidence, before he accepted
it in his own mind, but that one felt no part of his mind was walled in to begin with, what any one said or asserted would be tested on its own ground, & would have nothing to conquer in order to gain admittance. I had long been intimate with some of Mr. Darwin's children before I knew him, & naturally at first I stood comparatively in awe of him, so no one was more surprised than myself to find how soon I found myself turning to him for support whenever I wanted to speak my mind fully. In a large & easy circle where great friendships & yet great variety of opinion reigns,
each one is apt to be full of his own side of a question to give due weight or even due hearing to the words of his opponent. But Mr Darwin when amongst us, never allowed a hasty consideration or misinterpretation to pass by, & I have often received confidence to justify words that would otherwise have been overwhelmed, by his guile "stop a bit — what you were meaning Laura was x, was it not?" & so enlarging the opening for any indirect opinion he thought likely to be too soon made up. Except for this occasional touch wh. restored the balance of the discussion, he used often to be an almost silent listener to the talk round
him, but his mind was so invariably lively and sympathetic that his presence was always a stimulous to us, & instead of being the wet blanket silent listener as we so often are, the knowledge that he was on the sofa, & the consciousness of his penetrating eyes turning from one speaker to another brought a sense of exhilaration which passed away when he left the room. I think I never met with so good a listener anywhere, and certainly never with one who was so inspiring in his silence, but the truth was that he was only verbally silent, & that his whole attitude backed by a few
words from time to time shewed his lively interest in all that was going on. When well eno' to take his full share in conversation, he was a most brilliant talker, with a delicate appreciation of wit, & a great power of telling a story well & of putting his own experiences graphically before his listeners. He evidently enjoyed society extremely, & this led people who saw him rarely to believe that he would have better health if he went more into it, & that he only needed it's stimulating influence to increase his strength. But no one who saw his state of
prostration & discomfort often such enjoyment could share this opinion, or doubt that many of the delightful hours he spent with his friends were drawn from his capital of strength, & must be paid for by days of enforced idleness. I remember one delightful morning where he & I had been in unusually high spirits, & setting no bounds to these had been laughing & telling each other stories to our hearts contents, his suddenly getting up & going to his study, saying "now I must go & be quiet. If I stop another minute with you I shan't work for a week, you
will make me so ill." I was leaving often unclear, & he came as usual for his last goodbye at the carriage door & said laughingly "it is a good thing you are going after all, for if you'd stayed much longer you'd have killed me." & seeing I really felt some conspiration & feared I had overdone him, he added so nicely, "never mind, I will get over it. I don't know when I have enjoyed myself so much, or talked such nonsense."
When talking once of the troubles of a bad memory he told me that when 1st he began to study as a naturalist he worked very hard, at beetles, & that long after he
got a considerable knowledge of these, he found the greatest difficulty in remembering their names or that his fellow students would often for a joke to pick up the commonest kind of beetles, & put them down suddenly before him, & say "now Darwin you're the man for beetles, what's the name of that?" — for the life of him he could not remember. The story is the more impressed on my memory that it is always associated with an amusing step into greater care with me — he had been trying to encourage me into learning botany — I had told him my memory was so bad I shd. have to learn Latin as one slight preliminary, as I could
remember no name unless there were some sort of reason behind it, and I gave him one or two instances of the pains I had taken & the interest I had felt without any good result, on which he laughed heartily & said "Well Laura I must own you have confounded bad memory."
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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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