RECORD: Darwin George Howard. [nd] On my father's conversation. CUL-DAR112.B36-B40b (Darwin Online,

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed from the manuscript by Kees Rookmaaker, checked by John van Wyhe 4.2009. RN1

NOTE: Editorial symbols used in the transcription:
[some text] 'some text' is an editorial insertion
[some text] 'some text' is the conjectured reading of an ambiguous word or passage
[some text] 'some text' is a description of a word or passage that cannot be transcribed
< > word(s) destroyed
<some text> 'some text' is a description of a destroyed word or passage
Text in small red font is a hyperlink or notes added by the editors.

Reproduced with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin.



On my father's conversation

He always produced a delightful impression in talk. This was due to his utter forgetfulness of self, from the immense energy & fire with which he discussed every question from the most trivial to the most serious & from the obvious fact that whatever he said was clearly the result of his own thought & not an echo of what he had heard. But his talk was deficient in literary form, singularly deficient I think. I do not know that I ever heard any one whose sentences so often contained some infraction of grammatical rule. The most prominent of these sorts of mistakes was a welding together of the two ends of a sentence which were built on different plans, both parts of meaning the same thing but being grammatically incoherent. Even this flaw added a force to what he said, for it arose so obviously from intentness on meaning and not on form, and the impression of this intentness was inevitable from his obviously complete unconsciousness of want of coherence. No more absolute contrast could be found than to compare his conversation with that of Tennyson, whom I once heard talk for some three or four hours.



In Tennyson's talk every sentence was so complete the choice of words so apt and vigorous, that it was delightful to hear him although the whole of his talk during that time was absolutely devoted to egotism & self consciousness. It is likely eno' that Tennyson's talk on that occasion was not a fair sample but it is hardly likely that it should ever differ in kind. It is obvious which of the two styles would soonest grow wearisome.

He used a good many slang words in ordinary everyday talk, and was rather fond of vigorous expletives such as "Devil take it", or "I don't know what the deuce to do with it" or "Confound the thing."

He had a great appreciation of humour, but I think it was nearly always the humour of things and situations & not that of a quaint way of putting things. In all the stories which he told, and which he related with the keenest enjoyment I think this was the case. Many of those excessively exaggerated American stories & anything like a play on words rarely amused him. But the jokes of Charles Lamb, Sydney Smith & the humour



of Jane Austen were appreciated by him as much as it is possible they should be. There is one scene in Martin Chuzzlewit which I have several times heard him speak of as splendid. It is where Martin goes to the estate agent to learn where the allotment & town of Eden is situated, & the agent on being asked to point out the town of Eden whirls his tooth-pick round several times in the air & finally sticks it down in the map at hazard.

There was one thing in his general way of talking which was quite peculiar; it consisted in a singular inversion of the ordinary way of relating or explaining. Thus he would tell one all the qualifications and attributes of a thing before he told what the thing was itself. Thus if he were asking me to make a drawing I felt sure that I should first have to hear all the difficulties & points to brought out & method of proceeding before learning what the thing itself was.



I have described the outline of my father's ordinary routine of life & now I shall attempt the almost impossible task of the spirit of it.

I will take one the many pleasant Sundays when guests were there, during the last few years of his life. Let us suppose that Sir J. Hooker & Frank Balfour were there. As I said my father wd have breakfasted early. The whole party wd be at breakfast at about nine o'clock, & probably Dubba wd be in the room playing on the sofa, when my father would come in from his study & would bid a general good morning with a kind of grace & cordiality which was I think charming to everyone. He would then sit on the sofa next to the fire-place, or else on a chair near the fire, & join in any conversation which happened to be going on, but never dominating it or demanding attention. Even if there were less buzz of general conversation it became more animated. I have a vivid impression of Sir Joseph, or even more F.B. forgetting to go on with their breakfast, & turning



half round in their chairs — or if others were talking my father wd often rise & go & stand for a time near them. During breakfast the conversation was never usually general. But gradually the party wd break up, the ladies wd go to the drawingroom, leaving a knot of the rest of us there. If the guest were scientific, the conversation was apt to drift to science, & long & animated conversation wd follow. Often this wd go on so long that my mother wd come back to the dining room & tell my father that he had talked enough. He generally obeyed in five or ten minutes & went away to the study, there he rested by reading aloud. A very similar description applies to luncheon time, except that he was then at the table. At dinner he always left the room with the ladies, saying as he left "You must excuse me now, I always make myself an old woman." After he had gone we very frequently smoked cigarettes & had coffee.



These Sundays at Down were the most agreeable society I have ever known; there was an utter absence of gêne & the great conversational powers of the guests secured a flow of interesting talk. — It was not merely with scientific contemporaries that this amalgamation took place, but equally well with the younger friends of my brothers & myself, whether scientific or not. My father enjoyed society of this kind keenly, but conversation was always fatiguing to him, & this is not very surprising seeing that he threw himself into it head & soul & was never languid or torpid. It was thus very frequent that when he waved farewell to the guests on the Monday morning, he would sigh a sigh of relief, altho' perhaps he had enjoyed himself much.

This sense of relief was I think partly habit, for during long years when his health was very bad conversation became in his mind associated with the after collapse.



Indeed during the latter years of his life it was surprising how when in London he would be seeing people a great part of the day & he would relate with the utmost animation the accounts of his various calls on his return.

This document has been accessed 2248 times

Return to homepage

Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

File last updated 2 July, 2012