RECORD: Hesse-Wartegg, Ernst von. 1880. Bei Charles Darwin [At Charles Darwin's]. Frankfurter Zeitung und Handelsblatt (30 July): 1-2. [English translation.] (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed and translated for Randal Keynes. Minor corrections by John van Wyhe 1.2008. RN1
NOTE: With thanks to Randal Keynes for providing this English translation which is provided here alongside the image of the German original (in Image or Text and image views). Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
At Charles Darwin's
Many of the millions of admirers which the great reformer of the natural sciences has in Germany certainly share with me the pardonable longing to learn something of the personality, the habits and the characteristics of this man. To us Charles Darwin is perhaps 'the great unknown'. With the most ruthless selfishness, the world habitually appropriates merely the: intellectual products of great men, or their deeds, and whatever satisfies their thirst for knowledge, without bothering much about those who have sacrificed their lives to it. We search in vain in biographical compilations, in encyclopaedias etc. for details of the man himself. I searched through Brockhaus, Pierer and Meyer, the Dictionnaire des Contemporains and Larousse in turn, even the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Chambers Encyclopaedia. There in turn were Darwin, Darwinism and Darwinist, but whereas the second article comprised several pages in all of them, concerning the first I found only some brief data about his year of birth, as well as his travels and the titles of his works. Hardly even the great man's place of residence is given in any of these books, as though there were no one in the whole world to whom it could be of interest!!
It therefore gave me the greatest pleasure when a few days ago I received an invitation from a friend to join a visit to Darwin.
The Lewisham Scientific Association had asked the scholar for permission to visit him one afternoon, and Darwin had not only immediately declared his willingness to receive them but also undertaken to give a short talk about his most recent research. About 40 gentlemen, mostly scholars and professors, were to go on the outing, and the Secretary of the Society had already submitted to Darwin the list of the names of the former, among whom were many personal friends of the great scientist.
Charles Darwin has been living for many years at his country house in Downe, a little place south-east of Chislehurst, in the county of Kent. His nearest neighbour is Sir John Lubbock, likewise a famous English natural scientist who is known in Germany mainly for his research on the life of ants. At Orpington station, close to Downe, we left the train at about 2 p. m. and got into the waiting chaises to drive on the fine road which passes through green, partly wooded hilly terrain to Downe, half an hour away. Truly, Darwin could not have chosen for himself a more beautiful spot in the vicinity of London. It seemed to us all a blessing to get out into the open country, and moreover into the most beautiful and picturesque part of it, from the depressed and smoky atmosphere of a city of four million people. Did we appreciate everything the way we certainly would have done under normal circumstances? I hardly think so, for we were all far too excited about making the acquaintance of the greatest natural scientist of the century, and our thoughts were too much occupied by him. Even the coachman, who let the horses set a pace far too slow for our impatience, had to offer what he knew about his famous neighbour, although we did not get much out of him. "I don't know nothing bout hem, Sar", he said in the splendid Kent dialect. "Ha es en enfidel, Sar " yes, an enfidel" " an infidel! " "and the people say he never went to church! But he is a gentleman, Sar" " he is a gentleman, if ever anyone was, and he lives like a gentleman. "The people in the neighbourhood say " but you seem to know him, good people?" grinned the talkative charioteer. "Then I would rather keep quiet. You know, I am a poor wretch!" Charles Darwin is doubtless better known in North America, in Australia, in South Africa than he is in his native hamlet. The good countryfolk do not give a damn about what he does, as long as he lives like a squire, cultivates his fields well and goes to church on Sundays. Moreover they rarely set eyes on the old man. Now and then visitors from the city are driven up to the house, and otherwise it is only the postman who delivers to the house twice a day the extensive correspondence which on many days amounts to dozens of items. Every university, every scientific society, every expedition or scientific station in various parts of the world applies to him, in matters of uncertainty, for information and enlightenment, which is given just as readily as it is promptly. Usually it is his sons and daughters who attend to this extensive correspondence, in accordance with the scholar's instructions. Hundreds of letters arrive every year, especially from America, with a request for Darwin's autograph, and from that alone we can deduce the accuracy of the old German proverb 'The greater the honour, the greater the burden'.
After a journey of half an hour we reached Darwin's residence: an imposing manor house, set back somewhat from the road. The forecourt, comprising gardens, is cut off from the road by railings. Virginia creeper and ivy climb up the old walls to the second storey. Two servants conducted us through a hall furnished with bookshelves to the drawing-room, situated on the ground floor: the 'parlour', where Charles Darwin and his wife were already conversing with some colleagues who had arrived earlier. The majority of the visitors were already known to him, partly through their work and partly through correspondence with him, and moreover his exceptional amiability dispelled within a few seconds the respectful awe which every visitor doubtless felt on entering the sanctuary of this great man. What struck us above all, and caused the greatest surprise, was his outward appearance. Darwin is " we do not know how this has come about " perhaps just as well known to the general public on account of his ugliness as for his works. Indeed, on the Continent, people hardly speak of apes any more without stupidly making reference to Darwin in that connection, and without applying the descent of mankind from the aforementioned genus specifically to the great champion of this theory. Evidently, some badly taken photographs were the cause, for Darwin himself, as he stood before us, can indeed be considered the model of a handsome old man rather than anything else, A tall, slender figure, somewhat bowed by the burden of his seventy-one years, as by uninterrupted work, with a noble countenance framed by a white beard, and a pair of such expressive, sparkling blue eyes that we immediately felt drawn to him, and realised the great injustice people do Charles Darwin. The very prominent, snow-white eyebrows are the most striking feature of his face. His hair has for the most part fallen victim to his age. In his appearance and in his pleasant, affable behaviour and his movements he is completely the English country gentleman, and hardly anything would reveal his profession. His wife and daughter assisted him in the reception of this large number of visitors, for it was the first time that Darwin was receiving a scientific society in corpora The servants handed around various drinks and biscuits, and during the lively conversation which now followed I had the opportunity to look around a little. The drawing-room windows, which reached to the floor, led to a terrace profusely covered with climbing plants, with bentwood garden furniture " made in Austria, as we deduced from the trademark burnt into the wood. It is the scholar's favourite spot. The view extends to spacious gardens with tall, shady trees, lush, luxuriantly green lawns and bunches of flowers. Immediately in front of the terrace there are a couple of flower-beds; along the edge runs the path to the hothouses, which are hidden among shrubs. From the garden the most delightful breeze reached us and the afternoon sun sent its bright rays into the room. The arrangement of the room has that old-fashioned simplicity characteristic of the majority of the smaller English country houses. An open piano in the corner, a couple of bookcases, a small desk with scrapbooks and a stamp album (probably belonging to the daughter) which, with her father's extensive correspondence, will be enriched often enough. On the tables there were books, photographs and albums, among them also the large and splendid album presented to him by German professors the previous year on his seventieth birthday, with its beautifully inscribed dedication on the title-page: 'To the reformer of the natural sciences'. The first and largest photograph among doubtless hundreds is that of Ernst Haeckel. While we were leafing through the album, Darwin came up to us and remarked: ' The Germans have given me the greatest pleasure with this presentation and I am very proud of it. I find in general my most sincere supporters among the Germans and I am glad to be able to welcome so many Germans among you too' . Among the visitors as a matter of fact a third were Germans, mostly members of the London German ' Athenaeum' .
We naturally had a great desire also to make the acquaintance of the laboratory and study of the great scientist, and Dr George Darwin, the former's learned son, took me into it. One would be entitled, in the light of the scholar's great and comprehensive labours, to expect a workshop in the manner of Dr Faustus, and one is therefore not a little surprised to enter a spacious, cheerful room, adjoining the drawing-room, in which a couple of bookcases and two simple work-tables comprise the main furniture. Not even a desk is to be found here, because Darwin usually writes sitting in an armchair, on a portable desk covered with a green cloth which rests on his knees. On one work-table there was a small dish with live insectivorous plants and some large specimens of Californian Darlingtonians, those strange plants which draw insects into their insides and, as it were, devour them. They had been set out because Darwin later gave us a lecture about precisely these plants. On this table, which at an auction in times to come would perhaps bring in just as much money as the desk of Byron or Napoleon I, Darwin undertook the majority of his work. On the second work-table, which stood by the window, the scholar is currently making observations for his next publication, 'The habits and characteristics of earthworms'. The worm specimens are in a thin layer of soil enclosed between two vertical glass plates, and while Darwin is now making certain changes to the layer, determined by the aim he wishes to achieve, by such simple means he learns everything he needs to know. He always writes the manuscripts in a rather brittle hand in ink on bluish paper, and indeed in such large writing that in printed form they would contract to perhaps a twelfth of the size. He corrects all the galley-proofs himself. ..........
Darwin has an excellent arrangement, which could be recommended to many another scholar, in the form of a series of wooden boxes, each of which is intended for the reception all, the manuscripts and notes dealing with a particular subject. Thus, for example, the insectivorous plants already referred to, the climbing plants, orchids, domesticated animals etc. , together with many other subjects, had their own boxes, which were enriched every day by some note, a newspaper cutting, a relevant object etc. When he is working on some subject " as now, for example, on earthworms " he then has to supplement and arrange the observations collected over the years in order to complete his work. Of the two dozen wooden boxes, which unconsciously have had such a large part in the production of Darwin's works, a considerable number are already empty " they have done their duty, the material has been processed " and now twenty thousand or even more copies have been distributed throughout the world in book form. About another ten of these fascicles are still waiting for the hand of the master. It is true that in spite of his advanced age he is still very vigorous and mentally alert, but all the same one cannot help thinking that many a projected book might remain unwritten.—
Fortunately, Darwin's sons are following in their famous father's footsteps. George and Francis Darwin are likewise serious scholars, and by taking an active part even now in the work of the old master, they are acquiring the ability to execute Charles Darwin's scientific 'last will and testament' in the way desired.
Among the works to be found in his library, at least a third are German, and a considerable part French. Darwin infinitely regrets his ignorance of both languages. "In Germany and France I have my most loyal collaborators", he said, "and if I could speak these languages, then everything would have been launched much more speedily and smoothly. I therefore had my children well instructed in them and they now frequently help me out of a dilemma. " During the talk which Darwin gave us afterwards in the open air, under the roofed-over veranda, I had occasion to admire the facility and lucidity of his language. Darwin recounts his observations in a loud, clear voice and a conversational tone, and knows how to order them so well, and how to clothe them so interestingly, as one would expect only from a skilled lecturer. In explanation of what he had said, he led us afterwards through the beautiful garden, full of very old trees, to his hothouses, in which he usually observes live plants. He receives the latter from all parts of the world, from every expedition returning from South or Central America, the East Indies or Malaya, and his hothouses undoubtedly contain the most extraordinary mixture of large and small plants, up to the most tiny lichens, which, however, have very little claim to outward beauty. There is just as little evidence in these areas that they are the workshop of the greatest natural scientist of the century. A single piece of apparatus attracted our attention. It concerned the investigation of whether plants reverse their growth when the root-end is turned upwards and the flowering end downwards, inserted into the soil. The result so far was satisfying.
Darwin's wife is the daughter of Wedgwood, the well-known manufacturer of china and pottery, and granddaughter of the inventor of the Wedgwood pyrometer, named after him, and she brought her husband a fairly substantial fortune. Today, in spite of her sixty-five years, she is still alert and lively and displays traces of once great beauty which has been passed on to her sons. The whole household gives the impression of elegant simplicity; nothing betrays the residence of such a famous man. Neither the many decorations and medals, nor any of the presentations and splendid addresses are out on show, as would be the case with so many other less important men. " Next to the 'parlour' is the very spacious ' dining room', and on the first floor, in addition to one or two reception rooms, the ; simply furnished bedrooms. The scholar's family lives on the second floor.
You can well imagine how enthusiastically we drank a toast to Charles Darwin at the dinner-party that followed. Unfortunately, the old man was no longer present, for he felt somewhat tired and unwell. The hustle and bustle of so many guests had indeed been a little too much for him.
Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg.
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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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