RECORD: Raverat, Gwen. 1952. [Recollections of Darwin and family.] Period piece: A Cambridge childhood. London: Faber.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by John van Wyhe. RN1

NOTE: A selection of recollections from Gwen Raverat, Darwin’s granddaughter.

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The trouble was that in my grandparents' house it was a distinction and a mournful pleasure to be ill. This was partly because my grandfather was always ill, and his children adored him and were inclined to imitate him; and partly because it was so delightful to be pitied and nursed by my grandmother. She was a most remarkable woman, to outsiders appearing rather stern and alarming, and with great independence of mind. But she was also extremely tenderhearted, and I have sometimes thought that she must have been rather too sorry for her family when they were unwell. A little neglect or astringency might have done some of them a world of good. Hundreds of letters of Grandmamma's exist, and hundreds more of Aunt Etty's; and every single one of them, however humdrum, contains some characteristic and charming phrase; and every one of them also contains dangerously sympathetic references to the ill health of one, or of several, of the family. Many of their ailments must have been of nervous, or partly of nervous, origin; of course, there was real physical illness, too, though no one now will

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ever know how much, for a great deal of illness was left undiagnosed in those days. But of one thing I am quite certain: that the attitude of the whole Darwin family to sickness was most unwholesome. At Down, ill health was considered normal.

I have been told that when Aunt Etty was thirteen the doctor recommended, after she had a low fever, that she should have breakfast in bed for a time. She never got up to breakfast again in all her life. I admit that I know none of the facts, but I cannot think it good mothering on the part of my grandmother to have allowed a child to slip into such habits.
The three of her children who were most affected by the cult of ill health, were Aunt Etty, Uncle Horace, and, later on, my father, George, though as a boy he was strong enough. But illness, real or imaginary (and there was certainly both), did not prevent my father and Uncle Horace from doing a great deal of work. Un-

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fortunately Aunt Etty, being a lady, had no real work to do; she had not even any children to bring up. This was a terrible pity, for she had nothing on which to spend her unbounded affection and energy, except the management of her house and husband; and she could have ruled a kingdom with success. As it was, ill health became her profession and absorbing interest. But her interest was never tinged by self-pity, it was an abstract,  almost scientific, interest; and our sympathy was not demanded. She kept her professional life in a separate compartment from her social life.
She was always going away to rest, in case she might be tired later on in the day, or even next day. She would send down to the cook to ask her to count the prune-stones left on her plate, as it was very important to know whether she had   eaten   three   or four prunes for luncheon.  She would make Janet put a silk handkerchief over her left foot as she lay in bed, because it was that amount colder than her right foot. And when there were colds about she often wore a kind of gas-mask of her own invention. It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool, and tied on like a snout, with elastic over her ears. In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion, oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter. She characteristically wrote to a

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proposed visitor: 'Don't come by the ten o'clock train, but by the 3.30, so as to give me time to put you off, if I am not well.' In the year 1920, when she was seventy-seven, one of her little great-nieces happened to get chicken-pox in her house. Aunt Etty wrote to Charles at Cambridge, asking him to look in the Down family Bible to find out whether she had had the disease herself, as she did not want to catch it. He was not able to find the Bible at once—it was in a box at the bank—so she wrote again, very urgently. Upon which he had the satisfaction of replying by telegram: 'Yes, you had chicken-pox in August 1845.' (All the illnesses and vaccinations are carefully recorded in the Down Bible, but it does not look as if it had been much used for anything else.)

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Darwins never cared enough about Art or Fashion, to be much interested in what was Right and Highbrow. When they bought an armchair they thought first of whether it would be comfortable; and next of whether it would wear well; and then, a long way afterwards, of whether they themselves happened to like the look of it. The result, though often dull, and sometimes unfortunate, was on the whole pleasing, because it was at any rate unpretentious.

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Down, my grandmother's house, had a different flavour, much cooler and barer, less of the earth, less comfortable: a fresco in pale clear colours, a simpler, larger pattern. Aunt Etty was generally at Down when we went there, but she was only an incident there, though an important one, bringing a breath of her own warm atmosphere with her.

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In one of my mother's early letters there is a sad heart-cry: 'We are going to Down. Oh, you can't imagine how dull these English country-houses are! There is nothing at all to do there.' Down—now spelt Downe—in Kent, was my grandfather's house. He—Charles Darwin—had died in 1882, three years before I was born, and after his death my grandmother spent the winters in Cambridge and only the summers at Down House, where we all went for long visits. Sometimes, too, she lent us the house for the winter or spring holidays, so we knew the place well.
I am afraid it was dull for my mother, and probably would have been dull to most people. There was hardly any local society at all There never had been many real friends in the neighbourhood; this was chiefly owing to my grandfather's ill health; but also partly because the Darwins did not fit very well into any particular pigeonhole in the life around them, though they were on good terms with all their acquaintance. Social needs were supplied by congenial relations who came to stay. There were still plenty of relations staying in the house when I remember it; all kind and good and pleasant, but generally much older than my mother. There was very little talk about any of the things in which she was interested; only mild family jokes, and long quiet conversations about politics; or, more often, about facts and theories; interesting, if you were interested in general scientific ideas, but utterly boring to her.

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For instance, the path in front of the veranda was made of large round water-worn pebbles, from some sea beach. They were not loose, but stuck down tight in moss and sand, and were black and shiny, as if they had been polished. I adored those pebbles.

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The magic began from the moment when John, the coachman, met us at Orpington station with the wagonette, and we drove off through the tunnel under the railway, all shrieking shrilly, to make the echo answer. We drove four miles, through the deep narrow lanes, where the trees met overhead, and there was a damp smell from the high earth banks on each side. The lanes were so narrow that it was often hard to pass a cart without stopping at a wider place. Then came the village, and the wagonette rumbled round three sides of the churchyard which surrounds the humble little old flint church, before turning up past the blacksmith's shop and the pond, and reaching Down House. And as soon as the door was opened, we smelt again the unmistakable cool, empty, country smell of the house, and we rushed all over the big, under-furnished rooms in an ecstasy of joy. They reflected the barer way of life of the early nineteenth century, rather than the crowded, fussy mid-Victorian period. The furnishing was ugly in a way, but it was dignified and plain.
I have said that the nursery at Down had a white painted floor; it had green Venetian blinds, too, and a great old mulberry tree grew right up against the windows outside. The shadows of the leaves used to shift about on the white floor, and you could hear

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the plop of the ripe mulberries as they fell to the ground, and the blackbirds sang there in the early mornings. They lived permanently in the tree in the fruit season. I used to get out of bed to listen to them before anyone else was awake. Under the window was the pump, which squeaked in the hot afternoons when they pumped up the drinking water for the house. The well was supposed to be 365 feet deep. In the passage by the nursery door hung the rope which

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pulled the great bell in the roof; it was rung for meals, very loud and majestic. And on the landing hung a swinging rope with a crossbar, on which we did all kinds of gymnastics.

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There was no bathroom at Down, nor any hot water, except in the kitchen, but there were plenty of housemaids to run about with the big brown-painted bath-cans.

There was another door into the garden—into the orchard— through the New Study. The New Study had been left just as it was when my grandfather died, to be shown to occasional sightseers, and often the shutters would be left shut all day. If we wanted to go

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out that way we used to dash across it at full speed, for it was rather an awful place, faintly holy and sinister, like a church. There were many mysterious things on the tables and shelves, including a baby in a bottle; or at least something in alcohol, which I took to be a baby. But sometimes when the house was full the room would be humanized by being used for a dressing-room by one of my uncles; and then there would be a round bath of cold water there.
The faint flavour of the ghost of my grandfather hung in a friendly way about the whole place, house, garden and all.

His beard made him different, of course, for none of the uncles had long beards, or white beards. Also Aunt Etty said that he had been taller than any of them; and, when he was well, gayer, more spontaneous and enthusiastic than they were.

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My father [George Darwin] explained to me once, that my grandfather [Charles Darwin] was rather different from his children, because he was only half a Wedgwood, while they had a double dose of Wedgwood blood in them, owing to the two Darwin-Wedgwood marriages in two successive generations. ‘You've none of you ever seen a Darwin who wasn't mostly Wedgwood,’ he said, rather sadly, as of a dying strain. 

The whole place was full of stories about my uncles as children— innocent stories, whose chief value is to show how very unlike Darwin family life was to the received idea of Victorian upbringing, with its beatings and unintelligent discipline. A good sample is the tale of how Uncle Lenny was found jumping up and down on the springs of the new sofa, an exercise which had been forbidden. His father said: 'Oh, Lenny, Lenny!' to which Lenny replied: 'I think you had better go out of the room.'

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Of all places at Down, the Sandwalk seemed most to belong to my grandfather. It was a path running round a little wood which he had planted himself; and it always seemed to be a very long way from the house. You went right to the furthest end of the kitchen garden, and then through a wooden door in the high hedge, which quite cut you off from human society. Here a fenced path ran along between two great lonely meadows, till you came to the wood. The path ran straight down the outside of the wood—the Light Side— till it came to a summer-house at the far end; it was very lonely there; to this day you cannot see a single building anywhere, only woods and valleys. In the summer-house faint chalk drawings of dragoons could still be made out; they had been drawn by my father and Uncle Frank as children.

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There is a story about him at my grandfather's funeral at Westminster Abbey. He was sitting in the front seat as eldest son and chief mourner, and he felt a draught on his already bald head; so he put his black gloves to balance on the top of his skull, and sat like that all through the service with the eyes of the nation upon him.

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My grandfather said once: 'I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them, except about their health.'

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[Of a spelling game played at Downe]
Then there was the story of my grandfather (CD.) who, on seeing the word mother on the board, looked at it for a long time, and then said 'moe-ther; there's no word moether.'



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

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