RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1910. [Letters (1874-1881) to Dorothy Nevill and recollections of Darwin] In Dorothy Nevill, Under five reigns. Edited by Ralph Nevill. London: Methuen & Co., pp. 103-4, 106-112.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by John van Wyhe. RN1


[page] 103

Sir Roderick Murchison was, as is after all but befitting in a great geologist, a most serious man, and one who understood no jokes about science. When Darwin's theory of the origin of species was arousing great discussion, some one flippantly remarked that, as far as he could see, there seemed no particular reason why a jelly-fish, after passing

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through various stages, and transformations, should not become Archbishop of Canterbury. Sir Roderick gravely assured him that it was utterly impossible that any such development should take place.

[page] 106

Orchids, insectivorous plants, some of them of a rare kind, were our especial hobby at Dangstein, and owing to this I was able to furnish Mr. Darwin with a good many specimens, which I like to think were of use to him in his wonderful researches. He took a great interest in the contents of our hothouses, and for years kept up an intermittent correspondence with me, though I never could induce him to pay us a visit — he very rarely left his Kentish home at Down.

Darwin was a man of the utmost simplicity of life, and his household was a very haven of tranquillity. On one occasion, when there was a question of my paying the Darwins a visit of some days, Mrs. Darwin wrote to me, saying that she understood that those who moved much in London society were accustomed to find their country-house visits enlivened by all sorts of sports and practical jokes — she had read that tossing people in blankets had become highly popular as a diversion. "I am afraid," her letter ended, "we should hardly be able to offer you any-thing of that sort."

I did pay Darwin a visit at Down, but as ill-luck would have it he was just at this time suffering from a violent attack of the malady — for it amounted to that — which he had contracted during his voyage on the Beagle, when he had become a martyr to sea-sickness, which never afterwards

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entirely left him, and throughout his tireless life of investigation intermittently rendered his existence a burden.

I carried on a correspondence with Mr. Darwin for some years, and later on, when I left Hampshire, he used occasionally to come and see me during visits to London. Our gardens at Dangstein contained many curious plants, which were of use to the great evolutionist in his researches, and I was only too proud to furnish him with anything he might require.

Most of Mr. Darwin's letters dealt with his horticultural research. As, however, everything connected with this great man is now of interest, I subjoin a few of the letters in question.

The following referred to Venus' Sun Trap (Dionea) and to the Sun Dew, of which English and tropical species exist —

Down, Beckenham, Kent

3rd September 1874

Dear Lady Dorothy Nevill,—I am much obliged for your Ladyship's extremely kind letter. I have nearly fin¬ished my work on Dionea, and though a fine specimen would have been of much use to me, I shall manage pretty well with some poor plants which I have.

I have never seen Drosera dichotoma, and should much like to make a cursory examination of it. Will you be so good as to tell your gardener to address it to C. Darwin, Orpington Station, S.E.R. To be forwarded immediately by a foot messenger.

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I will return the plant as soon as my observations are finished, and I hope it will not be injured.

I have so often heard of the beauty of the gardens of Dangstein, that I should much enjoy seeing them; but the state of my health prevents me going anywhere.

Pray believe me, your Ladyship's truly obliged, Charles Darwin

 

As Mr. Darwin said, his indifferent health kept him practically a prisoner within his own grounds. So much so was this the case that for many years after he had taken up his residence in Kent he remained unknown to many of his neighbours, who, at last, seeing him on the road, asked who the new arrival might be.

The following refers to the insectivorous plants, a number of which we kept in our hothouses. They had, I remember, curious tastes, manifesting a violent repugnance to cheese, and not at all averse to alcohol —

 

Down, Beckenham, Kent

September 18th, 1874

Dear Lady Dorothy Nevill, — I am so much obliged to you. I was so convinced that the bladders were with the leaves, that I never thought of turning the moss, and this was very stupid of me. The great, solid, bladder-like swellings almost on the surface are wonderful objects, but are not the true bladders. These I find on the roots near the surface, and down to a depth of 2 inches in the sand. They are very transparent under glass,

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 — from 1/20 to 11/100 of an inch in size, and hollow. They have all the important points of structure of the bladders of the floating English species, and I felt confident I should find captured prey. And so I have to my delight in two bladders, with clear proof that they absorbed food from the decaying moss. For Utricularia is a carrion-feeder and not strictly carnivorous, like Drosera, etc., etc. The great solid bladder-like bodies, I believe, are reservoirs of water like a camel's stomach. Mr. Cook and I have made a few more observations. I mean to be so cruel as to give your plant no water, and observe whether the great bladders shrink and contain air instead of water. I shall then, also, wash all earth from all roots and see whether these are true bladders for capturing subterranean insects down to the very bottom of the pot. Now shall you think me very greedy if I say the suffering to species is not very precious and you have several, will you give me one more plant, and if so, please to send it to "Orpington Station, S.E.R., to be forwarded by foot messenger."

I have hardly ever enjoyed a day more in my life than this day's work ; and this I owe to your ladyship's great kindness.

The seeds are very curious monsters: I fancy of some plant allied to medicep ; but I will show them to Dr. Hooker. — Your Ladyship's very grateful, C. Darwin

In former days there was generally an aviary in large gardens, and we kept a good many birds

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in ours, amongst them love-birds in a large, covered wire enclosure, carefully shielded from draughts. We were very successful with them, and one pair produced no less than twenty little ones, which much interested Mr. Darwin to hear. In the following letter he referred to this —

 

Down, Beckenham, Kent

29th December, 1874

Dear Lady Dorothy Nevill, — I thought that I had reported on the Utricularia, and I certainly ought to have done so. The large swellings on the roots or rhizomes certainly serve to store up water, and it is wonderful how long the plant can exist in quite dry earth, these swellings or tubers gradually yielding up their water. But the minute bladders have interested me most. I have found in four of them on your plant minute decayed animals; and in the dried bladders of plants from their native country a much larger number of captured creatures, commonly mites. The bladders are lined with quadrified processes, consisting of most delicate membrane; these are empty and transparent in the bladders which have caught nothing, but are filled with granular, spontaneously moving proto-plasm in those which have lain for some time in contact with decayed animal matter. Therefore I feel sure that the plant is adapted for catching live animals, and feeds on their remains when decayed.

I am much obliged to you for telling me the very curious anecdote about the love-birds.

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When in London during the winter I hope that I may be so fortunate as to have the honour of seeing your Ladyship. — I beg leave to remain, yours faithfully and obliged, Charles Darwin

My son, who has written this from my dictation, is pleased that you were interested by his article.

Mr. Darwin paid me several visits when he came to London, which was seldom, for town was little to his taste, his mind being entirely absorbed by those studies which have rendered his name illustrious throughout all time.

In the later seventies he devoted much time to investigating the habits of insect-catching plants, and again I afforded him some slight assistance, which he acknowledged as follows —

 

Down, Beckenham, Kent

15th January 1877

Dear Lady Dorothy Nevill, — I am much obliged for all the trouble which you have so kindly taken. One of your references relates to the Apognice catching Lepidoptera, and this is the most gratuitous case of cruelty known to me in a state of nature, for apparently such captures are of no use to the plant, and assuredly not to the wretched butterfly, or moth, or fly. — Your Ladyship's truly obliged, Charles Darwin

 

Alas! there is much suffering and cruelty

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in the world which seems to us meaningless and unnecessary; but after all, human intelligence is but finite, and in all probability everything is designed for the best.

The last note I got from the famous evolutionist was one in answer to my request that he would inscribe his name upon a little birthday book of mine which contains the signatures of most of the great Victorians —

Down, Beckenham, Kent

(Railway Station Orpington, S.E.R.)

Nov. 29th, 1881

Dear Lady Dorothy Nevill, — I have had much pleasure in signing the little book. I rarely come to London, but on the two last occasions, I had hoped for the honour and pleasure of calling on you. Time and strength, however, failed me. I am glad that you have been at all interested by my book on earthworms. — I beg leave to remain, your Ladyship's faithfully and obliged, Charles Darwin

 

I never heard from him again.

 


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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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