RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1930. [Letter to James Crichton-Browne.] In James Crichton-Browne. What the doctor thought. London, pp. 61-65, 71.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by John van Wyhe 12.2019. RN1 F2446

[page] 61

April 20, 1882.—Charles Darwin has passed away, and with him I have lost a friend, illustrious and kind. Recalling my delightful intercourse with him, I pick out of a sheaf of letters one showing, as indeed they all do, the scrupulous care with which his inquiries were conducted, his marvellous suggestiveness, and his generous acknowledgment of any help given to him. It was written when I was making some observations for him on blushing, a subject which he has treated in an interesting and exhaustive way in his book on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

"Down Beckenham,

"Kent, S.E.,

"April 18, 1871.

"My dear Sir,— Your MS. is invaluable. I will correct my little discussion and give some

[page] 62

of your evidence on the connection between the circulation of brain and skin. I have quite overlooked any statement to this effect, no doubt not seeing that it concerned me, although I have read a good deal about the vaso-motor system. I daresay the relation between intense blushing and mental disturbance appears to you obvious but I believe I have read everything published on the subject of blushing, yet have met with no allusion to this point.

"Many thanks for the remarks on your sister-in-law. As she speaks about blushing when by herself, should you object to ask whether she has ever felt a blush when by herself in the dark. I have long thought that Shakespeare was in error (though this is high treason) when he makes Juliet say to Romeo: 'Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face, else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek.' Will you ask her whether she agrees to the following statements: that no one blushes for a fault committed when quite alone, and if not afterwards discovered or suspected by anyone. Thus, I believe that if a truthful man had been led to tell an undetected falsehood, he would bitterly repent of it, but would not blush. I can, however, well imagine that if the thought suddenly occurred to him. 'Had this or that happened I should have been detected,' then he would probably have blushed, though at the time in solitude. When a person blushes at the thought of a past fault, is it not always at one committed in the presence of others, or afterwards known or suspected by others? Little breaches of

[page] 63

etiquette, which perhaps cause more intense blushing than graver faults, imply the presence of others. Perhaps your sister-in-law will not object to give you her opinion on these points in confirmation or opposition to your own.

"Please to glance over the enclosed MS. and return it, as I may wish to consult it. The single pencil line down the MS. is my own mark that I have used it once. My query refers to your first case at the bottom of page one. At first I thought that the unfastening the chemise and examining the chest actually caused the chest to blush; but on reflection I presume it is more probably that the previous blushing was thus rendered more intense and consequently spread farther down the body. Can you enlighten me on this point? You offer to send me fragmentary notes on blushing: if you can get anyone to copy them I shall be truly glad to read them, as all your remarks have been most useful to me.

"My chapter on blushing, however, is already rather too long, so I should read your observations more for the sake of correction than of addition. When I think of all the trouble that I have caused you, my sole excuse is that I hope I may thus give to the public scraps of your knowledge: anything which I may publish from you would not, however, interfere with any more elaborate paper by yourself should your health and leisure hereafter permit you to publish.

"You most kindly offer to look over my MS. or proof sheets on blushing. This would be an

[page] 64

enormous advantage to me, but my MS. will not, I believe, be ready for rather a long time, as I intend to refresh myself with some botanical work this summer.

"Many thanks for the dreadful photos of the imbeciles and for your very curious paper on psychical intoxication, which I have been particularly glad to read.

"Yours very sincerely obliged,

"Ch. Darwin."

Blushing is generally a public performance, but I succeeded in satisfying Darwin that it may occur in solitude and in the dark, when an intensely self-conscious being recalls some outre word or action, or breach of etiquette, which is, as he says, most of all provocative of blushing. I am not quite sure that Shakespeare was in error, as Darwin suggests, in the case of Juliet. She does not expressly say that "the maiden blush" did not "bepaint her cheek," and her words may mean only that "the mask of night" concealed it from Romeo's view. The sudden discovery that Romeo had overheard her impassioned avowal of her love for him was, as Shakespeare knew, calculated above all things to mantle her cheek with the crimson of modesty and shame, and, although in the dark, she was not alone when the discovery was made.

I procured, from several highly susceptible subjects, answers to Darwin's questions, and they were agreed that secret blushing is never induced by the remembrance of any secret fault, but only

[page] 65

in connection with some faux pas that had been witnessed by others or had become known to them. The emotions that give rise to blushing—shyness, shame, bashfulness, love of approbation, or sexual excitation—are social and not egotistic.

I explained to Darwin that the case which I described to him, and to which he refers—a case by no means unique, in which in a woman, under medical examination, blushing, at first confined to the face and ears, immediately spread over the neck and breast when the chest was exposed—was illustrative of the rapid extension, under increased emotional perturbation, of the vaso-motor paralysis in which blushing really consists. That essentially human prerogative is not under voluntary control. Blushing can neither be induced nor checked by any effort of the will, but occurs when the inhibitory action of the sympathetic nerves over the blood-vessels of certain cutaneous areas, specially responsive to emotional changes, is temporarily suspended by some conscious agitation. Its distribution and diffusion depend on the intensity of the central discharge, and on personal idiosyncrasies.

[page] 71

Darwin told me that he could only carry on his 1 work in complete tranquillity. After a visit to London of a single day, it took him two days after his return to Down to settle down to his task again.

This document has been accessed 82 times

Return to homepage

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

File last updated 23 December, 2019