Emma Darwin's letters to her son George, 1881-1883

Introduction by Christine Chua and John van Wyhe

Between 1881 and 1883, the years surrounding Charles Darwin's death, his wife Emma wrote over eighty letters to their son George Howard Darwin (1845-1912). In these letters, Emma gave information about various members of the family, friends, neighbours, weather and politics. Her power of observation and the amusing way she expressed herself make these letters heart-warming reading. We also get to know what stories Darwin heard from his visitors and some of his thoughts and opinions. According to their daughter Henrietta, Emma started using "F" for father in her letters to the children from 1868. Darwin who was "very conservative" playfully grumbled "I would as soon be called Dog." (Emma Darwin (1915) 2: 192)

Later insertions in the letters are placed where they seem to best fit. Annotations were later added to some letters by family members. New editorial annotations and notes are largely taken from Christine Chua's transcription of Emma Darwin's diaries (CUL-DAR242) and Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion (2021).

As most readers today will be interested in references to Charles Darwin in these letters, we have extracted them below. The transcribed letters can be found in CUL-DAR210.3.

Extracts regarding Charles Darwin.

1881.01.25. CUL-DAR210.3.1.

F's eczema still makes him uncomf

F's eczema keeps him still below par & he has a great deal of trouble w. signing papers about the removal of cattle (there is foot & mouth disease about) the papers are so abstruse & troublesome that it takes a long time.

1881.01.31. CUL-DAR210.3.2.

F. met w. the account of a dreadful storm at Lisbon, but I hope it did not reach you

1881.02.08. CUL-DAR210.3.3.

It arrived when we were just in the midst of a day nearly as bad as the celebrated Tuesday before you started; but the wind changed to the S. & it was ferocious (so that F. cd not get beyond the kitchen garden today) but not cold & the snow is gone. It made F. so envious to hear of your 70˚.

F. has not lost the eczema, but it is v. slight now

F. begs you will not forget the worms in those parts ─ He is puzzled how worms get to islands

1881.02.16. CUL-DAR210.3.4.

F. thanks you for your translation. He is actually not going to answer the foolish man ─ (I must own he did write to say he has recd the letter but cd not read it) ─

F. has lost eczema & is pretty well

1881.03.16. CUL-DAR210.3.5.

The difficulty is to dispose of Lily & Mlle (Norton – Sara's niece) & we shd be most glad to have her without Mlle. who wd bore F. too much.

1881.04.16. CUL-DAR210.3.8.

We had a call from Alice & Madame Helmholtz ─ She is niece to old Mme Mohl & a very lively agreeable woman & F. flirted v. prettily with her. He has been led by an appreciation from a Swedish man of science to send his opinion on vivisection or rather experiments on live animals to the Times.

F. is in a gap waiting for his proof sheets with nothing to do, w. is always trying ─

[The proof sheets were for Earthworms, published in October 1881.]

[1881.04.13]. CUL-DAR210.3.9.

F. came in quite delighted w. his appreciation of you & Dr Ball he thinks is a great authority.

I am very glad the days are not getting any longer any faster ─ I find them just about long enough & F. finds them rather too long for his strength.

[1881.04.29]. CUL-DAR210.3.10.

I rather dread Mrs Haliburton's visit, F. will have to devote himself entirely to her.

[Sarah Harriet Mostyn Haliburton, née Owen. 1804-1886. Darwin wrote to her on 22 November 1880, "My dear Sarah, see how audaciously I begin". "I have always loved and shall ever love this name". Darwin, A Companion, 2021.]

1881.05.23. CUL-DAR210.3.11.

It is not a bad thing for Fr. to be stirred up by some scientific squabbles tho' vexations for him to have been the cause. F. sent off his papers, for him to publish at once as the others are doing ─ It is very vexatious that his mould movements shd have been forestalled

1881.05.25. CUL-DAR210.3.12.

F. has got his proof sheet now & will have everything off his mind before we start.

[1881.05.23]. CUL-DAR210.3.13.

F. was so unwell yesterday I was afraid we might have to put off our journey; but tho'

very poorly today, it is evidently nothing coming on.

[Darwin's last holiday ─ 27 May to 4 July 1881, was spent at Glenrhydding (Glenridding) House, near Patterdale, Cumberland, on the shores of Ullswater.]

1881.07.11. CUL-DAR210.3.16.

The Baron sat under the fir tree in the field & sketched the house, after F. left them

[Baron de Estournelles, friend of Leonard]

[1881.07.22]. CUL-DAR210.3.17.

Mrs Lushington is a jewel & kept F. in a state of admiration at her pleasantness & graciousness & amusingness.

[Mrs Lushington is Jane Mowatt (1836-1884), married to Vernon Lushington (1832-1912).]

1881.27.07. CUL-DAR210.3.18.

F. & I are much vexed to hear what poor hopes you have of the success of the pendulum — but I can't help hoping that some side long benefit may come out of it.

F. & I are going to Mr Rich [Anthony Rich] sometime in Sep. so I think you my put off that piece of virtue, yours my dear G

["Rich, Anthony, 1804-91. Chapel Croft, Heene, Worthing, Sussex. Honorary Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge. 1878 R made a will leaving nearly all his property to CD, on death of himself, then 74, and his sister; at that time it included some property in Cornhill, London, with income above £1,000." Darwin, A Companion, 2021.]

[1881.08.23]. CUL-DAR210.3.20.

F. & I have fixed our pilgrimage to Worthing for tomorrow fortnight — 2 nights — but we shall have hard work to avoid staying w Mr R's. We are resolved however to stick to the Hotel as to much less tiring.

[Chapel Croft, Heene, Worthing, Sussex, home of Anthony Rich.]

F. has been charmed w. Horace's slicing instrument ↓even I want to see it.

[Horace Darwin with A. G. Dew Smith ran the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, as called "The shop".]

[1881].09.28. CUL-DAR210.3.22.

Mr Pattrick is hard work, he is so languid, though interested in all F's subject

F's experiments go on badly & the utmost he hopes for is the certainty of proving himself wrong.

[1881.10.07]. CUL-DAR210.3.24.

F. & I quite agree with your notion of the gravestone. F's notion of the inscription is a little from yours see over.

Sacred to the Memory


In memory of E. A. D.

born … &c at Shrewsbury

died … &c in London

F. is rather for leaving out "Of No 6 Queen Anne St"

[For Erasmus Alvey Darwin who died on 26 August 1881.]

1881.10.18. CUL-DAR210.3.25.

We had also a v. pleasant American Billings to luncheon on Sunday ─ He had a flavour of Tom Appleton about him, & was very amusing as well as a clever man. F. is m pleased at the worms selling so well (they are printing more) & at the good article in the Times.

[John Shaw Billings (1838-1913), wrote to Darwin on 7 October recalling an earlier meeting with Darwin at the International Medical Congress (2-9 August) in London. He said he was encouraged by Lauder Brunton and Norman Moore to visit Darwin. Darwin replied the next day saying he shall be "most happy" to see him.]

[1881.10.07-11]. Postscript. CUL-DAR210.3.26.

P. S. F. offered Aunt C. a memorial & she chose a small black clock which once used to be in his bedroom; but we are afraid it is gone ─ a travelling clock is now in the bedroom; ─ will you have a look for it ─

[Darwin, Caroline Sarah, 1800 Sept. 14-1888 Jan. 5. Second child of Robert Waring Darwin. CD's sister. The only one of CD's siblings to outlive him. 1837 Married Josiah Wedgwood [III]. Darwin, A Companion, 2021.]

[1881.11.02]. Postscript. CUL-DAR210.3.28.

F. would dislike certainly the change now; but it wd be no permanent vexation or worry to him ─ A payment to the house agent for work done would make all straight.

Hen. threw out the suggestion of our making the same sort of expert with their house when they leave; this F. & I wd like better, but there is no saying when that may be. It wd be m. more suitable.

[Regarding the disposal of No. 6 Queen Anne Street, home of the late Erasmus Darwin.]

[1881.11.07]. CUL-DAR210.3.29.

F. & I are beginning to pity the landlords in Ireland, at least when it seems to be decided that they are not to be benefitted by improvements made before the time of the present tenant.

[1881.12.15]. CUL-DAR210.3.33.

We quite liked the young Capt. [insertion:] (prob. a distant cousin: Chas Rhodes Darwin) tho' a regular Philistine. He liked his visit too I think. He told Leo he wanted to see F. he had been so chaffed about him & called Origin & Theory. He expected to find a regular philosopher but found he knew about all sorts of things & was quite good company ─

[1882.01.04]. CUL-DAR210.3.35.

We have received the inscrip. Fr. is ready to blow his brains out on the question of adding F. R. S. to the father's name & F. is a little against it as Dr D was not a scientific man & wd not have been F.R.S. now-a-days.

Mr & Mrs Norman called yesterday ─ F's call there made such an impression on Mr N. he can't forget it ─

F. is doing his last hours work at the microscope & I am glad ─ it tires him so much.

[1882.01.19]. CUL-DAR210.3.37.

I am afraid the last days of the exam papers will be very irksome & F. & I will be anxious to know how you are getting on.

We have had bad colds & I hope F's will not fly to his chest ─

[1882].02.10. CUL-DAR210.3.39.

Some of these letters want answering, esp. that about the British Ass. (Assocn) at Southampton. F. hopes you may accept it — chiefly for William's sake —

Dr Paget & Carver attend him [Frank Balfour] & Michael Foster also comes in to hear but I trust he is now out of danger —

F. is greatly interested about fevers —

[1882.02.20]. CUL-DAR210.3.40.

Message from F.

"Newbury the author of the first article in Nature is a trustworthy man, & what he says about the nature of the most ancient sediments quite agrees with my impression"

F. had an attack of sickness yesterday. It was only an odd accident.

1882.02.28. CUL-DAR210.3.41.

F. is pretty well but sometimes has returns of the pain that stops him walking & makes him afraid of going further than the sand walk – He always finds it comes on when he has had no flatulence.

1882.03.11. CUL-DAR210.3.43.

I forget whether I told you in my last letter that F. had been unwell & finding that walking often brought on (in a slight degree) the pain he had the last time he was in London —

It came on oftener & he was very poorly & languid, so we had Dr Clark yesterday (Alas he wd not take a fee, after a letter of entreaty on my part).

He is very languid & uncomf. I feel pulled down if he had been quite ill — tho' he eats & sleeps well. Dr C. is still in favour of F. going to London when he is a little better & then we shd have no scruple in calling for his help —

It does not bother F. the least having Laura here, indeed he like to go into the drawing room & have a little talk with her.

[1882].03.14. CUL-DAR210.3.44.

I will wait no longer, & I can give you a better acct of F. each day he has been a little stronger & less uncomf. than the last — He is downstairs most of the day; but is still oddly weak —

[1882.03.28]. CUL-DAR210.3.45.

You will find F. rather feeble & unwell.

F. is oddly feeble as his appetite is good — & he finds the days very long — but I am sure he wd be too uncomf — away from home now —

[1882].04.06. CUL-DAR210.3.46.

You will like to hear a better account of F. Dr Moore came yesterday & he is quite confirmed in his first opinion that the heart is only very weak & afflicted by indigestion, the arteries also being old & stiff —

He approves of Dr Clark's diet & does not wish for more stimulants or more food. We shall have him again next week; as his state is very stationary. He certainly finds being carried upstairs (in a carrying chair Jackson fetched yesterday) a benefit & he escaped pain entirely yesterday.

[1882.05.22]. CUL-DAR210.3.48.

Here is a copy of Mr Rich's very charming letter which I am sure wd have pleased F. if he could have foreseen it —

[1882].07.21. CUL-DAR210.3.54.

Certainly a very strict diet did your father good quite late in the day when we thought Dr C. had nothing more to propose.


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