Although Darwin’s letters are a treasure of nineteenth-century natural history, they also reveal that he was engaged in lively conversations about a wide-range of subjects, including contemporary philosophy, politics and literature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these more casual exchanges occurred between Darwin and his women correspondents. These letters give us a unique perspective into Darwin’s world.
One such colourful and insightful exchange occurred in 1865 in a light-hearted conversation between Darwin and Henrietta Huxley, the wife of Darwin’s friend and colleague, Thomas Henry Huxley. Like her husband, Henrietta was a close friend and great champion of Darwin and his work. She was also, it seems, a keen devotee of Tennyson.
Responding to an earlier note from Darwin which contained “slyly disparaging remarks on my beloved Tennyson”, Henrietta wrote to Darwin in jovial defence of Tennyson’s poem “Sea Dreams”. “I am grieved to find that a philosopher of your repute”, she said, “—should have damaged your reputation for accuracy so greatly as to tell me that the quotation was from “Enoch Arden” whereas it was from ‘Sea Dreams’”. “If the “facts?!” in the Origin of Species are of this sort”, she concluded, “—I agree with the Bishop of Oxford”. (see the letter)
Here, Henrietta makes reference to an 1860 debate between TH Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford in which the latter attacked the science in the Origin of Species. Though reports of the confrontation between the Bishop and Huxley were mixed at the time, the incident came to hold a vivid place in the Victorian imagination as a pivotal moment in an ongoing debate about the relationship between religion and naturalism. That Henrietta was able to make light-hearted reference to the debate no fewer than six years after the event suggests that, while it evidently still loomed large in Huxley and Darwin’s imagination, it was at least an episode that could serve as a source of comedy. Like much of the correspondence Darwin had with women, Henrietta’s letters give us an insight into the friendly intellectual climate of Darwin’s inner circle and – more fundamentally – into Darwin himself.
*Sea Dreams image by kind permission of Houghton Library, Harvard University