Darwin’s Private Letters Reveal A Deeply Sensitive Side
March 27, 2013

Newly Released Letters Show Darwin’s Softer Side

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Charles Darwin is known primarily for his revolutionary theories on evolution and natural selection, but a series of soon-to-be-published letters show a personal, caring and emotional side of the iconic and controversial English naturalist.

Some of the more intimate letters being released by Cambridge University´s Darwin Correspondence Project are a series of correspondences with his good friend and botanist Sir Joseph Hooker surrounding the death of his daughter-in-law Amy Darwin. Other letters detail Darwin´s feelings on his theory of evolution, which he dramatically likens to "confessing to a murder.”

In one letter to Sir Hooker, Darwin relays the circumstances surrounding the death of Amy, who was also a botanist.

“I am sure you will pity us, when you hear that Amy, Francis' wife was safely confined and was apparently going quite well when she was seized with convulsion which lasted for several hours, she then sunk into a stupor and I saw her expire at 7 o'clock this morning,” he wrote.

Darwin added that his son´s wife was “a most sweet, gentle creature, with plenty of mind beneath.”

“I cannot think what will become of Frank,” Darwin continued.“¯“She helped and encouraged him in his scientific work and whether he will ever have heart to go on again ... I cannot conceive.”

“My Dear Old Friend, I know that you will forgive me pouring out my grief,” he added.

Hooker responded to Darwin´s letter by relating to him through the recent loss of own daughter, writing, “My dear, dear Darwin, I cannot tell you how I feel for Frank and Mrs. Darwin and yourself. It seems to open up my own all too recent loss, and to depress me utterly,” Hooker continued. “Poor, poor Frank, my heart bleeds for him: they were so happy and she so loveable — how I envied them a few months ago!”

A few days later, Darwin responded: “Poor Amy had severe convulsions due to wrong action of the kidneys; after the convulsions she sunk into a stupor from which she never rallied.”

“It is an inexpressible comfort that she never suffered & never knew she was leaving her beloved husband for ever,” Darwin added. "I never saw anyone suffer so much as poor Frank. He has gone to north Wales to bury the body in a little church-yard amongst the mountains and I do not know when he will return.”

“I am glad to hear that he is determined to exert himself and work in every way,” Darwin wrote. “How far he will be able to keep to this wise resolve I know not."

Darwin and Hooker´s relationship was close and personal, but it was also professional. In his letters, Darwin often bounced his new theories off of Hooker looking for feedback and advice. Darwin even entrusted his friend with what he knew in advance would be the most controversial of all of his ideas — his theory of evolution.

"At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable," he wrote.

Hooker would go on to strongly argue in favor of his friend´s ideas in the heated debate that followed the publication of Darwin´s revolutionary scientific masterpiece On the Origin of Species.

According to Paul White, a spokesman for the Darwin Correspondence Project, the letters provide a window into the personalities, differences and relationship between Darwin and Hooker.

"Hooker seems quite irascible, he comes across as being hot tempered and gossipy, and Darwin really loved that stuff — there was a liberating quality to their letters,” White told BBC News. “He was more reserved — he had a formality and politeness. But possibly because of this he expressed things he wouldn't have otherwise."