The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 44 of 188

Besides these visitors, there were foreigners and other strangers, who came down for luncheon and went away in the afternoon. He used conscientiously to represent to them the enormous distance of Down from London, and the labour it would be to come there, unconsciously taking for granted that they would find the journey as toilsome as he did himself. If, however, they were not deterred, he used to arrange their journeys for them, telling them when to come, and practically when to go. It was pleasant to see the way in which he shook hands with a guest who was being welcomed for the first time; his hand used to shoot out in a way that gave one the feeling that it was hastening to meet the guest’s hands. With old friends his hand came down with a hearty swing into the other hand in a way I always had satisfaction in seeing. His good-bye was chiefly characterised by the pleasant way in which he thanked his guests, as he stood at the door, for having come to see him.

These luncheons were very successful entertainments, there was no drag or flagging about them, my father was bright and excited throughout the whole visit. Professor De Candolle has described a visit to Down, in his admirable and sympathetic sketch of my father. (‘Darwin considere au point de vue des causes de son succes.’–Geneva, 1882.) He speaks of his manner as resembling that of a “savant” of Oxford or Cambridge. This does not strike me as quite a good comparison; in his ease and naturalness there was more of the manner of some soldiers; a manner arising from total absence of pretence or affectation. It was this absence of pose, and the natural and simple way in which he began talking to his guests, so as to get them on their own lines, which made him so charming a host to a stranger. His happy choice of matter for talk seemed to flow out of his sympathetic nature, and humble, vivid interest in other people’s work.

To some, I think, he caused actual pain by his modesty; I have seen the late Francis Balfour quite discomposed by having knowledge ascribed to himself on a point about which my father claimed to be utterly ignorant.

It is difficult to seize on the characteristics of my father’s conversation.

He had more dread than have most people of repeating his stories, and continually said, “You must have heard me tell,” or “I dare say I’ve told you.” One peculiarity he had, which gave a curious effect to his conversation. The first few words of a sentence would often remind him of some exception to, or some reason against, what he was going to say; and this again brought up some other point, so that the sentence would become a system of parenthesis within parenthesis, and it was often impossible to understand the drift of what he was saying until he came to the end of his sentence. He used to say of himself that he was not quick enough to hold an argument with any one, and I think this was true. Unless it was a subject on which he was just then at work, he could not get the train of argument into working order quickly enough. This is shown even in his letters; thus, in the case of two letters to Prof. Semper about the effect of isolation, he did not recall the series of facts he wanted until some days after the first letter had been sent off.

When puzzled in talking, he had a peculiar stammer on the first word of a sentence. I only recall this occurring with words beginning with w; possibly he had a special difficulty with this letter, for I have heard him say that as a boy he could not pronounce w, and that sixpence was offered him if he could say “white wine,” which he pronounced “rite rine.” Possibly he may have inherited this tendency from Erasmus Darwin, who stammered. (My father related a Johnsonian answer of Erasmus Darwin’s: “Don’t you find it very inconvenient stammering, Dr. Darwin?” “No, sir, because I have time to think before I speak, and don’t ask impertinent questions.”)

He sometimes combined his metaphors in a curious way, using such a phrase as “holding on like life,”–a mixture of “holding on for his life,” and “holding on like grim death.” It came from his eager way of putting emphasis into what he was saying. This sometimes gave an air of exaggeration where it was not intended; but it gave, too, a noble air of strong and generous conviction; as, for instance, when he gave his evidence before the Royal Commission on vivisection and came out with his words about cruelty, “It deserves detestation and abhorrence.” When he felt strongly about any similar question, he could hardly trust himself to speak, as he then easily became angry, a thing which he disliked excessively. He was conscious that his anger had a tendency to multiply itself in the utterance, and for this reason dreaded (for example) having to scold a servant.

It was a great proof of the modesty of his style of talking, that, when, for instance, a number of visitors came over from Sir John Lubbock’s for a Sunday afternoon call he never seemed to be preaching or lecturing, although he had so much of the talk to himself. He was particularly charming when “chaffing” any one, and in high spirits over it. His manner at such times was light-hearted and boyish, and his refinement of nature came out most strongly. So, when he was talking to a lady who pleased and amused him, the combination of raillery and deference in his manner was delightful to see.

When my father had several guests he managed them well, getting a talk with each, or bringing two or three together round his chair. In these conversations there was always a good deal of fun, and, speaking generally, there was either a humorous turn in his talk, or a sunny geniality which served instead. Perhaps my recollection of a pervading element of humour is the more vivid, because the best talks were with Mr. Huxley, in whom there is the aptness which is akin to humour, even when humour itself is not there. My father enjoyed Mr. Huxley’s humour exceedingly, and would often say, “What splendid fun Huxley is!” I think he probably had more scientific argument (of the nature of a fight) with Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker.

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