The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 7 of 188

“My father’s mind was not scientific, and he did not try to generalize his knowledge under general laws; yet he formed a theory for almost everything which occurred. I do not think I gained much from him intellectually; but his example ought to have been of much moral service to all his children. One of his golden rules (a hard one to follow) was, ‘Never become the friend of any one whom you cannot respect.'”

Dr. Darwin had six children (Of these Mrs. Wedgwood is now the sole survivor.): Marianne, married Dr. Henry Parker; Caroline, married Josiah Wedgwood; Erasmus Alvey; Susan, died unmarried; Charles Robert; Catherine, married Rev. Charles Langton.

The elder son, Erasmus, was born in 1804, and died unmarried at the age of seventy-seven.

He, like his brother, was educated at Shrewsbury School and at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and in London, and took the degree of Bachelor of Medicine at Cambridge. He never made any pretence of practising as a doctor, and, after leaving Cambridge, lived a quiet life in London.

There was something pathetic in Charles Darwin’s affection for his brother Erasmus, as if he always recollected his solitary life, and the touching patience and sweetness of his nature. He often spoke of him as “Poor old Ras,” or “Poor dear old Philos”–I imagine Philos (Philosopher) was a relic of the days when they worked at chemistry in the tool-house at Shrewsbury– a time of which he always preserved a pleasant memory. Erasmus being rather more than four years older than Charles Darwin, they were not long together at Cambridge, but previously at Edinburgh they lived in the same lodgings, and after the Voyage they lived for a time together in Erasmus’ house in Great Marlborough Street. At this time also he often speaks with much affection of Erasmus in his letters to Fox, using words such as “my dear good old brother.” In later years Erasmus Darwin came to Down occasionally, or joined his brother’s family in a summer holiday. But gradually it came about that he could not, through ill health, make up his mind to leave London, and then they only saw each other when Charles Darwin went for a week at a time to his brother’s house in Queen Anne Street.

The following note on his brother’s character was written by Charles Darwin at about the same time that the sketch of his father was added to the ‘Recollections.’:–

“My brother Erasmus possessed a remarkably clear mind with extensive and diversified tastes and knowledge in literature, art, and even in science. For a short time he collected and dried plants, and during a somewhat longer time experimented in chemistry. He was extremely agreeable, and his wit often reminded me of that in the letters and works of Charles Lamb. He was very kind-hearted…His health from his boyhood had been weak, and as a consequence he failed in energy. His spirits were not high, sometimes low, more especially during early and middle manhood. He read much, even whilst a boy, and at school encouraged me to read, lending me books. Our minds and tastes were, however, so different, that I do not think I owe much to him intellectually. I am inclined to agree with Francis Galton in believing that education and environment produce only a small effect on the mind of any one, and that most of our qualities are innate.”

Erasmus Darwin’s name, though not known to the general public, may be remembered from the sketch of his character in Carlyle’s ‘Reminiscences,’ which I here reproduce in part:–

“Erasmus Darwin, a most diverse kind of mortal, came to seek us out very soon (‘had heard of Carlyle in Germany, etc.’) and continues ever since to be a quiet house-friend, honestly attached; though his visits latterly have been rarer and rarer, health so poor, I so occupied, etc., etc. He had something of original and sarcastically ingenious in him, one of the sincerest, naturally truest, and most modest of men; elder brother of Charles Darwin (the famed Darwin on Species of these days) to whom I rather prefer him for intellect, had not his health quite doomed him to silence and patient idleness…My dear one had a great favour for this honest Darwin always; many a road, to shops and the like, he drove her in his cab (Darwingium Cabbum comparable to Georgium Sidus) in those early days when even the charge of omnibuses was a consideration, and his sparse utterances, sardonic often, were a great amusement to her. ‘A perfect gentleman,’ she at once discerned him to be, and of sound worth and kindliness in the most unaffected form.” (Carlyle’s ‘Reminiscences,’ vol. ii. page 208.)

Charles Darwin did not appreciate this sketch of his brother; he thought Carlyle had missed the essence of his most lovable nature.

I am tempted by the wish of illustrating further the character of one so sincerely beloved by all Charles Darwin’s children, to reproduce a letter to the “Spectator” (September 3, 1881) by his cousin Miss Julia Wedgwood.

“A portrait from Mr. Carlyle’s portfolio not regretted by any who loved the original, surely confers sufficient distinction to warrant a few words of notice, when the character it depicts is withdrawn from mortal gaze. Erasmus, the only brother of Charles Darwin, and the faithful and affectionate old friend of both the Carlyles, has left a circle of mourners who need no tribute from illustrious pen to embalm the memory so dear to their hearts; but a wider circle must have felt some interest excited by that tribute, and may receive with a certain attention the record of a unique and indelible impression, even though it be made only on the hearts of those who cannot bequeath it, and with whom, therefore, it must speedily pass away. They remember it with the same distinctness as they remember a creation of genius; it has in like manner enriched and sweetened life, formed a common meeting-point for those who had no other; and, in its strong fragrance of individuality, enforced that respect for the idiosyncracies of human character without which moral judgment is always hard and shallow, and often unjust. Carlyle was one to find a peculiar enjoyment in the combination of liveliness and repose which gave his friend’s society an influence at once stimulating and soothing, and the warmth of his appreciation was not made known first in its posthumous expression; his letters of anxiety nearly thirty years ago, when the frail life which has been prolonged to old age was threatened by serious illness, are still fresh in my memory. The friendship was equally warm with both husband and wife. I remember well a pathetic little remonstrance from her elicited by an avowal from Erasmus Darwin, that he preferred cats to dogs, which she felt a slur on her little ‘Nero;’ and the tones in which she said, ‘Oh, but you are fond of dogs! you are too kind not to be,’ spoke of a long vista of small, gracious kindnesses, remembered with a tender gratitude. He was intimate also with a person whose friends, like those of Mr. Carlyle, have not always had cause to congratulate themselves on their place in her gallery,–Harriet Martineau. I have heard him more than once call her a faithful friend, and it always seemed to me a curious tribute to something in the friendship that he alone supplied; but if she had written of him at all, I believe the mention, in its heartiness of appreciation, would have afforded a rare and curious meeting-point with the other ‘Reminiscences,’ so like and yet so unlike. It is not possible to transfer the impression of a character; we can only suggest it by means of some resemblance; and it is a singular illustration of that irony which checks or directs our sympathies, that in trying to give some notion of the man whom, among those who were not his kindred, Carlyle appears to have most loved, I can say nothing more descriptive than that he seems to me to have had something in common with the man whom Carlyle least appreciated. The society of Erasmus Darwin had, to my mind, much the same charm as the writings of Charles Lamb. There was the same kind of playfulness, the same lightness of touch, the same tenderness, perhaps the same limitations. On another side of his nature, I have often been reminded of him by the quaint, delicate humour, the superficial intolerance, the deep springs of pity, the peculiar mixture of something pathetic with a sort of gay scorn, entirely remote from contempt, which distinguish the Ellesmere of Sir Arthur Helps’ earlier dialogues. Perhaps we recall such natures most distinctly, when such a resemblance is all that is left of them. The character is not merged in the creation; and what we lose in the power to communicate our impression, we seem to gain in its vividness. Erasmus Darwin has passed away in old age, yet his memory retains something of a youthful fragrance; his influence gave much happiness, of a kind usually associated with youth, to many lives besides the illustrious one whose records justify, though certainly they do not inspire, the wish to place this fading chaplet on his grave.”

The foregoing pages give, in a fragmentary manner, as much perhaps as need be told of the family from which Charles Darwin came, and may serve as an introduction to the autobiographical chapter which follows.

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