Correspondent of the Month: Joseph Simms (1833–1920)

The American doctor and author of works on physiognomy Joseph Simms wrote to Darwin on 14 September 1874, while he was staying in London. He enclosed a copy of his book Nature’s revelations of character (Simms 1873). He hoped ‘it may prove sufficiently interesting’ that Darwin could ‘say a word in its favour for print’. The book contained the following portrait of Darwin to illustrate ‘Observativeness Large’, the ‘quality or disposition to look closely and with rigid care at every object’.


Joseph Simms & ‘Observativeness Large’ – Charles Darwin, Nature’s revelations of character, 1873, CUL 8300.c.57, © Cambridge University Library

Joseph Simms & ‘Observativeness Large’ – Charles Darwin, Nature’s revelations of character, 1873, CUL 8300.c.57, © Cambridge University Library


No reply to the letter has been found, and Darwin was not sufficiently flattered to include the title in any of his published work. Simms also made the strange request of a drawing of Darwin’s right foot:


If you will favour me you can plant the foot on white paper lightly while sitting and with pencil draw an outline close round the entire foot. It matters not whether with stocking or not. Better without stocking.


If you grant this unusual request please give your height while standing in stockings.

(Letter from Joseph Simms, 14 September 1874)


The foot could tell the physiognomist quite a lot about the owner’s character. For instance, those with ‘arched or cat-shaped’ feet were liable to concealativeness, the inclination to hide or withhold the knowledge of things or thoughts. While flat feet were indicative of small secretiveness (Simms 1873, p. 154). A ‘broad foot’ indicated ‘demolitiousness the inclination to destroy: the propensity to mar, deface, or destroy’ (Simms 1873, p. 166).


Feet from Darwin caricature ‘Natural selection’, Vanity Fair, 30 September 1871

Unfortunately, we do not know what Darwin’s feet were like. The only known clear depictions of his feet are with shoes on in a photograph of him seated in wicker chair at Down, and in a Vanity Fair caricature, which is probably not a reliable source.


Part image: Charles Darwin, 1878, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:1, ©Cambridge University Library


According to an American Cyclopedia entry, as a child Simms had been ‘unconsciously drawn to the practice of noting facial and corporeal peculiarities, systematically comparing them with known mental characteristics, and educing certain assured rules and formulae’ (‘Biographical sketch’, 1897). He started lecturing in major cities of the US and Canada on physiognomy in 1854. In 1866 he sought training in anatomy from John William Draper, founder of the University of New York medical school and author of the conflict thesis of science and religion.  He graduated as a medical doctor in 1871 from the Eclectic Medical College of New York.


Joseph Simms from ‘Biographical sketch’, 1897, CUL Pam.5.89.100

However, he soon returned to physiognomy, embarking on a three-year lecture tour of Britain in 1872, including 52 lectures in London alone. As well as Europe, he later toured Australasia, Africa and Asia before retiring in 1884, having made a considerable fortune (New York Times, 13 April 1920). Simms himself, of course, was ‘a man of mark, being six feet high, of splendid proportions, and fittingly endowed by nature for the arduous physical and intellectual labours of his well-spent life’ (‘Biographical sketch’, 1897).


Later versions of his physiognomy textbook appeared as the hugely popular Physiognomy Illustrated, which was in its tenth edition by 1891. The work saw degeneration in the fact that American faces were becoming less different and people were ‘nearly as indistinguishable as sheep’ (Burrows 2008, p. 11).


In 1912, Simms was involved in a minor scandal when he was arrested in Central Park for carrying a revolver without a permit. He had pointed the gun at a five year old boy after the boy had picked up rice that Simms and his wife fed to the squirrels. He received a suspended sentence because he could prove the gun, a relic from the Mexican war, was never loaded or discharged.


When Simms died in 1920, his widow carried out his request of donating his body to medical science. The body was sent to George Sumner Huntington’s laboratory at Columbia University, where Edward Anthony Spitzka removed the brain. Spitzka was prosector of the American Anthropometric Society and he had studied the brains of many well-known men. He weighed it, concluding only that given ‘Dr. Simms was nearly 87 years old, the weight was above normal’ (New York Times, 13 April 1920).


Darwin’s attitude to physiognomy in the 1870s can be inferred from the introduction to Expression:


MANY works have been written on Expression, but a greater number on Physiognomy,—that is, on the recognition of character through the study of the permanent form of the features. With this latter subject I am not here concerned. The older treatises, which I have consulted, have been of little or no service to me. (Expression, p. 1)


Darwin was happy to use the word ‘physiognomy’ to denote facial features or the outward appearance of plants and animals. However, as to the science of determining character or personal qualities from the features or form of the body, he wrote at the end of Expression: ‘Whatever amount of truth the so-called science of physiognomy may contain, appears to depend, as Haller long ago remarked, on different persons bringing into frequent use different facial muscles, according to their dispositions; the development of these muscles being perhaps thus increased, and the lines or furrows on the face, due to their habitual contraction, being thus rendered deeper and more conspicuous.’ (Expression, p. 366)



‘A biographical sketch of Joseph Simms M.D.’, reprinted from The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. VII. New York: James T. White and Co., 1897. CUL Classmark: Pam.5.89.100


‘Body of lecturer given to science, Dr Spitzka removes brain of Dr Simms, seventy years a student of physiognomy ’, New York Times, 13 April 1920.


Burrows, Stuart. 2008.  A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1839–1945. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.


Darwin, Charles. 1872. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.


Simms, Joseph. 1873. Nature’s revelations of character, or, the mental, moral and volitive dispositions of mankind, as manifested in the human form and countenance. London: Printed for the author.


Simms, Joseph. 1891. Physiognomy illustrated; or, Nature’s revelations of character. A description of the mental, moral, and volitive dispositions of mankind, as manifested in the human form and countenance. New York: Murray Hill.


Correspondent of the Month:

This is the first in a new series, taking a closer look at some of the hundreds of fascinating people who exchanged letters with Darwin.

Even boils can be romantic

To celebrate Valentine’s Day we were very pleased to be asked to join in BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, to talk about how Darwin signed off his letters (no kisses).  You can hear two of Darwin’s letters to his wife, Emma, on the programme.   After giving her an update on his health, he ends the first letter: “My own dear wife, I cannot possibly say how beyo[u]nd all value your sympathy & affection is to me”, signing off as “Your poor old Husband” (he was 38).  In the second, a graphic description of his boils and a discussion of gardening are interspersed with deeply touching declarations of his love, and it ends “My dearest, I kiss you from my heart”.


Eloquent writing was something Darwin learned young, and was a skill that stood him in good stead.   The letters sent back to family and friends during his five-year voyage with HMS Beagle are alive with affection and longing: he regularly sends his love to his father and sisters, and ends a letter to one of his student friends “God bless you … may you always be happy & prosperous is my most cordial wish”.


If you’ve listened to the programme, the other letters mentioned are:


But if you browse through Darwin’s letters you will find those last two are unusual.  It was his deft manipulation of language in correspondence with so many different people, most of whom he never met, that enabled Darwin to build up such a large network of collaborators, and without them he could never have achieved the things he did. Darwin’s style was generally warm and engaging, and his most common way of ending letters to family and his many friends is “Yours affectionately” (or “Yrs affly” for short).


Yrs affly, and a happy Valentine’s Day,

The editors


The Verb airs on BBC Three at 10:00pm Friday 14 February 2014





We’ll need a considerably bigger bookshelf

Cover of volume 21 of The Correspondence of Charles DarwinThe letters Darwin wrote and received in 1873 – all 558 of them – are now available in volume 21 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.


We are delighted to announce that our latest volume was published on 23 January 2014. So what was Darwin doing in 1873?


‘I do not think any discovery ever gave me more pleasure than proving a true act of digestion in Drosera.’

In 1873, Darwin continued work on insectivorous plants, concentrating on ‘the most wonderful plant in the world’, Drosera (the sundew), and its digestive processes.  His exhaustive experiments were documented in  Insectivorous plants, published in 1875. Investigating the sundew’s sensitivity, Darwin found that the glandular hairs on the leaves  responded to slight pressure and minute quantities of fluid. Material dropped in the centre caused the outermost tentacles to bend inward, so that the plant closed like a fist. Darwin was fascinated by this transmission of ‘motor impulse’, which seemed analogous to muscular contraction in animals.


‘I could give 2 scientific secretaries work to do’

As well as working on insectivorous plants, Darwin was preparing to publish two more books in the near future, Cross and self fertilisation (1876), and Forms of flowers (1877). When he jokingly mentioned his need for staff, his son Francis proposed that he give up his medical career and become Darwin’s secretary. This was a useful move for Francis, who collaborated with his father in his botanical work, and later became university lecturer and then reader in botany at Cambridge University.


‘Did I ever boast to you on the success, as judged by the lowest standard of sale, of my Expression Book— 9000 copies have now been printed off, & most of them sold!’

Expression of the emotions in man and animals had been published in November 1872, and responses continued to flood in. Reviews remarked on the popular nature of the book. Full of observations of infants and anecdotes of zoo animals and family pets, it was judged attractive and entertaining. However, a highly critical review appeared anonymously in the Edinburgh Review in April. Darwin asked one of his Scottish correspondents, George Cupples, who the author might be, adding: ‘I hope that this explosion of wrath & contempt has done the poor gentleman, whoever he may be, some good, but I felt it rather hard after wading through so much abuse not to find myself one whit the wiser on any point; for I knew my own ignorance before hand.’


‘If you could have heard what was said, or could have read what was, as I believe, our inmost thoughts, you would know that we all feel towards you, as we should to an honoured & much loved brother.’

Darwin wrote this to Thomas Henry Huxley, in the hope that he would accept a gift from his friends of £2100. Huxley was overworked and in poor health, and in financial trouble because of a law suit. Darwin, though not in the best of health himself,  organised the subscription and with some trepidation informed Huxley of his friends’ actions. Fortunately, Huxley was delighted and accepted, and was able to take a long holiday in Europe.


‘Steadiness; great curiosity about facts, and their meaning;  some love of the new and marvellous’

Darwin was invited to reflect on his own character when his cousin Francis Galton, who was interested in the inheritance of mental traits, sent him a questionnaire. As well as mentioning the traits listed above, Darwin revealingly declared, ‘Special talents, none, except for business, as evinced by keeping accounts, being regular in correspondence, and investing money very well; very methodical in my habits.’ Francis added to his father’s virtues: ‘sober, honest & industrious’.


Read the introduction to the volume here.


See inside the volume on the Cambridge University Press website.


Mystery solved!

Royal Crescent, Bath

Royal Crescent, Bath

Thanks to everyone who offered ideas for our mystery correspondent, who sent a letter to Charles Darwin from 81 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin on 9 March 1875! We’re thrilled to say that we now have a definite result.


Glenn Branch suggested Isabella Harriet Wolfe (1813-95), who was living in at 19 Upper Leeson Street from about 1850 until 1877. Isabella and her sister Charlotte (1815-95) were the only surviving children of William Standish Wolfe (1774-1869) of Baronrath, county Kildare, and his wife Jane. The death announcement of Jane, wife of William S. Wolfe, in Freeman’s Journal 8 April 1846, probably refers to her. This identification seems relatively unlikely: Isabella’s mother died when Isabella was 33, nearly thirty years before the letter was written and doesn’t fit well with the letter writer saying, “not long ago I was startled by an exclamation of surprise fr. my mother . . . I was nearly fifty when this seemingly forgotten tendency once more appeared.”


That side track was disappointing. So what did we try next?


If the writer were a woman, then the initial ‘A’ could be for ‘Anne’: a search on the internet produced Gould Anne Ruxton who married Charles Wolfe (1825-66; a third cousin of the Isabella and Charlotte Wolfe mentioned above) in 1849 and who died in 1885 aged 61. But the signature was not legible enough to be conclusive, so we looked for more evidence.


The Wolfe family is included in Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland 1899, which shows that Charles Wolfe was British chaplain at Havre. The Ruxtons are listed, too: Gould’s parents were Henry Upton Ruxton of Ardee and Isabella Carlisle, the daughter of James Carlile of Craddoxtown.


Thom’s Irish Almanac showed a Mrs Wolfe living in Dublin in the 1870’s, although not at 81 Upper Leeson Street. From 1867 to 1873 she was living at 30 Waterloo Road (off Upper Leeson Street) with Mrs Isabella Offley, who died in November 1873 aged 74. So was Mrs Isabella Offley previously Mrs Isabella Ruxton? It seemed possible, and all the information so far was tantalisingly appropriate: a comfortable family background; life on the continent; the writer aged about 50 in 1875; and her mother maybe alive until shortly before.


Gould had an older sister, Isabella, who married George Abraham Grierson, a barrister, in 1846: they were the parents of George Abraham Grierson, an expert on the languages of the Indian subcontinent, who has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is also the marriage of Julia, daughter of John Offley, gentleman, and Charles Cannon. An unusual surname . . . and George Abraham Grierson was a witness at the wedding.


When Isabella Offley died she was described as the wife of John Henry Offley. Someone of that name was listed in the census returns for England in 1851, 1861 and 1871; each time he was described as married but his wife was not with him. He was educated at Cambridge and had a private income. In the 1881 census there was a wife called Harriet, but they only married in 1875. We called in reinforcements, and asked the Offley Family Society for help. One of their members came up with a marriage in Florence (not too far from the Baths of Lucca, mentioned in the letter to Darwin) in January 1829 between John Henry Offley and Isabella Buxton. Too much of a coincidence! All this suggested that Isabella Ruxton travelled on the continent with two small daughters and while in Italy married a wealthy Englishman. Was Julia Cannon née Offley their daughter? She died in 1915, aged 84, in Dublin and appeared in the surviving Irish censuses for 1901 and 1911, giving her place of birth as Berne in Switzerland.


John Henry Offley was born in London in 1804; his parents were John and Julia Maria, and he had a sister who was also called Julia Maria. He died in Bath in 1883 with property worth £164, 500 (about £8m in today’s money). It seemed worth £6 to order a copy of his will. While we waited for it to arrive, we filled in some background on some of the relevant players, but the will was to prove the decisive piece of evidence. It bequeathed two thousand pounds to Gould Anne Wolfe of 81 Upper Leeson Street Dublin, the widow of the late Reverend Charles Wolfe of Feighcullen Glebe, Kildare. The will went on to confirm that Isabella had been John Henry Offley’s first wife, and that Julia Cannon was their daughter. And although everything we needed was laid out tidily in the will, we never would have looked at John Henry Offley without having gone through all the other steps! It is always important for us to be able to place Darwin’s correspondents in their social and geographical relationships, in order to be able to have a clear picture of the correspondence as a whole.


We were very surprised just how much we were able to find out about a woman who spent all of her life outside the United Kingdom.  But we are left so curious . . . Why did Isabella Ruxton take her daughters off to Europe? What was the relationship between John Henry Offley, his wife, their daughter, and his step-daughters? In the 1891 census Harriet Offley, John Henry Offley’s widow, was living in Royal Crescent, Bath. Isabella Grierson was staying with her daughters, Constantia, Charlotte and Julia Maria, in Park Street, less than half a mile away. Did they meet?

Can you help?

Which Wolfe?

Which Wolfe?

We’re trying to find this correspondent – are you able to help?


The letter was written to Charles Darwin on 9 March 1875 from 81 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin. The correspondent says that they have just finished reading Descent. They write about their personal experience of pain, living in the country, collecting insects, a “long residence on the continent”, the Baths of Lucca, dogs, servants (including a French one), a thoroughbred mare, and once owning a water-spaniel that understood Italian. They were opposed to vivisection unless perhaps the animals were anaesthetised, and have just read Greg’s Enigmas of Life. The writer is not young – “not long ago” they were “nearly fifty” and their mother (presumably about seventy) had remarked on a trick of behaviour that copied the writer’s great-grandmother (their mother’s paternal grandmother, that is), who died before the writer was born. They also talk of a distant cousin with the same habit, whose grandfather married the writer’s great-grandmother’s sister. I think this means they were second cousins once removed. I can’t imagine that we will identify the second cousin (whether once removed or otherwise) but surely we can pin down the correspondent? We do have a guess, but we don’t want to influence you. Do send us a message if you have any suggestions!

Which Wolfe?

Which Wolfe?

Student daze

Early October inevitably brings signs of autumn to Cambridge: chilled breezes, colourful leaves, and wide-eyed Freshers wandering through town and library full of fear and anticipation for their university career. Clearly, the university experience has changed dramatically in the last two hundred years, but some student concerns remain the same – where to live, whom you’ll meet, whether classes are interesting, how to take advantage of a new city and independence.


Charles Darwin was not immune to any of these concerns. He went off with his older brother, Erasmus, to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in October 1825. Darwin was only sixteen, and was not known to be particularly studious. His first letter back to his father, written [23 October 1825] strikes a familiar note to everyone who has been a student – he dutifully told his father about his accommodation, sending the address and a description, pointing out that the rooms were nice, light, and also very near their lectures, to justify the cost and their choice. They were oriented by a kindly theology professor who took pity on them and gave them a map. They acquainted themselves with the city, went to the theatre, and attended their matriculation ceremony. Darwin was pleasantly surprised that when they attended a local church the sermon was limited to twenty minutes, having feared that a Scottish homily would go on for hours! Throughout his studies Darwin continued to make the most of the entertainment possibilities presented to him, attending dinner parties, the theatre, and reading the popular novels of the day (and, of course, occasionally asking his father for money), as shown in a letter to his sister Susan in January 1826.


Darwin kept in touch with all his sisters, a written conversation that he continued years later even when he was far away on the Beagle. By the time he wrote to his sister Caroline in January he was very accustomed to his studies, and had settled opinions on his lecturers and their topics. He seemed to enjoy the practical lectures involving particular patients (despite being very distressed by some), but had no taste for anatomy. He recorded in his Autobiography that he twice witnessed operations; in 1825 and 1826 there was no form of anaesthesia available, and he found the experiences so appalling that both times he had to rush out before the operation was complete and after the second time refused ever to go back again. Darwin wrote in his Autobiography of the way his scientific thought was formed during his years at the University of Edinburgh can, and suggested that many of the experiences he later found most important were related to the people he met and the societies he joined rather than lectures, which for the most part he found rather dry. He made good use of the scientific acquaintance available to him through the university, finding people to encourage his interests in geology and marine zoology.


After two years, it was clear to the Darwin clan that Charles was not cut out to be a physician. Accordingly, his father sent him off to Cambridge, preferring to have a clergyman for a son than an idle gentleman. This, of course, was a whole new chapter of life that led ultimately to his journey around the world on the Beagle – and would need a whole new blog post to itself!


For more information on Darwin’s earliest student days, check out our article on his student reading notebook, available here.

Darwin’s Women Film

Dr Philippa Hardman in the Darwin archive at Cambridge University Library

Dr Philippa Hardman in the Darwin archive at Cambridge University Library

To conclude the Darwin & Gender research project a short film has been produced. In the film Dr Philippa Hardman presents the project’s findings saying: “Darwin was no feminist, but our research has shown that his views on gender were a lot more complex than has been acknowledged in the past.”


As a man who, when working out whether to marry, once reasoned that a wife was “better than a dog, anyhow” Charles Darwin is not known to history as a leading advocate of gender equality.


Controversial though his views on other subjects may have been, historians have typically seen the great scientist as the epitome of the Victorian conservative when it came to gender. Famously, Darwin even stated that there were fundamental “differences in the mental powers of the sexes”.


Now, though, it seems that there may have been more to Darwin’s views on gender than he allowed into the public eye.


In his book Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin famously attacked John Stuart Mill’s feminist tract, The Subjection Of Women, arguing that: “Woman seems to differ from man in her mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness”.


The letters show, however, that in private he relied on a range of women correspondents for help with some of his most serious work. These included his own daughter, Henrietta, who was heavily involved in editing Descent – a book which counted as positively risqué by the standards of the time for its explicit information about sexual display.


Other correspondents included scientists like Mary Treat, the New Jersey-based naturalist, Lady Florence Dixie, a British traveler and writer, and Lydia Becker, the Manchester-based secretary of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage.


Philippa regards the stories that emerge from the correspondence as a message as well as an inspiration. “If we really want to honour the achievements of the women whose words we read in Darwin’s letters, we should do more than celebrate their lives,” she concludes in the film. “We should pick up where they left off.”



Learn more about the Darwin & Gender Project on our website and read more about the film in the Cambridge University press release:

Lost in Patagonia

A "Patagonian Indian" sketched by Conrad Martens at Gregory Bay in 1834, MS.Add.7983: 31, ©Cambridge University Library

A “Patagonian Indian” sketched by Conrad Martens at Gregory Bay in 1834, MS.Add.7983: 31, ©Cambridge University Library

In 1874, when Darwin was preparing the second edition of Descent of Man, he received letters from all over the world in reply to his queries about human behaviour; one in particular would have stirred up unexpected memories of his own time among the native peoples of South AmericaTitus Munson Coan, an American doctor, passed on a message to Darwin from his father, also called Titus Coan, who, as a young missionary, had spent a few hazardous weeks among the indigenous peoples of Patagonia on the north shore of the Magellan Strait.The 32-year-old Coan had landed at Gregory Bay (now in Chile) on 14 November 1833, and left again on 25 January 1834. Just one day later, the twenty-two year old Darwin arrived in the Strait on board HMS Beagle.  In his diary entry for 29 January 1834, Darwin described anchoring in Gregory Bay and going ashore with Captain FitzRoy where they were met by a group of Toldos:  their appearance, he wrote, was rather wild, with long hair and faces painted red and black, but they gave the Beagle crew a kind reception.


Coan and his fellow missionary, William Arms, were also made welcome, but they were poorly equipped and unprepared and after sharing the daily lives of the natives for two months without being able to communicate beyond a few shared words of Spanish, they abandoned their mission. Extracts from their diaries were published in the Missionary Herald in 1834 and 1835 , and a complete transcript of Coan’s diary,  now in the Library Congress,  was made available online just this month.


Darwin’s queries about the practice of infanticide reached Coan in Hawaii where he and his wife had been running a mission station since 1835, his next posting after his return from Patagonia.  Through his son, he told Darwin that although infanticide was sometimes practised, it was not prevalent in Hawaii, and moreover  didn’t favour the survival of one sex over the other as Darwin had suspected it might.


Much later, Titus Coan published an account of his missionary career and Darwin acquired a copy which is still on the Darwin Archive in Cambridge University Library. The Library also has two sketchbooks of Conrad Martens, the official artist on the Beagle voyage, which are available here.

We are adapting…

Having successfully completed two research projects this summer – Darwin & Human Nature, and Darwin & Gender – we are making some changes to our blog and twitter feeds. So much that is intriguing, quirky, or topical in Darwin’s letters just gets passed around the table here at teatime and never makes it into our footnotes, so we’re looking forward to being able to share some of our more entertaining gems with you.


In order to integrate our twitter output we will be rebranding @DarwinWomen and discontinuing @DarwinHuman in the coming weeks. The rebranded twitter feed will be @MyDearDarwin and will cover a wider range of subjects, make announcements about the Darwin Correspondence Project, and pass on quotes from Darwin letters.


The blogs for the Human Nature and Gender projects will also be discontinued, but the posts will stay available and we will continue posting to our main Project blog “Natural Selections”.


Sadly the end of the research projects also means that we are saying goodbye to a number of colleagues who worked with us on them: Sophie Defrance who was the research associate on the Human Nature project, and Philippa Hardman, the research associate on the Gender project who were both based here in Cambridge, but also our research team in Harvard – Geoff Belknap, Myrna Perez, Katie Ericksen Baca, Megan Formato, and Andrew Inkpen. We wish them all the very best of luck for the future.


Darwin & Human Nature Project 
The Darwin & Human Nature project was a major international research initiative in the history of evolutionary views of human nature.  Its goals have already been accomplished and we hope those following this project will continue to take an interest in the main blog and twitter account. Take a look at the web pages for more information about the Darwin & Human Nature project which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation.


Darwin & Gender Project
The ‘Darwin and Gender’ research and education project, funded by the Parasol Foundation, ran from 2009 until 2013. Conducted in parallel with the Human Nature project, it explored issues of gender in relation to Darwin’s life and work, and created educational resources based on Darwin’s correspondence for use in both universities and schools. For more, see the Darwin & Gender: An Introduction article.


The Darwin Correspondence Project Harvard office
The team at Harvard, who also included Alistair Sponsel, Rebecca Woods, and Jenna Tonn, and were directed by Janet Browne, have supported many activities of the Darwin Correspondence Project over the last four years. They helped develop materials for the Darwin & Gender project and the Darwin & Human Nature project, and contributed widely to the University Courses, as well as blogging and tweeting. They transcribed manuscript material, and provided invaluable support for the editorial team, tracking down research queries that were sometimes very obscure indeed. We are also very grateful to Kelly Buttermore of the American Council of Learned Societies, and all our other colleagues there, for the support they provided to the Harvard office over the last few years.

Supplanted by Jane

Existing portrait of Charles Darwin on the £10 note and the concept portrait of Jane Austen set to replace him. © Bank of England

Existing portrait of Charles Darwin on the £10 note and the concept portrait of Jane Austen set to replace him. © Bank of England

Charles Darwin is to be replaced on the £10 note by Jane Austen! Today (25 July) there are pictures of the new design in the press. So would Darwin have been disappointed that a naturalist has been usurped by a writer of popular novels? Before we take umbrage on his behalf, let’s look at the evidence.


Darwin was an enthusiastic devourer of novels. He wrote in his Autobiography:


A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.’
(pp. 138-9)


He did keep a couple of reading notebooks and although the vast majority of titles are scientific, they include a little poetry, some Shakespeare and a few novels. You can find out more about these notebooks at


Darwin notes that in 1840 while staying at Maer, the family home of his wife, Emma Wedgwood, he read Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey (DAR 119: 9b).


Emma’s sisters were close readers of Jane Austen. As Darwin prepared for his voyage round the world, Charlotte Wedgwood wrote to him about Fitzroy, the commander of the Beagle, ‘I am delighted that you have fallen in with a Captain Wentworth—’ and tells him the following anecdote:


Miss Julia Mainwaring came here today to intreat some of us to go & help her to entertain a party of officers today she being the only lady— nobody would go but Emma, who when she found she could not get Fanny to go & keep her in countenance had great scruples lest she should appear too Lydiaish, however by going rather early she hoped she should appear to be staying with Miss Julia, rather than come express to meet the officers.


So Charlotte reckoned that Darwin knew Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, and indeed he wrote to his own sister, Caroline, ‘Love to Susan and tell her I will not take Persuasion, as the Captain [FitzRoy] says he will not read it, & there is no danger of my forgetting it’; and to his sister Catherine, ‘When you read this I am afraid you will think that I am like the Midshipman in Persuasion who never wrote home, excepting when he wanted to beg: it is chiefly for more books; those most valuable of all valuable things’.


And what about Emma? Darwin’s sister, Susan, wrote:‘Your letter has been read very often over to Papa (like Mrs. Bates)’.


Darwin assumed that his male friends were appreciative of Jane Austen, too. To Charles Whitley, a friend from Shrewsbury School, he wrote:


I do hope you will write to me. (“H.M.S. Beagle, S. American Station” will find me); I should much like to hear in what state you are, both in body & mind.—  . . . if you are not a married man, & may be nursing, as Miss Austen says, little olive branches, little pledges of mutual affection.— Eheu Eheu, this puts me in mind, of former visions, of glimpses into futurity, where I fancied I saw, retirement, green cottages & white petticoats.—


As for Emma herself, she wrote:


so Goodbye my dear old Charley Tell me how you are. I do not like your looking so unwell & being so overtired   when I come & look after you I shall scold you into health like Lady Cath. de Burgh used to do to the poor people.


A few weeks before their wedding she wrote to her fiancé:I am reading Mansfield Park which I find very suitable. Did you ever see such lovely weather. Write soon like a good boy for your letters are not thrown away upon me’.


So Charles Darwin and his sisters, and his wife Emma and her sisters, were all enthusiastic Janeites. But here is the last word from the younger generation, Darwin and Emma’s third son, Francis, who wrote to his sister, Henrietta, on 13 April 18[69] when they were in their 20’s:


I have just finished Sense & Sensibility what capital fun it is— it was so long since I had read one of her novels that I thought I didn’t like them— But how fearfully vulgar the people are— I suppose its true to nature but thanks good, commonplace worldly gentlemen & ladies are not so vulgar now
(DAR 210.2: 9).