Many of the Darwin connections are people of the utmost note

Sadly, I missed Darwin Day, which fell on February 12, the great man’s birthday. Indeed, I was not aware of the day itself until I read Laura Keynes’ excellent article about it. Miss Keynes is a descendant of Darwin, and as such, has something of a vested interest in promoting the day.

I am not sure how many descendants Darwin has, but it must be quite a few by now; moreover, as sometimes happens in extended English families, many of the Darwin connections are people of the utmost note. Darwin himself was the grandson of a major Enlightenment figure, Josiah Wedgwood, and in that family we find the historian Dame Veronica Wedgwood as well as the politician Tony Benn. Moreover, Miss Keynes herself is a collateral descendant of John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist and founder of Keynesianism, who was also a member of the Bloomsbury Group. For those of us who love connections, Darwin is a fascinating man; and Darwin Day could be, by association, a celebration of this entire remarkable clan.

By very odd coincidence, I spent most of Darwin Day on various trains, all of which were battling storms. But while the world beyond the window was turbulent, I was happy in that I had something good to read, namely the 40th issue of the literary magazine Slightly Foxed, which is the best possible travel reading imaginable. One of the books under discussion in Slightly Foxed was Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, an autobiographical book about growing up in Cambridge in the last years of the nineteenth century. This was first published in 1952, and has now been republished in a special edition by the editors of Slightly Foxed. Gwen Raverat was – and here is the coincidence – Charles Darwin’s granddaughter: and thus, without knowing it, I spent Darwin Day reading about Darwin’s family!

And what a family! It might be best to give a flavour of Gwen’s childhood by quoting this passage from Hazel Woods’ article in Slightly Foxed, to be found on page 16: “Aunt Etty … after having a ‘low fever’ at the age of 13, had been recommended by the doctor to have breakfast in bed for a time, and never got up for breakfast again. When there were colds about she would put on a protective mask of her own invention, made from a wire kitchen strainer stuffed with antiseptic cotton wool and tied on like a snout, from behind which she would discuss politics in a hollow voice, oblivious of the fact that visitors were struggling with fits of laughter.”

Gwen was the daughter of a Cambridge professor, the great astronomer George Darwin, but the household was anything, it seems, but solemn. So, perhaps in future Darwin Day could develop not only as a day for celebrating the great Charles, but as a fun day for all the family, both his family and our own.