Lovers of Gwen Raverat’s memoir Period Piece will remember Aunt Etty as one of the more eccentric of a colourful band of Darwin aunts and uncles who populated her childhood. Henrietta Darwin (1843–1927) was the eldest surviving daughter of Charles and Emma Darwin (her elder sister Annie died aged nine in 1851, and another daughter, Mary Eleanor, had lived for only a month in 1842).
She is depicted in Period Piece as elderly, loving, gentle, acute, argumentative, and more than a little odd. The breakfasts in bed, the exciting sport of hunting for stinkhorns in the woods, the improvement of great works of English verse, and especially her obsessive care for the health of her husband, Richard Lichfield (‘who worked on the legal side of the Ecclesiastical Commission’ but was also a founder of the Working Men’s College in London, and an acquaintance of Ruskin), and of anyone else who came within her orbit, make for a wonderfully comic yet hugely affectionate portrayal.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to find out a little about Aunt Etty in her youth. She kept a journal, now lodged with many other Darwin family papers in Cambridge University Library. I have been attending a course on historic typesetting and printing at the Library for the last few weeks, and our project was to transcribe, typeset and print some pages of the journal from 1871, when the 27-year-old Henrietta was an engaged young lady, wrestling with problems of good and evil and the nature of God, considering the effect of church missions, and agonising over the depth of her feelings for her fiancé, and his for her.
Henrietta’s writing is not particularly clear, and she uses some idiosyncratic abbreviations, so our first task was to work out what we thought she had written, which was quite a challenge at times. (Luckily, we had a crib, in the form of the transcription produced by the Darwin Correspondence Project, when imagination failed.) Having had previous brief experience of typesetting, I thought I knew more or less what I was doing, but in fact I distinguished myself in setting the first three lines of my section from the wrong end of the type stick, and had to start again.
As we composed our lines, they were placed into two long forms, and the assemblage was proofed on two galley sheets.
Our homework was to proofread the galleys (a deeply humiliating process for all concerned), and a master corrected proof was compiled from which corrections were made.
The type was then put into page, with headings inserted to give the date for each entry, and the resulting eight pages were imposed in the correct order and printed. A simple cover was printed,
and finally we hand-stitched the folded sheets together and trimmed them on a terrifyingly effective guillotine.
It hardly needs saying that despite our best efforts, some errors escaped correction, coming to light only when we examined the finished version (this is a situation which anyone involved in book production will know well),
but the whole exercise was extremely instructive (as well as very enjoyable), and left us marvelling at the skill and patience of the craftsmen who perfected the techniques originally introduced to England by Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde.
As for Henrietta, staying with friends in Brighton in March 1871, she took part in a Christian mission which she likens to the Wesleyan revival meetings of the previous century. She views the process with a certain amount of irony: ‘Screaming was forbidden and anyone who attempted it was to be turned out … One poor woman was seized on by two men, one on each side, whispering into her ear and, finding the situation intolerable, fled away and was seen no more.’
On 9 July, she writes: ‘I want to think why I should like to be married in a church. I should feel a registry office very incomplete … I should not be content at that supreme moment of my life without some mark of its solemnity – some outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace.’ Henrietta and Richard were married at the church in Downe, Kent, on 31 August 1871: they had no children. However, her career as an aunt was launched by her marriage: ‘starting at once a full blown aunt of about 13 children is serious’ …
In later life, Henrietta was a keeper of the family flame. She had helped her father in editing The Descent of Man, and acted as a research assistant for Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, describing the expressions of the babies of her friends and family.
She apparently felt that the influence of their mother had not been given enough prominence in her brother Francis’s edition of their father’s life and letters, and her own 1904 edition of the letters of Emma Darwin was intended to restore the balance, but she excluded many passages describing Emma’s role as research assistant, transcriber and translator of foreign books and correspondence, and hinted at a greater gulf between Charles Darwin’s atheism and Emma’s Anglican piety than may have actually existed.
Richard Litchfield died in Cannes in 1903, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery there; Henrietta outlived him by 24 years, dying on 17 December 1927. She is buried in the churchyard at Downe. Her epitaph is delivered by Gwen Raverat: ‘Dear Aunt Etty, how easy it is to draw your absurdities, how difficult to show your lovableness; yet we were all your children, and coming to Burrow’s Hill was always coming home.’