I thought I’d include a picture of the young Charles Darwin, since we are celebrating his birthday today. That’s him in 1816, when he was 6 or 7 years old, with his younger sister, Emily Catherine Darwin. And then I started wondering about that other person in the picture. Darwin’s sisters were an extremely important influence on his life, and I don’t know a heck of a lot about her; Darwin had four sisters and one brother, Erasmus, and most of the biographies say quite a bit about the older brother who preceded him to university, but the sisters seem to be background noise. It seems Catherine’s life was mainly about caring for her father’s household, and she married late in life, at age 53, only to die a few years later. You can read some of Catherine’s correspondence, and she seems to have been a lively and intelligent person.
According to Darwin’s autobiography, she was also the smart one.
I have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy. Caroline was extremely kind, clever and zealous; but she was too zealous in trying to improve me; for I clearly remember after this long interval of years, saying to myself when about to enter a room where she was-”What will she blame me for now?” and I made myself dogged so as not to care what she might say.
Roughly the same age, roughly the same intelligence, but Catherine Darwin didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or to sail on the Beagle. It makes the picture even more interesting: foreground and background, different fates, different choices, different chances. We know what will happen to those two children — Darwin will die in 1882, Catherine in 1866 — history does this odd thing of telescoping complex lives into just a few events, and I don’t know, but it makes me sad.
I am now resisting the temptation to pull out the old photos of my kids from that box in the closet.