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An American in Darwin’s family

The prelude to Period Piece: A Slightly Foxed books essay

July 8, 2019

12:38 PM

8 July 2019

12:38 PM

In the spring of 1883 my mother, Maud Du Puy, came from America to spend the summer in Cambridge with her aunt, Mrs Jebb. She was nearly 22, and had never been abroad before; pretty, affectionate, self-willed, and sociable; but not at all a flirt. Indeed her sisters considered her rather stiff with young men. She was very fresh and innocent, something of a Puritan, and with her strong character, was clearly destined for matriarchy.

The Jebbs, my great-uncle Dick, and my great-aunt Cara, lived at Springfield, at the southern end of the Backs, and their house looked across Queens’ Green to the elms behind Queens’ College. Uncle Dick was later to be Sir Richard Jebb, OM, MP, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, and all the rest of it; but, at that time, he held the chair of Greek at Glasgow, and so had been obliged to resign his Trinity fellowship and the post of Public Orator at Cambridge. However the Jebbs spent only the winters in Glasgow, and kept on their Cambridge house for the summers, while they waited hopefully for old Dr Kennedy to retire, so that Uncle Dick might succeed him in the Cambridge Professorship. This was the Dr Kennedy who wrote the Latin Grammar, which we all knew very well in our youth, and he had not the slightest intention of retiring; neither was it by any means so certain as the Jebbs chose to consider it, that the succession would fall to Uncle Dick. However, after keeping them waiting for 13 years, Dr Kennedy died in 1889, and Uncle Dick came into his kingdom at last.

The earliest Cambridge that I can remember must have been seen by me in reflection from my mother’s mind, for it is the same picture as that which she draws in a series of artless letters, written to her family in Philadelphia in this summer of 1883, two years before I was born. In this, the first Cambridge in the mirror of my mind, the sun is always shining, and there are always ladies and gentlemen sitting in the garden under the trees, very much occupied with each other. It was quite a different Cambridge which I saw later on, when I looked at it with my own eyes.

My mother had fallen into a world which was very strange to her. She wrote home: ‘I am at last at the Utopia of all my fondest dreams.’ It was a Utopia of tea-parties, dinner-parties, boat-races, lawn-tennis, antique shops, picnics, new bonnets, charming young men, delicious food and perfect servants; and it almost seems too good to be true. I suppose there must have been some difficulties, even in those days; and indeed all the right sleeves of my mother’s dresses would keep on getting too tight, from the constant tennis; and the helpings of ice-cream were far too small for an American; but, otherwise, you would really think, from the letters, that Unrequited Love — other people’s Unrequited Love — was the only serious trouble. And even the broken hearts of which we are told seem to have been very quickly mended.

The Du Puys were of a good family of Huguenot descent; but they were not well off. There were many children, and Maud could not possibly have accepted her aunt’s invitation, if her fare to England had not been paid by her elder brother.

He was now getting on well, and was generous to his sisters. The girls had been sent to fairly good schools; but in the case of my mother at any rate, Education, like an unsuccessful vaccination, had not taken very well. It was not a question of schooling, but of temperament. But my mother arrived in England with a great respect for culture, and eager to learn all she could. We find her struggling to read Browning and Tennyson and Shelley; battering her way with pride and tenacity through La Petite Fadette, and preaching the virtues of learning French to her younger sisters. But with all her respect for education — and no one could respect it more — learning was never her strong point. However, she got on perfectly well without it.

In these early letters my mother told her family everything, higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter, with the most perfect simplicity. And much of the information must have been quite mysterious to them, as she never explained at all about the unknown people of whom she wrote: neither who they were, nor what they did, nor where they lived. But then, even in later life, my mother assumed that you knew all about the people who came into her letters or conversation. If you didn’t, you ought to; and anyhow it didn’t matter much. In these first letters, both the spelling and the grammar are rather shaky, but, after a lecture from Aunt Cara, stern endeavor improved them very much.

In writing to her sisters, Maud was always careful to tell them anything which might be useful to them, if they should come to England in their turn. She sends a list of words not to use: somewheresanywheresfix (as fix my dress), take it off of the table; ‘Dick [Jebb] says location is not a good word.’ She did a good deal of painting in oils, mostly of round ornamental plaques of her own designs of flowers; these are rather smudgy, but have some feeling for pattern and color. Maud tells her young sister Carrie how she sketched King’s Chapel, and suffered very much in the process from cows, little boys and rain. She goes on, in a kind, but patronizing way:

I was ever so glad to hear about your reading. Aunt Cara said that every one who is not musical ought to be fond of poetry. So you ought to cultivate your taste in that direction. I am reading Browning, but think he is awfully hard to understand.’ [Too hard for you is implied.] ‘You could not help liking Shelley and Tennyson.

The records of this first summer deal very largely with the fluctuations of two or three love-affairs among her new acquaintance; for to the very end of her life, affairs of the heart were of the greatest interest to my mother. At the end of the summer the letters culminated in the exciting proposal of a certain Mr T to herself; and with his rejection she left Cambridge. During this time, after a slow start, she grew to like my father more and more; and, though she never considered him romantic, he gradually became an intimate friend…

Here is my mother’s description of her first sight of my father; it is written on May 18, 1883, the day after her arrival in Cambridge:

Jane came to tell me that Aunt C wished me to come downstairs to meet Mr Darwin. I ran down and opened the door quickly before I could lose courage, and G.D. quickly stepped forward blushing rosy-red and shook hands. The first thing that struck me was his size. He is little. [My father was over 5’10” in height, but thin and slight.] He is intensely nervous, cannot sit still a minute. He is full of fun, and talks differently from an American man. They are so different in everything.

In her next letter she says: ‘After any exertion he seems utterly exhausted. He comes in to see Aunt C every day, and sometimes twice a day and is very convenient to do little errands and to take us out.

Aunt Cara was evidently educating my father for ladies’ society, which was probably very good for him. Aunt Cara writes:

He is wonderfully improvable; already he has thrown off entirely the little thoughtless ways that used to strike one. I laughed at him about talking instead of waiting on the tea-table; now he says the mere sight of a tea-pot brings him to his feet in an instant; he hands cups and cake without intermission.

Maud did not think much of English girls. Of a certain brilliant and much admired girl she writes:

I don’t call her beautiful at all; in America I think with one accord we should call her homely.’ And again: ‘The English girls are so awfully susceptible; if a man speaks to them almost, they instantly think he is desperately in love with them.’ Of herself she truly says: ‘I am not at all susceptible; and that is one difference between [English girls] and me.

But from the beginning she liked English men — or gentlemen, as she generally called them, in accordance with the custom of her time. Though she thought them very cold: ‘Englishmen are strange creatures. I doubt if they ever really fall in love; they marry of course; but generally from a prudent motive.’ In spite of this defect, she admired them exceedingly.

This excerpt is from Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, available in a cloth-bound hardback Plain Foxed Edition of 2,000 copies from Foxed EditionsPlain Foxed Editions come from the publishers of Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly magazine. Eclectic, elegant and entertaining, Slightly Foxed introduces readers all over the world to good books from the past and present. 

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