At about 20 minutes to 12 the body was brought out of the Chapel of St. Faith, through the Chapter-house vestibule, into the west cloister, and the procession was formed. The coffin was covered with a black velvet pall edged with white silk. On it were laid many wreaths of beautiful white flowers… (‘The funeral of Mr Darwin’, The Times, 27 April 1882)
On Wednesday 26 April 1882, thirty-two year old Helen Gladstone attended the funeral of Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey. She went in the place of her father, Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was busy that day giving a speech on the Irish question, she told her friend Ida Darwin. It was true that this was a time of crisis for the government: increasing political violence in Ireland had led to secret negotiations that, two weeks later, would see the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell released early from Kilmainham Gaol. But there may have been other, more tactical reasons for Gladstone’s absence that day. As a leading light in the Church of England, it might have been seen as inappropriate for him to attend the funeral of a great naturalist whose theory of natural evolution had nothing to do with God.
“Rather a tall person, in black” was Helen Gladstone’s typically diffident description of herself, which, according to one former student of hers, was “not at all suggestive of that vivid and compelling personality with its alert and vigorous carriage and striking distinction of features and expression”. She was 28 when she moved to Cambridge to study at Newnham Hall (later Newnham College), the oldest of 25 students there. At first she worried that she was neglecting her “home duties” by choosing to study, but told herself that her presence in Cambridge would help to break down prejudices about women’s colleges. “The fact of a daughter of Papa… being sent here ought to have a good influence”, she wrote.
Gladstone himself was not in favour of higher education for women, but he made an exception in his youngest daughter’s case. Of all his seven surviving children, Helen was thought to resemble him most, and he often found his way into her thoughts and conversations: “certainly one could not be ten minutes in her company without knowing that he was her father”, a Newnham student commented years later.
Indeed I think one of the things that kept her such a very “unmarried” person was her ingrained attitude of daughter. This went beyond her earthly father, through to God.
Helen was deeply religious, and regularly attended services at Selwyn College – her family donated generously towards building the new chapel – as Newnham had no religious affiliation. She had intended only to stay in Cambridge for a year, but ended up studying for three years, and took the higher local examination in political economy. After finishing her studies she became secretary to the Principal, Nora Sidgwick, and in January 1882 she accepted the post of Vice-Principal of Newnham, with her father’s blessing.
She met Charles and Emma Darwin for the first time less than two years previously, introduced by Horace, Darwin’s youngest son. He and his wife Ida had moved to Cambridge after their marriage in January and were both active supporters of the new college at Newnham. When Charles and Emma came to Cambridge in August 1880 on their first visit to see Horace and Ida, they were introduced to their new friend Helen Gladstone. They all got on famously, so much so that Helen was invited to the Darwins’ family home in Kent the following summer. She was a little nervous at the prospect of being a guest at Down House, and asked Ida, who was also going to be there, to take her under her wing. They all met up again in Cambridge in October that year.
Charles Darwin’s death six months later came as a shock, and Helen grieved for the family. Her attendance at his funeral in Westminster Abbey was a more sincere expression of sorrow than her father’s would have been. Darwin was buried in the north aisle of the nave of the Abbey, not far from Isaac Newton, and the Times reported a long list of the names of distinguished, and mostly male, guests. Ida Darwin stayed at Down House to comfort Emma, who could not bring herself to attend the grand occasion.
In 1886 Helen was offered the post of Principal of the new Royal Holloway College for women in London. William Gladstone was deeply proud of his daughter’s achievements despite his continuing opposition to the “invasion” of women students at Oxford. He wrote her a heartfelt letter urging her to accept the position.
Your life has a distinct purpose. After all we have heard and seen, there can be no doubt that you have upon you the marks of a distinct vocation. The call is from on high and I really do not think you have a right to overlook, or not to follow the marks of it…
Helen was touched by her father’s tribute to her work as a God-given vocation, but, after much thought, she decided that her “home duties” were more important and that the work at Holloway would be too demanding. She stayed on as Vice-Principal of Newnham for another ten years.
In 1896, before she gave up her job to take care of her ageing parents at Hawarden, she asked her father to sign an official memorial calling for women to be granted degrees “in some form” at Cambridge University. There is no evidence that Gladstone ever signed it, and the memorial was heavily defeated in any case. It would be another fifty years before women were admitted to degrees at Cambridge, but for Helen Gladstone, it was perhaps enough to feel she could expect her father’s support.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 April 2018
Photograph of Helen Gladstone by Barraud; reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Sources Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (Hambledon Continuum, 2006);Newnham College Roll ‘Letter’ Jan 1926; Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2002); Emma Darwin’s diaries 242:44-7 and Ida Darwin’s Papers (Cambridge University Library); BBC Witness (9 mins, accessed 25/4/18). With thanks to CUL Manuscripts; Anne Thomson, Newnham College archivist; Elizabeth Stratton, Selwyn College archivist.