The Ghost in the Garden

In September 1833, twenty-four-year-old Charles Darwin was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, staying at the home of the merchant Edward Lumb and his family. After many months of travelling around South America,  Darwin wrote in a letter to his older sister Caroline that ‘it appears quite strange writing in an English furnished room, & still more strange to see a lady making tea’. Finding himself in such a familiar environment – after almost two years of adventures on the HMS Beagle and in foreign countries  – made him homesick for the people and places he had left behind. ‘It is now the Spring of the year, & every thing is budding & fresh, but how great a difference between this & the beautiful scenes of England,’ he told Caroline. ‘I often think of the Garden at home as a Paradise; on a fine summers evening, when the birds are singing how I should enjoy to appear, like a Ghost amongst you, whilst working with the flowers.— These are pleasures I have to view, through the long interval of the Pacific & Indian oceans.’ (The full text is available to read on the Darwin Correspondence Project website here.)

‘The Garden at home’ at The Mount, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, where Charles Darwin and his sisters grew up, would remain a subtle but distinct presence throughout his life. In her fascinating new book, The Ghost in the Garden: in search of Darwin’s lost garden (Scribe paperback, 2021) the academic and writer Jude Piesse explores what she describes as its ‘foundational’ importance for Darwin’s theory of evolution. The voyage of the Beagle, so early in his career, was hugely important to Darwin, but even earlier and certainly closer to home, the hours he spent playing in the garden as a young boy also helped to make him the naturalist he became. It led him, years later, to try re-create elements of it at his own family home, Down House in Kent, including the ‘Sandwalk’ path for meditative walking and his aviary for pigeons, not least for his own children’s enjoyment. ‘Gardens provided as crucial a frame of reference for Darwin as his global travels,’ Piesse writes. ‘If a place can be said to follow a man, then the garden at The Mount followed Darwin to the last.’

The Ghost in the Garden mixes elements of Darwin’s biography with nature writing and an account of Piesse’s own research journey: it’s a very enjoyable combination. Piesse’s interest in the Mount garden began when she moved back to Shropshire with her young family to take up her first university lectureship in Shrewsbury and became curious about what had disappeared. A detailed artist’s map of the garden can be seen at the Cambridge University Library website here, but little of it remains today. It is ‘a place that once was and may be again,’ as Piesse writes. Only two acres of the orginal seven-acre Mount site have been kept as a wildlife reserve, with the rest of this lost paradise long buried under housing developments.

As a result, much of Piesse’s literary reconstruction is achieved by visiting archives to read the family’s correspondence. ‘Words merged with footsteps, and facts with speculation,’ as Piesse puts it. It’s a lively combination that works well to bring the ‘provincial sensibility’ of the young Darwin to life. Charles and his sisters were brought up in rural Shropshire by their father Robert, a medical doctor, and their mother Susannah, a keen amateur botanist from the famous Wedgwood family. The Ghost in the Garden is excellent on the lesser-known people in Darwin’s life, as Piesse pays tribute to ‘The Mount’s less famous gardeners – the mother, sisters, and workers lost in the background of most traditional Darwin biographies’. Yet it was largely thanks to them that Charles spent such a happy early childhood, fishing, collecting birds’ eggs and pebbles, playing in the garden with his sisters, and examining flowers with his mother who also happened to be a keen pigeon-breeder. All of this undoubtedly contributed to Darwin’s later scientific work, Piesse notes, and taught him that ‘even the naturalist’s pursuit of truth must be held in check by a deeper moral feeling. Only a single egg should be taken from the nest, Caroline explained: curiosity alone will not suffice – a boy must learn to be humane.’

The Ghost in the Garden is particularly revealing on the influence of Darwin’s mother Susannah Wedgwood Darwin (1765-1817). A deep shadow fell over the family’s life when she became ill and died when Charles was eight years old. Darwin famously said that he had no memory of his mother, but his former classmate William Allport Leighton noted that it was ‘green-fingered’ Susannah who taught her young son ‘how by looking in the interior of a blossom he could ascertain the name of the plant.’ It’s likely that she was trying to teach him about Linnaean classification, and Piesse describes how this ‘close-up view that Susannah would have known’ and her passion for gardening played a crucial part in encouraging her son to attend to tiny, yet crucial, differences in plants and other species for the rest of his life.

In her excellent article, ‘Susannah Wedgwood Darwin: A Portrait’, the scholar Nancy H. Ramage gives a detailed and wonderfully vivid account of Susannah’s life, sparked by the miniature portrait that Charles Darwin saw for the first time in 1881 and which was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in 2012 (see below; details here). As Professor Ramage so movingly writes, Susannah ‘had close ties to her brilliant father and, as a woman, to her brilliant son [but] …she deserves our respect and admiration for being the strong character that she was in her own right, despite her lifelong struggle with ill health.’ (Nancy H. Ramage, “Susannah Wedgwood Darwin: A Portrait,” Ars Ceramica No. 30 (2014, published 2018) 3-11.)

Over forty years after his mother’s death, Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) in which he wrote: ‘Few would readily believe in the natural capacity and years of practice requisite to become even a skilful pigeon-fancier.’ Even if he had no conscious memory of Susannah, he was indirectly paying tribute to his mother’s skills as she was almost certainly the first pigeon-fancier that he knew. The birds she bred with her husband at the Mount during the early 1800s were famous for in the surrounding counties for their ‘beauty, variety and tameness’. Although Susannah referred to these birds in her correspondence as ‘doves’, almost everyone else knew them as ‘The Mount pigeons’. ‘Doves and pigeons may be worlds apart in connotation,’ Piesse writes, ‘but it seems there is nothing in science to distinguish them.’

The philosopher Bertrand Russell’s mother died when he was just two years old. In the second volume of his Autobiography, published in 1968, he described how, although he could not remember his mother, he gradually became aware that her presence had never left him: ‘I have loved a ghost, and in loving a ghost my inmost self has become spectral. I have therefore buried it deeper and deeper beneath layers of cheerfulness, affection and joy of life’.

Susannah Wedgwood Darwin might be absent from many books about Charles Darwin, but it’s certain that she remained a presence in his life and work – a ghost in the garden, perhaps – as much as the Shropshire paradise that she helped to create.

CODA: Susan Campbell, a garden historian, provides rich details of the garden at The Mount during the Darwin family’s time in her book, The Garden Diary of Doctor Darwin (Unicorn, 2021), details here. In 2021 she generously donated the original nineteenth-century manuscript to the Cambridge University Library, and there is an online article about it here, with a particularly lovely illustration of how the garden looked in 1867, when it is likely to have had plants grown from the seeds brought back on the Beagle by Charles Darwin from South America in 1836.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 9 December 2022, all rights reserved