In 2009 the world embraced Darwinmania. The year was momentous. It celebrated the 200th birthday of Mr Charles Robert Darwin and, coincidently, the 150th anniversary of his most famous work under the slightly elongated and rather mouthful of a title On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Fortunately this is known to most people today simply as On the Origin of Species.
Everyone was mad for a slice of Darwin. And why not? His life was interesting and we like interesting stories. He went to Edinburgh University to study for a medical career, only to cut it short after two short years. At a loss young Charles was encouraged by his father to go to Cambridge and gain a degree in Theology so he could become a clergyman (he passed with flying colours; a small irony enjoyed by many people). At the age of only 22, he travelled on-board HMS Beagle as the ships naturalist. For over 5 years he crossed oceans to new lands and discovered beautiful and exotic creatures never seen before by (European) human eyes. After returning back to England, he wanted to get married so wrote a list of pros and cons (who hasn’t?), and then married his cousin. He worked hard on his ‘mystery of mysteries’ and after 21 years of gathering information on it, he published his ‘essay’ in a book over 500 pages long that would shake the very foundations of the Vatican itself.
It made for an interesting year. The media reported several news stories about new research based on Darwin’s work, events and a plethora of science related stories. Several popular science books were released. An old mast ship, the Stad Amsterdam, set sail from Plymouth on 1st September 2009 for a four month voyage following the route of HMS Beagle. Museums across Britain, and the world, used their own unique and fantastic natural history collections to tell their stories about Darwin, his life and work through displays and exhibitions. Embarrassingly, the Church of England jumped on this bandwagon by issuing an apology to Darwin “for misunderstanding [him] and getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand [him] still”. A bizarre statement indeed.
For such an important year with a diverse amalgam of high profile events, exhibitions, and talks happening across the world, it was inevitable the film industry would join in for a large piece of the cake. Creation is the screenplay based on the book Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes. The film re-tells Darwin’s story of his own struggle to finish On the Origin of Species whilst effortlessly flashing back to his earlier life, including one event which affected him until his death; the loss of his eldest daughter Annie to scarlet fever. Apart from Darwin being portrayed as a little bit bonkers by hallucinating and talking to his deceased daughter, my major qualm was the characterisation of Thomas Henry Huxley.
If you have seen the film, there are a few scenes with Darwin talking to his two friends, the botanist, Joseph Hooker and the biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley. Played by the brilliant actor Toby Jones, Huxley is portrayed as an incredibly infuriating unlikeable character. He is short (both in stature and in temper), impatient and somewhat aggressive in his tone. Unfortunately Huxley’s personality acted out in these few short scenes is the general perception of this great man. Popular science books and books about Darwin will all mention Mr Thomas Henry Huxley, and most will describe him as a man who was egotistical, ready to fight Darwin’s cause, and had the wondrously fearsome title of Darwin’s Bulldog.
(A day before On the Origin of Species came out, on 23rd November Huxley famously wrote to Darwin “[the chapter on the incompleteness of the fossil record may cause you] considerable abuse and misrepresentation…I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.” Although Huxley wasn’t immediately taken with the theory of natural selection, he was keen to use the opportunity of the book to promote science in an attempt to take it out of the Dark Ages, away from the tight grip of religion. Back then much of science was used to show God’s great design in the world and Huxley saw this as detrimental to the progress of truth.)
Huxley was a bloody intelligent chap. His tongue was as sharp as his pen. But he didn’t spend his whole life battling the great demons of evolution and sending them back down to Hades. His real expertise, and real love, lay in studying the function and anatomy of animals (how animals worked) and he studied the relationships of many animals from jellyfish to dinosaurs. Huxley was someone who wanted to see the evidence for himself; if he read an article about a structure in an animal, he would go and dissect that animal so he could actually see it for himself. He was at home at his dissecting table!
In the mid-1800s science was mainly learnt by the affluent and jobs were dependent on knowing someone else in the inner circles rather than on merit. Super keen to make science less of a niche, the enthusiastic Huxley was instrumental in promoting science to the public by developing a series of lectures for the ‘working man’. These were incredibly popular and provides one of the earliest examples of communicating up to date science accessibly to the public. Huxley was also instrumental in helping shape Britain’s education system by developing the national curriculum to include the sciences for the enjoyment of every child.
As Huxley’s reputation grew he inevitably undertook more work. He was incredibly dedicated to work and often worked too much. But he always made sure he had time for his friends and family. Along with Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley was one of Darwin’s dearest and closest friends. He would often go with his family and spend time at Darwin’s home in Kent, especially as Darwin was very adverse to travelling to London. Huxley would update Darwin about the latest news in the scientific circles, and the two families always enjoyed time together.
Deep down Thomas Huxley was a devoted and caring family man. He had met his wife Henrietta (Nettie) Heathorn in Sydney in July 1847 when he was a young 22 year old assistant surgeon on-board HMS Rattlesnake. Thomas was drawn to sweet Henrietta’s confident and practical side (she had moved to Australia when she was 17 with her father and half sister and relished in the wilderness of the bush along with the challenges of living somewhere so wild). Surprisingly, the two young lovers had a lot in common; they shared very similar views, they both loved classic literature and discussed it at length, and they both spoke German (Huxley was self-taught, and Nettie lived in Germany for 2 years). Nettie was a very bright girl, brighter it seems than any other Thomas had met before, for it was not her looks that melted his heart;
“Then as to the face, I really dont know whether she is pretty or not…her personal appearance has nothing to do with the hold she has upon my mind, for I have seen hundreds of prettier women.”
(Quote from McCalman, I. 2009. Darwin’s Armada. Pocket Books. page 173)
Probably not really the most flattering of comments anyone would want to hear (nor did he imagine for hundreds of people to read it!!), but cupid struck, and struck hard. Hettie was a pretty young lady, with soft smooth skin and a serious look about her. He fell in love with everything about this young, confident lady. He was so smittened that he proposed to her three months after they first met. Their engagement however was to last much longer than their courtship. For three years the two were engaged while Huxley and HMS Rattlesnake surveyed the North Australian and New Zealand coast, only seeing each other fleetingly. Every second they spent together was treasured. Huxley arrived back to England in 1850, and it would be another five years before they would finally marry on 21st July 1855.
32 years later, a tired over-worked 62 year old Thomas Huxley picked up his well used pen, the blunted nib ran across the page as he wrote to his wife. 32 years of marriage was 33 years of his scientific career. He had postponed marriage until he was financially secure in a scientific job (which he finally got 4 years after returning back to England, as Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines). In 33 years, Thomas Henry Huxley had become one of Britain’s, possibly the world’s, most influential and respected scientists.
Although Huxley retired from his main work when he was 60, he was still an active member of several scientific societies and wrote numerous articles. His wife and his friends regularly encouraged Thomas to take holidays and get away for a few weeks. One of the places he stayed was the calm, small village of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. The thin higgledy-piggledy roads cut through solid stone cottages with thick bundles of thatching blanketing the roofs. The cottages themselves bulge outwards as if the Cursed Giant himself from ancient folklore had once walked through and decided to rest his large behind for a few moments on the soft thatching after a big feast of small children.
It was here, in the spring of 1887, that Huxley wrote his wife a poem allowing us to see a rare glimpse into Thomas Huxley the husband;
Dear wife, for more than thirty years
Have you and I, hand clasped in hand,
Sometimes all smiles, sometimes in bitter tears,
Wended our way through the strange land
Of living men; until silvering hair,
And graver mien and steps more slow,
Adown the stand of age we fare
To the sill ocean, out beyond time’s flow.
True wife, housemother, worn with many cares,
Love’s afterglow shall brighten all the years
That yet are ours; and closer still shall be our clasp
Of hands, until they nerveless fall and cease to grasp.
1st March 1887
Thomas Henry Huxley is not known for his romantic side. But he was dearly romantic to his Nettie. He loved and respected her more than anything else. The couple supported each other through incredibly tough times, both professional and personal. She was also a rock to Thomas from the very beginning; she had supported him when he was out at sea on HMS Rattlesnake when he had quite a severe breakdown – her letters were the only thing that kept him sane.
A poem to your wife after 32 years of marriage is a beautiful present. It is also a thoughtful present; Nettie loved poetry and wrote a lot herself (see the further reading at the end of this post). He acknowledges that they are getting old, and that one day they will both be gone, but the beautiful prose lets his wife know how the radiance that their love brings still glows strong. Huxley’s portrayal in books, and in the film Creation, is often one of arrogance. He was confident in his work (because he knew he was right!) but he also knew his wife was an equal, and the poem acknowledges the hard work she does and respect he has for her. Not many men in the 1880s would write these romantic, reverential, caring and soft words to their wife. Thomas and Nettie were made for each other.
From Shanklin reveals Huxley’s softer side (if only Owen knew!). He was a loving husband, still deep in love with his wife after 40 years together. In public Thomas Henry Huxley was seen to be a fierce man not to be challenged, but in private Thomas was a devoted and passionate husband. Behind closed doors, Mr Darwin’s Bulldog was a soft cuddly labradoodle.
Huxley, H. 1913. Poems of Henrietta Huxley. With three of Thomas Henry Huxley. London. Duckworth & Co.
Keynes, R. 2001. Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution. Fourth Estate. London.
McCalman, I. 2009. Darwin’s Armarda. Pocket Books. page 173
For a brief life of Thomas Henry Huxley, well worth reading Chalmers Mitchell, P. 1913. Thomas Henry Huxley. A scketch of hsi life and work. Methuen & Co.