Mrs. Charles Darwin

An example of the Wedgewood's "Waterlilies" pattern used by the Dawins. 




Charles Darwin's instructions for boiling rice.


Like many wives, before and since, Emma Wedgwood Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin, complied a cookery notebook, which has been published for the first time as Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book: Revived and Illustrated by Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway (Glitterati Incorporated). Festooned with facsimile reproductions of Emma’s original recipes and botanical illustrations, the recipes in the book for a family—good plain cooking is a phrase that comes to mind. The book is organized by chapters focusing on key ingredients, such as Cheese & Eggs, Fish, Meat, Vegetables, Soups & Salad Dressings, Puddings & Sweet Things, and Preserves & Pantry. Each chapter begins with an intimate introduction to the subject at hand.

More than a cookbook, Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book delineates a lifestyle at the top of English society and intelligentsia. This treasure trove of fifty-five delicious recipes includes unlikely dishes such as Turnips Cresselly and Penally Pudding, and even contains the recipe for boiling rice, written in Charles Darwin’s own hand. The image of Darwin standing over a pot of boiling water with his pocket watch in hand is one to savor, along with every other vestige of a lost kitchen and lifestyle come back to life.

As publisher Marta Hallett observes, “What is amazing about this ‘book’ is that it was languishing in the archives of Cambridge University for more than 100 years, and the recipes in it are as fresh today as they were when Emma Darwin collected them.  Repackaging the information in a contemporary format with vintage artworks makes the book now as engaging as the recipes themselves and ironically, as the world moves to a more streamlined and homespun diet, these basic foodstuffs have endured.  An element of chic is endurance, and that is what makes Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book a timeless collection of cuisine, as well as an incredible historical document.”

As Nach Waxman writes in the book’s foreword, “For better or worse, only a very few members of our species ever achieve fame. And it is an historic truth that all the rest of us—those who happen not to be heroes, saints, geniuses, leaders of nations, unimaginably wealthy or unspeakably evil—are boundlessly curious about the lives of those whose reputations have propelled them  into realms about which we may speculate, but from which we can never fully inhabit. What sparked the imaginations of Galileo? What kinds of things made Napoleon laugh? Where did Einstein get his clothes? What did Charles Darwin eat?

“Food, surely, seems to provide one doorway, or at least a peephole, into our understanding of both our own lives and the lives of the famous. How and what they ate is of interest, because it adds color, dimension and, of course, flavor to our knowledge of what they did. The bringing to light of Emma Darwin’s kitchen notes offers one of those rare opportunities to get a glimpse of one corner of the life of a great scientist. It is a corner that has nothing to do with epic voyages and amazing discoveries…. It has to do with the breakfast of the family, with company dinners, with rich, substantial foods of the Victorian world, with soft and soothing foods undoubtedly needed for Charles’ chronically poor digestion.”

As authors Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway reveal in the book’s introduction, “For Charles Darwin, marriage was not to be undertaken lightly. In 1838, he brought to his own future reproductive life the habits he had acquired as a scientist. On a scrap of blue paper, he famously wrote down the arguments for and against marriage, seemingly without anyone in particular in mind. In support of marriage were companionship, ‘someone to take care of house…a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps.’ He concludes, ‘Marry, marry, marry.’ There is no mention of food, however.

“Having come down firmly in favor of marriage, within a few months, he had plucked up courage, proposed, and been accepted on November 11, 1838. Both families were delighted. Emma’s brother was already married to Darwin’s sister.”

Of Emma Darwin, Janet Browne writes in the book’s preface, “Not so widely known as other notable Victorian women, Emma Darwin lived nearly the entire length of the nineteenth century. When she was born, in 1808, the ruling monarch was King George III. In that same year, Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony, Goethe published the first part of Faust, and Napoleon’s armies were marching in ever-widening arcs across Europe. By the time of her death in 1896, the world she knew was utterly transformed. The British Empire was rapidly expanding, science and technology were advancing in dramatic ways, and society and culture were very different from the days of her youth. As a girl, Emma traveled by horse and carriage and read Jane Austen. In the last decades of her life, she encountered the beginnings of modernity. She tried an early form of telephone, saw one of her sons stand for Parliament, read Robert Louis Stevenson, and wondered, with some misgivings, whether her granddaughters should ride bicycles in the street. Throughout, she remained a remarkable woman.

“Married to her cousin Charles Darwin, she experienced many of these changes at first hand, for her own husband emerged as a central figure in the intellectual, biological, and theological revolutions of the nineteenth century. His writings on evolution by natural selection confronted everything that had been previously thought about the history and origins of living forms, and his book On the Origins o Species made him one of the most celebrated thinkers of his day. Through the years of controversy and debilitating private illness that followed his publication of this notorious volume,  Emma Darwin cared for her husband with love, resilience, and a great deal of good humor. She provided the emotional security that Charles Darwin needed to bring his great intellectual property into the public domain.

“She also kept a recipe book. This recipe book reflects her position as the individual responsible for feeding the family, entertaining, and maintaining the domestic space. While her husband kept a careful eye on the external affairs of the family, Emma Darwin directed the kitchen staff, kept accounts, and looked after the household concerns. To be able to read her recipes today is therefore to have remarkable access to the inner resources of a prosperous Victorian home. Moreover, it has long been appreciated that food, and the serving of food, lies at the very heart of the social process. The authors have performed wonders not only in making the manuscript accessible but also in setting the recipes in context. All dishes have been researched, explained, and adjusted. Here we can almost see the Darwin family as they sit around the table.

Bateson and Janeway reveal, “Ill health cast a long shadow over this picture of happy rural life. Volumes have been written about Darwin’s mysterious illness. Speculation has been fueled by his own meticulous record of his symptoms. Explanations include everything from the extravagantly psychoanalytical to the suggestion of a rare tropical disease, possibly caught on the Beagle voyage. A recent paper makes the case for Crohn’s disease, whereas others have stressed psychosomatic aspects. What is certain is that, as one commentator put it, the perfect nurse had met the perfect patient.

“Emma’s recipe book is small, about eight inches high, a little less than that in width. The binding is of half leather, with marbled boards and marbled endpapers, the cover much darkened with age and rubbed with use. The paper within is unlined, thick, and smooth. Perhaps the book was intended as a portable sketchbook, the sort a young lady would carry with her on some expedition. On the cover, a label reads: Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book, Down. On the first page is a simple inscription, in a firm graceful hand: ‘Emma Darwin May 16th 1839.’"

Artwork courtesy of Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book 
Curated by Miss Rosen