Shrewsbury School: 1818
Odd, isn’t it, how a trivial thing can turn out to be a matter of greatest importance in one’s life. In my case, it was my nose.
I considered my nose rather ordinary, perhaps a trifle too large for me to be thought handsome, but entirely suited to its purpose. However, because of my nose
I was nearly denied the greatest adventure of my life. The man responsible was Robert FitzRoy, captain of a small sailing ship, who argued that a man’s character could be divined by studying the contours of his head and the features of his face. Based on the size and shape of my nose, the captain believed I lacked sufficient energy and determination to endure the arduous sea voyage he planned to make round the world.
How did it come about that Captain FitzRoy, a perfect stranger, should care so deeply about my nose? And what was his decision and the results of it? To answer those questions and others that may arise, let me begin at the beginning, long before I ever heard of the captain or of his ship HMS Beagle.
I was born February 12th, 1809, in the town of Shrewsbury, county of Shropshire, England, and christened Charles Robert Darwin. For the first few years of my life my family called me Bobby. My father, Dr. Robert Darwin, practised medicine. My brother Erasmus, called Ras, older by four years and two months, our four sisters, our parents, and I lived at The Mount, a great brick mansion built high on a hill above the River Severn with a view of Shrewsbury Castle’s ancient red sandstone walls.
Facts are unchanging, but memories are mutable—sometimes sharp, sometimes out of focus, sometimes shadowy or absent altogether. From the early years of my childhood I can summon only a few blurred images. I offer this brief list:
Paddling in the sea on the north coast of Wales with my younger sister, Catty.
Gathering beetles and shells and pebbles and various plants for my collection, my older sister Caroline complaining of the odour.
Sitting on the riverbank with Ras whilst he patiently taught me how to spit a worm on a fishhook and answered my endless questions; I idolised him.
Walking with my mother to the small day school taught by the Reverend Case and being frightened by a dog barking in the street.
Standing uneasily by my mother’s sickbed as she whispered something to me, and being brought to that same room days later to see her laid out on the bed in a black velvet gown, my brother and sisters weeping inconsolably and my father’s face contorted with grief. I, too, wept, but without realising all that I wept for. Oddly enough, I remember nothing about her funeral. Mostly I remember her absence.
I was eight and a half years old and no longer called Bobby. I was now Charles, and sometimes Charley.
The images become etched more clearly when I reached the age of nine. At the beginning of the summer quarter my father enrolled me at Shrewsbury School, across the road from the old castle and less than a mile from The Mount. I could have continued living at home whilst attending classes, but Father thought it best if I boarded at the school.
"Your mother and I made this decision some time ago," he said sternly when I begged to stay at home with Catty and continue my schooling with Caroline as my teacher. "We both felt that you would pay more attention to your studies there."
And so off I went, desperately unhappy but trying to be brave.
Ras had been toiling away at the school for four years when I arrived. He may have rather enjoyed it at the outset, being away from our sisters and not having to endure lessons with them any longer. He pointed out that all of our boy cousins had been sent away to boarding school. Only girls got to stay at home. "Believe me, Charley, it’s better than being all day with the sisterhood"—his name for our sisters.
But he had serious complaints about the school.
"Eat up whilst you can, Charley," advised Ras, a tall, thin, rather frail lad who looked as though he ought to take his own advice. "You’ll get little enough to put in your stomach, and what you do get isn’t fit for a dog. There’s a sign by the headmaster’s gateway with his initials, SB, on it. The letters stand for ‘Stale Bread, Sour Beer, Salt Butter, Stinking Beef—for Sale By Samuel Butler.’ That’s the headmaster’s name. And try to smuggle in an extra blanket. You could read your Latin grammar through the nap of the thin shroud you’ll be issued. No use having Father go to Dr. Butler for it. He refuses all such requests."
Maurice, the groom, drove me to school on my first day, informed one of the masters of my arrival, carried my trunk up to my bed, and left me there with a handshake and a pat on the shoulder. "Ye’ll be all right now, Master Charley," he said, and hurried away. I struggled not to cry or behave in an infantile manner, though I longed to run after him and plead to be taken home.
Then I met Garnett, the boy with whom I would be forced to share a bed. I told him my name. Garnett had looked me over cannily. "Like to fight?" he’d asked, and I said that I’d never been in a fight in my life and was sure I would not like it. He smirked. "I’d have thought by the look of that nose of yours you’d already taken a few jabs. You’re thick as a stump, Darwin, and you look strong enough," he said. "We could make a good fighter out of you, if you’d a mind."
Self-consciously I covered my nose with my hand. "But there’s nothing to fight about," I said, hoping I was right but already guessing I might be wrong.
It did not take long for me to learn to loathe the school. It took a little longer to plan my escapes.
At the end of each day the boys lined up stiffly in the school refectory for the calling-over. One of the masters read out our names, starting with the oldest students, the sixth formers, who were then dismissed, and ending with the youngest. I’d been placed in the lower third form.
Once my name had been called and the lower third dismissed, I contrived to slip away by the servants’ side door and bolted across the wet lawn and through the unlocked iron gates to freedom. I prided myself on being a fast runner and hadn’t far to go—ten minutes if I gave it my best, trotting along the old town walls, across the Severn by the Welsh Bridge, and up the hill to The Mount. Spark, our black-and-white pup, was first to greet me. At the sound of his joyous barking Marianne, twenty years old and the eldest of my sisters, set down the needlepoint canvas she was working. Caroline, sixteen, laid aside the book she’d been reading aloud—one of Miss Jane Austen’s novels during that autumn of 1818—and gasped, "Charley! What on earth—?"
Susan, the fifteen-year-old sister I sometimes called Granny, frowned her disapproval. "Charley, you ought not be here!" she scolded. "You’re breaking the rules, and you’ll get caught and punished, and Papa will be furious."
During our mother’s lingering illness Caroline had made herself into a kind of substitute mother for me and Catty, younger by a year. Caroline was tall and serious as a judge, thick black hair pulled into heavy plaits, and she had sat with us every day at a low table in a corner of the nursery at the top of the house. She’d taught us our letters and numbers, supervised the practise of penmanship, and patiently rehearsed us in our Bible verses and the prayers we were expected to recite faultlessly when she took us each by the hand ...