The garden at Down House in what was then Kent, a former parsonage to which Charles Darwin moved in 1842 after marrying his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, has long been established as the great man’s outdoor laboratory, the seedbed for his ideas on evolution and natural selection.
Jude Piesse is not the first to suggest that Down House was a conscious tribute to The Mount in Shrewsbury, where he spent his first 16 years. What is special about The Ghost in the Garden is the combination of research with an empathetic imagination that enables Piesse to show how much Darwin was influenced by the seven-acre estate over which he had roamed as a boy, and how formative was the role played there both by his lively sisters and his sharp-eyed, garden-loving mother, Susannah Wedgwood, who died when her son was eight.
Susannah, a millionaire in her own right, funded her husband’s gentlemanly new home with its hothouses, dairy, coach houses and a kitchen garden where young Charles raided fruit trees and munched strawberries. Piesse suggests that a fragile, homebound mother who took special pride in her flock of pigeons was still in Darwin’s mind when he dwelt on pigeons in the endearingly domesticated opening to his most famous work, On the Origin of Species (1859). More certainly, the earlier The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) found its first form in the journal Darwin composed for his opinionated and often tartly critical sisters (“ye Goodly Sisterhood”, as he fondly called them) during the five years he spent as a young, self-funded naturalist on Captain Fitzroy’s expedition to survey the coast of South America.
However far from home, Darwin’s mind was always returning to The Mount. Plantings strengthened the bond. A proud father dug extra deep beneath his new conservatory in Shrewsbury to make room for the mighty banana plant that he named “Don Carlos” for his son. A scrupulously maintained daily garden diary for The Mount recorded the triumphant production in 1832 of a first hothouse pineapple, and the annual crop of a “Mr Charles Potato” discovered on Darwin’s travels. Charles, writing from afar to Caroline, his older sister and — following their mother’s premature death — attentive guardian, wasn’t afraid to admit his homesick longings. “I often think of the Garden at home as a Paradise,” he wrote to Caroline in 1833, and wistfully added that he dreamt of appearing “like a Ghost among you, while working with the flowers”.
As lovely as The Mount estate must have been with its vinery, lawns and a terraced “Thinking Path” that inspired Darwin to make his own Sand Walk at Down House, Shrewsbury stood close to the heart of a new, brutally industrial world. An adjacent slum town filled with reeking tanneries and breweries was screened out by carefully planted shrubs that worked, as Piesse pithily comments, “like a screen in front of a chamber pot”.
The family’s gardeners were adequately housed and consulted for their views on plant habits and pollination — Charles took a keen interest in beekeeping — but his father didn’t shrink from investing in the Ditherington flax works. These may have boasted the world’s first iron-framed building, but they were also a hellhole where it wasn’t remarkable for a 10-year-old to work a 13-hour day and then be flogged for shirking. It’s uncertain that Dr Darwin knew the factory from the inside, but Piesse is a conscientious reporter, pointing out that Charles’s “right to roam” was “in tacit company with his father’s wealth”, while absolving him of “the speculator’s eye” that enabled his father to expand his acreage. She might have added that Robert Darwin’s lucrative marriage to Susannah had already set him up for life.
Darwin’s affection for The Mount is clear from the fact that he continued to visit twice a year until his genial father’s death in 1848, when sister Susan took the reins. His final visit, in 1869, was after the house and estate had been sold. Today, while The Mount itself is too fragile a structure to validate use as a museum, a few acres of riverside fields survive as a wildlife trust. Which seems, somehow, just as it should be.
The Ghost in the Garden: In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse, Scribe, RRP£20, 336 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café