This month’s post remembers a woman who died before her children had grown up and explores the effect this had on the youngest of her two sons. This may sound a familiar theme but I’m not thinking of a Princess but of a woman called  Susannah Darwin who died in July 1817 when she was 52.

Susannah left six children:  three teenage girls, Marianne aged 19, Caroline, 17 and Susan, 14, two sons, Erasmus, 13 and Charles, 8, and her youngest girl Catherine, 7. After Susannah’s painful death from probable stomach cancer her name was never mentioned by the family, due, it was said, to their great grief. Charles said he hardly remembered his mother at all, which he thought odd as his younger sister Caroline did remember her. You can see a video showing a miniature portrait of Susannah and information on her and her family at

Charles was brought up after his mother’s death by his older sisters. His father, Robert, was a successful family doctor, a large man with a compelling presence who was kind and generous but also rather authoritative and severe.

When Charles was sixteen his father sent him to study medicine at Edinburgh with his older brother Erasmus. Charles hated medical studies so his father sent him to Cambridge to read classics with a view to becoming a clergyman. Just after he’d completed his degree Charles was invited to travel on a voyage to survey the coastline of South America.  He was 22 years old when he embarked on the voyage which was extended to take in the Galapagos, Australia and South Africa and lasted for five years and two days.

A few years after he returned home Charles married and he and his wife Emma started a family, they had 10 children. Charles spent his time following up ideas that first came to him as he studied the animals and plants he’d encountered on his voyage. He gradually went less and less into society because of poor health: he suffered bouts of sickness, palpitations, indigestion, anxiety and weakness.  A tropical disease, lactose intolerance and psychosomatic disorder have all been suggested as possible diagnoses. His illness never stopped him doing a prodigious amount of work in his search for the way life had evolved. In the last 10 years of his life the symptoms lessened.

It had been thought in the past that children did not suffer much from grief, that they easily forgot the pain of loss but the work of the eminent child psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990) showed that the loss of a caregiver could have very profound effects on a child. Bowlby thought that the wall of silence the family built around his mother would have been very detrimental to Charles’ development and in his book, Charles Darwin, a New Biography, Bowlby puts forward evidence for the idea that Darwin’s ill health was the result of a childhood shadowed by an invalid and dying mother and a somewhat intimidating father. 

I like to imagine that his intense search for the connections between all living things, past and present, was also a subconcious search for his forgotten mother.

Susannah lay buried 
under forgotten memories
long before her youngest boy
set sail on his long voyage.
Seasickness always laid him low,
even on land he felt giddy 
as rocks rose and fell on a quaking shoreline,
and sea shells appeared on mountain tops. 
When he dug up the fossils
of the monstrous megatherium
he was disturbed to find modern translations 
walking slothfully upside down in the trees; 
iguanas, basking on volcanic rocks,
mocked him with memories of newts.
Even when he was safely home 
with his dear motherly Emma 
he was still unsettled. He stared 
at the expressions of monkeys in the zoo
and saw the unsteadiness of the world;
a storm of living things dissolving
into each other and into the ground
where the worms reigned supreme.
He knew he would feel the weight 
of the earth where Susannah lay, 
but the mud couldn’t contain itself,
erupting in bewildering displays
of pulsing, shifting, restless shapes,
with twigs or fingers, stings or feathers, 
all struggling towards a brief immortality.
Under the silenced memories 
where Susannah lay buried
he uncovered the tangled grandeur 
of the web of lives that cradle us.

This post has no photo, instead there’s a link to the Natural History Museum’s entry on the megatherium

Anne Bryan