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Colp, R., JR (1987). Charles Darwin's ‘insufferable grief’. Free Associations, 1(9):7-44.

(1987). Free Associations, 1(9):7-44

Charles Darwin's ‘insufferable grief’

Ralph Colp, JR

Charles Darwin, forty-two years old, sat in his Down House study and wrote a sketch of his daughter's character several days after her illness and death. He was here, for the first time in his maturity, stimulated by death to express a cluster of new feelings. For although he had previously originated a new concept of life and death (how ‘death, famine and the struggle for existence’ had achieved the ‘exalted’ object of creating new species2) he had inhibited his feelings about the deaths of individuals. Now, in writing about Annie, he was expressing a grief which was extraordinary in its range and intensity and would persist and affect him in different areas of his life.

Darwin's grief has been noted only cursorily (and sometimes not at all) by his numerous biographers,3 his sketch of Annie has been only partly transcribed,4 and it has not been mentioned in two recent anthologies of the literature on death and mourning.5 The following essay aims to describe in detail the history of Darwin's feelings for Annie during her life and after her death, and also for the deaths of others to whom he was close, and to offer psychological insights on his feelings. The essay is based mainly on Darwin's unpublished correspondence with his wife, relatives and friends, and on the manuscript of his sketch of Annie.

Our poor child, Annie, was born in Gower St. on March 2nd 1841 & expired at Malvern at midday on the 23rd of April 1851.

I write these few pages, as I think in after years, if we live, the impressions now put down will recall more vividly her chief characteristics.

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