The Darwins and Edward Lear’s “scroobious”

Edward Lear was always in contact with naturalists, especially as a young ornithological illustrator. He certainly provided illustrations for  The Zoology of Captain Beechey’s Voyage (1839) and may have had a part in the production of Charles Darwin’s Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle; Robert Peck (The Natural History of Edward Lear, p. 15) writes: “Whether or not he helped Gould, and his wife, Elizabeth, create some of the illustrations for Charles Darwin’s report on the birds seen during the voyage of HMS Beagle, is unclear, but he was certainly close at hand during that exciting time…”

The Darwin family very probably was familiar with Lear’s nonsensical works, as a letter 28 September 1874 from one of Charles’s sons, Leonard Darwin (1850-1943), to his mother Emma demonstrates:

The preparations for lunch now necessitate another turn on deck   At lunch the general wish is to eat as little as possible, as dinner at four comes so soon after it. —an arrangement of meals which the captain says kills the day   I think it kills it too much. Crawford is the wit of the party, and generally keeps us laughing; I expect it does not take a big joke to kill here but I think he is really very amusing. Between lunch and dinner I read my Mill which is progressing slowly. After dinner some light book, a pipe, and about the 50th. turn on decks does away with the time till tea, at 7. After tea I never attempt to read, it is so delightfully cool on deck. and rather the reverse below. At 8 o’clock we begin a religious game of whist; then a final turn on deck and so to bed. Yesterday I went aloft for the first time it is rather a scrubious sensation at first; not that I felt giddy actually but only a trifle unhappy   What strikes one most is how little the ship below looks, and what a wonder it is that it is not blown flat over. I went on the top gallant yard to look for Madeira, but it was too soon to see it. It is quite beautiful to see the ship cutting through the waves from above; there was not a cloud in the sky and the water was most wonderfully blue.

The word “scrubious” is of course a variant on Lear’s invention of “scroobious” and the way Leonard uses it makes clear that he expected his mother, and probably the whole family, would understand what he was referring to.

Here is the whole annotated text of the letter.

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