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Darwin and the Basset

The story of Charles Darwin and the Beagle has been well documented. There have been books, documentaries, films and even a set of collector cards which, while never being a big seller, have ardent followers among Darwin’s legion of schoolboy fans. Now, after much research, the relationship between Darwin and another breed, the basset, can be told.

Late in 2009, a Scottish professor of linguine living in Johannesburg was reviewing his private collection of limpet pornography when he discovered a cache of private letters that Darwin wrote to a Lady Breathless of Aberdeen. The contents have shocked the academic world but now at last have been verified and opened to public scrutiny.

Several letters are specifically related to Bassets and Darwin’s fascination and delight with the breed.

Early in the correspondence, Darwin writes: ‘When I was but a child, our family pet was a basset, Ralph. How fondly I remember the long idle hours we spent together on the wild moors, discussing philosophy. Ralph favored Spinoza.’ Darwin wrote with much affection of the time he spent in Ralph’s company. Apparently, Ralph and the young Darwin put on plays for the family on cold winter evenings. Their performance of King Lear utilizing shadow puppets and a ball of string was fondly recalled.

He speaks candidly of his crisis of faith on Ralph’s death: ‘How could this saintly creature die? In what divine plan does Ralph’s demise by melon make any kind of sense?’ Further details are sketchy but the emotional impact of the event scarred Darwin for life and even spread its influence to his emotional reaction to all fruits. From this seed we can trace Darwin’s revulsion with organized religion and summer desserts.

At times, Darwin’s relationship with bassets borders on the obsessional: ‘I must have more bassets! Please send me more money to rescue another six hounds from the workhouse. With just six more my theories will be complete. Have you seen my hat?’ It is known local traders vied with each other to supply Darwin with an enormous number of beasts. His beloved hat was never recovered. What exactly Darwin was doing with the bassets thus acquired is never really made clear. Some inferences may be drawn by Darwin’s purchase at about the same time of seven bicycles and large quantities of fruit flavoured gelatine.

Darwin first book, ‘The Origin of Species’ was originally dedicated to his dear Ralph. Later editions removed the dedication for its unwholesome undertones. Darwin was heartbroken to the last, dismissing his work as a ‘mere footnote’ to what Ralph had accomplished.

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Jeff Burton

I write poetry, short prose and songs. I have several books on Amazon which nobody has read. I accept this with good grace.

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