Darwin and Lady Hope: The Untold Story
153 pages, £12.99
Star Rating: 1 star
Rumors of Charles Darwin’s deathbed conversion to Christianity and repudiation of evolution date back to 1882, the year he died. None are more detailed than the account published in 1915 by Elizabeth Cotton, Lady Hope, wherein she described a visit to Down House where she found Darwin reading the Bible and extolling Christ Jesus ‘and his salvation.’ Lady Hope’s story was denied at the time by Darwin’s children and more recently by historian James Moore in his book The Darwin Legend.
The object of L.R. Croft’s new book Darwin and Lady Hope is to exonerate Lady Hope and her famous story. The book opens with brief accounts of various reactions to the Darwin conversion story and specifically Lady Hope’s account, followed by a brief biography of Lady Hope. There is little new here, which left me impatient to learn of the ‘discoveries’ that Croft contends ‘vindicate the good name and character of Elizabeth Lady Hope’ (p. x).
The evidence offered to exonerate Lady Hope appears near the end of the book. The ‘Six Good Reasons’ he supplies purportedly refute contentions that Lady Hope fabricated her story. Citing such reasons as ‘I believe she was a woman of absolute integrity’ and ‘Darwin’s conversion is not surprising,’ Croft offers opinion rather than evidence that Lady Hope was telling the truth. One reason, ‘There is independent support for her theory,’ turned out to be a thirdhand account published in 1957 that differs in detail but bears strong resemblance to Lady Hope’s account. One certainly could not accept this as independent corroboration.
In the penultimate chapter ‘Truth or Fable?’ Croft sets out to substantiate two unrelated anecdotes of Lady Hope’s in order to establish her general veracity. The details that Croft confirms using census and death records verify some aspects of Lady Hope’s stories, but from this Croft concludes, ‘Not only are Lady Hope’s stories perfectly truthful, as one would expect from an evangelical Christian, but they are extremely accurate’ (p. 126). On reflection, one can see that confirmation of the existence of people and situations cannot be considered confirmation of intimate details and conversations that Lady Hope reported. More pertinently, confirmation of two unrelated stories can hardly count as confirmation of her story about Darwin.
Ultimately, it seems that Croft’s argument comes down to his own personal incredulity that an evangelical Christian would lie. In this cynical age where prominent Christian leaders are regularly caught in the grossest of sins, how I wish that we could take the word of a Christian simply because she is a Christian. In this case, however, given the lack of independent corroboration of Darwin’s supposed conversion, I feel quite justified in doubting Lady Hope’s claim. Since we know no more of Lady Hope’s state of mind than we do Darwin’s, I would not assert that she lied. Perhaps she simply misunderstood some kind and polite statements made by Darwin? I do not know. I only know that there remains no reason, despite Croft’s book, to believe Lady Hope’s account.
Todd Charles Wood,