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Annie's story

A girl's writing box can inspire children to explore science and the past. Helen Lowe visits a fascinating exhibition.

child's writing box from the 1840s now occupies a special space at Down House, the family home of Charles Darwin. It is the centrepiece of an exhibition on his daughter Annie's life and accomplishments before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 10.

In her writing box, Annie kept letter-paper with coloured edges, matching envelopes and other fancy stationery, sealing wax, seals, goose-quills with a penknife to sharpen them, and a pen with steel nibs. There were also her silk needle-case, thimble and needlework; an 1848 pocketbook, a seventh birthday present; letters Annie had written and other keepsakes. Her mother, Emma, included Charles's daily record of Annie's final illness and a thick lock of her hair, cut just after she died. Emma then put the box away in a private place.

The display, together with a permanent exhibition, offers opportunities to explore the lifestyle of a middle-class Victorian family, the state of 19th century medical knowledge and practice, and the development of Darwin's controversial theories. Visitors can experience the sights and sounds of the voyage of the Beagle, handle model primate skulls, study the variations between nearly identical species of shells, seed-pods and butterflies, and piece together a model simulating the limbs of different animals.

Annie's Box is also the title of a book by Darwin's great, great grandson, Randal Keynes, who has used previously unpublished material to reveal the personal experiences from which Darwin drew much of his thinking on science and religion.

By the time Annie was nine, Darwin was established as a leading scientist of the day. But even the most comfortable families were not safe at that time from TB, which was widespread. The young Darwins were all given the smallpox vaccination - but nothing was known about the cause of TBand there was no cure. Sir James Clark, physician to Princess Victoria, estimated that a third of all deaths in England were due to TB.

Annie was born in 1841. Darwin wrote in his almanac: "Annie born" and, on the next line, "Sorted papers on Species theory". He had already been working for four years on his theory of the origin of species - a theory that would shock a world where scientific thought was dominated by religion and people held a simple view that all species were created by God and were immutable by nature.

Darwin had sailed n the Beagle in 1831, returning with thousands of specimens and observations on geology and zoology from round the world. He had witnessed cruel atrocities under slavery in Brazil, becoming involved in quarrels with slave-owners. This led him to consider man's capacity for brutality to his fellow human beings, and to contrast this with the capacity of animals to care for each other and nurture their young.

These years were a time of scientific discoveries, and the public was fascinated by exhibitions of specimens. Apes were first exhibited in London in 1835, dressed in children's clothes and taught to sit at table and use cups and spoons. Darwin was fascinated with an orangutan known as Jenny. He handed her a mirror, and noted that she was "astonished beyond measure", and "looked at it every way, sidelong, and with most steady surprise". Later, he was to conduct the mirror experiment on his young children.

Darwin brought together his views on the nature of mankind with his painstakingly detailed observations in the publication of The Origin of Species. In the introduction, he wrote: "I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species." He was fully aware of the contentious nature of these ideas.

Darwin was not the usual aloof and strict Victorian father. Rather, he was doting, involved in his children's lives and happy to give them the run of the house and garden. Emma and Charles had agreed that the furniture should not become "a bugbear to the children". One child, George, would often sit with his sister on Darwin's microscope stool, mounted on castors, and punt it around the drawing room with a walking stick.

The exhibition at Down House offers a vivid portrait of happy family life, a family that was perhaps unusual for its time in several aspects: in its awareness of the advantages of a liberal approach to bringing up children; in the researches of their scientist father and his application of humanitarian principles to his scientific thought; and in his intimate involvement with his children and the care of Annie in her last illness.

Annie's box is on display until 7 October at Down House, near Downe in Kent. The house is open Wednesday to Sunday, entry pound;5.50pound;4.10pound;2.80.Annie's Box is published by Fourth Estate pound;16.99

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