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Posts Tagged ‘Emma Darwin’

Emma and Leonard DarwinCharles Darwin was not just a eminent Naturalist – he was also the head of a thriving family economy who drew on the help of his relatives at any (and, it seems, every!) opportunity. His eldest son, William, was regularly tasked with observing plants and animals for him, while Charles’ second son, George, helped him with complex maths problems. Francis, meanwhile, was always on hand to check and correct Darwin’s mediocre Latin.

Darwin’s women relatives weren’t left out; his daughter, Henrietta, acted both as an observer and a trusted editor, while his wife, Emma, would copy out his manuscripts and check his proofs. As Francis Darwin recalled, Emma would read Charles’ work, “chiefly for misprints and to criticise punctuation; & then my father used to dispute with her over commas especially”. [1]

Darwin’s workforce wasn’t limited to his nuclear family; he also drew on the advice of his cousin, on the observational skills of his nieces and, later in life, on the advice of Henrietta’s husband and the observational skills of Francis’ fiancée.

Darwin’s work, then, was the product of a collective familial effort and his private letters suggest that he was extremely grateful for the contribution made by his relatives; “All your remarks, criticisms doubts & corrections are excellent, excellent, excellent”, he told Henrietta in 1867. “My dear Angels!,” he wrote to his nieces in 1862, “I can call you nothing else.—I never dreamed of your taking so much trouble; the enumeration will be invaluable.”

While Darwin clearly valued the work of his relatives regardless of their sex, in the public sphere the case was very different. Thus, while the contributions of Charles’ male relatives were methodically acknowledged in his published works, the input of women was not.

George DarwinIn his 1862 publication The Fertilisation of Orchids, for example, Charles publicly acknowledged the observational contributions made by “my sons” George (p. 16), William (p. 99) and Francis (p. 273). Charles was careful to acknowledge his sons’ work in all of its forms; regular – and notably proud – references were made in Insectivorous Plants, for examplenot just to his boys’ skills of observation but also to other sorts of labour, including the illustration of botanical diagrams (p. 3) and mathematical skills (p. 173).

Charles was equally careful to acknowledge the contributions – however fleeting – of other male family members. Richard Litchfield’s contribution to a discussion of music (discussed in this letter), for example, was carefully referenced in Expression (p. 89). Similarly, Hensleigh Wegwood – Darwin’s cousin – was acknowledged for the contribution that he made (discussed here) to a section on language in Descent (p. 56).

Darwin’s published materials give only a partial insight, however, into the workings of the Darwin family economy.  Indeed, without Darwin’s letters, a large and significant part of his workforce would remain entirely invisible. The key question, of course, is why did Darwin’s female workforce remain invisible to the public eye?

Image from section on cats in Expression of EmotionIt wasn’t, it seems, an issue of trust: Evidence shows very clearly that Charles respected the work undertaken by his women relatives. Henrietta’s observations of domestic cats and her (and her female friends’) observations of babies, for example, both featured (albeit anonymously) in Expression of Emotion. [2] Samples and observations provided by Lucy Wedgwood were similarly referenced in Forms of Flowers (p. 70),  referred to simply (and anonymously) as having been provided by “a friend in Surrey”.

It seems, then, that Charles’ anxiety lay not with the type or quality of work that his women relatives produced but with the consequences of making that work public.  At a time when a middle class woman’s femininity was measured by her modesty and unwavering dedication to the well-being of her home and family, Darwin’s concerns about making the work of his daughter, wife and other female relatives public were, on some level, entirely understandable.

[1] The recollections of Francis Darwin; CUL DAR 112:144.

[2] See, for example, Expression, pp. 126 – 9. See also letter 5332 and 7153 in which Henrietta and Mary Lubbock provide observations which fed into Expression (p. 153). Henrietta’s observations on house cats’ cries from DAR 189:7 are also mentioned on p. 60 of Expression).


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Emma Darwin's Recipe BookThose of us who are planning a ‘double dip recession Christmas’ might find frugal inspiration in Emma Darwin’s traditional Victorian fayre. Over the course of her family life Emma Darwin noted down around forty recipes in her personal cookery notebook which she proudly entitled “Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book”.[1]

When it came to the Darwins’ family cookbook, the women were very clearly in charge; it was Emma, Henrietta and other female family members who took charge of selecting and noting down a range of recipes, from delicious sounding delights like gingerbread and apple compote to perhaps less palatable concoctions such as skim milk pudding, preserved eggs, turnip cresselly and veal cake.[2]

Charles appears to have contributed to the notebook just once when, in his distinctive hand and with characteristic precision, he noted how to make the perfect boiled rice (which was perhaps served up as an accompaniment to Emma’s chicken curry); “keep it [the rice] boiling for twelve minutes by the watch,” he said, “then pour off the water and set the pot on live coals during ten minutes”.

Typical Victorian Christmas Card (circa. 1870)When Christmas came around, the Darwin family recipe book provided a wealth of seasonal options. Christmas party staples such as cheese straws and gingerbread biscuits were noted, as was festive cured ham, cranberry sauce and – of course – mince pies which, according to Emma’s extremely festive recipe, contained no less than a quarter of a pint of brandy.

Even Emma’s indulgent festive recipes, however, could not draw Charles away from his work.  In typical fashion, on Christmas day 1871 he retired from his family Christmas gathering at Down in order to write a letter to Physican and Naturalist William Ogle; “I have read your paper with the greatest possible interest” Charles said,  before proceeding to detail observations and notes he had recently made on left and right handedness.

[1] Cambridge University Library, CUL-DAR214.(0-157).

[2] For more information see D. Bateson & W. Janeway, Mrs Darwin’s Recipe Book: revived and illustrated (New York, 2008).

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Charles Darwin’s private letters suggest that he was not keen on socialising.  Dedicated scientist that he was, Darwin’s preference was for “society – and little of it”. Indeed, one of Darwin’s concerns about getting married was that it would entail taking a far more active part in London’s social scene, resulting in a life made up of “nothing but society – no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books“.

It seems that Darwin was right to worry;  the endless invites which he and Emma circulated among their friends and colleagues and their regular acceptance (and, sometimes, refusal!) of others’ invitations shows that Charles and Emma were active (if perhaps reluctant) members of the London social scene.

Contrary to Charles’ concerns, however, his social networking had a positive (rather than wholly negative) effect on his work.  While certainly time consuming, Charles’ social life (organised primarily by Emma) allowed him to share and develop his ideas with some of the most influential natural scientists, botanists, geologists, historians and philosophers of the time. In one typical invitation dated May 1840, Charles and Emma were asked to dine with mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage and one M. Sismondi “an influential historian”. Botanist and geologist J.S. Henslow was later invited along to join them.

At a time when one’s social and professional worlds were inextricably linked,  the social world so dreaded by Darwin the bachelor arguably played a key part in fostering a network of intellectual connections which proved crucial to the content, integrity and thus success of his research and works. Like many nineteenth-century scientists’ wives , Emma Darwin played an important part in liberating Charles from a life of scientific dedication and introduced him to the important and highly influential world of Victorian polite society. Charles, it seems, appreciated her influence; “I think that  you will humanize me,” he told in Emma in 1839, “& soon teach me that there is greater happiness than building theories & accumulating  facts in silence  & solitude”.

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Charles and William DarwinAs suggested in an earlier blog post, Darwin was something of a reluctant bride groom. His chief concern about getting married and having children centred on the loss of freedom it would entail and, of course, the impact that this would have on his work. For Darwin, becoming a husband and father meant entering a new life that would be marked by anxiety, expense and a severe “loss of time“.

His private correspondence shows that, in some ways at least, Darwin was absolutely correct; he proved to be an anxious husband and father who regularly expressed concern about his wife’s well-being and who was preoccupied throughout much of his life by a concern that his children were blighted by some sort of hereditary weakness. His childrens’ financial and professional prospects also caused him a considerable degree of anxiety.

Origin of Species, published 20 years into Darwin's marriageWhile Darwin the bachelor might have had a good grasp of the impact that marriage would have on his life, he proved far less insightful about the impact that it would have on his work. Despite his fears, as a husband and father Darwin was able to publish over twenty works including arguably his three most influential publications, On the Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotion (1872).

Contrary to Darwin’s assumptions, becoming a husband and father seems to have helped rather than hindered his research.  Even before they were married, it is clear that a loose division of labour existed between Charles and Emma. Thus, by taking chief responsibility for the management of the family and household, Emma left Charles free to dedicate much of his time to observation, experimentation and writing.

Plate from Darwin's "Expression of Emotions"Importantly, Emma was not just an efficient housekeeper and mother – she was also a trusted observer who took an active part in Darwin’s research.  During the period 1854 – 1856, for example, she closely observed their childrens’ behaviour, making notes which – along with Charles‘ and other contributorsobservations – culminated in the publication of The Expression of Emotion.

The Darwin children were not just a rich source of information for Charles – like Emma they too were trusted observers, editors and contributors to his work. As discussed in an earlier post, Darwin considered his daughter Henrietta’s editorial input crucial. Even before they were engaged, Charles took the liberty of recruiting his son’s future fiancée (Amy Ruck) to count wormcasts for him in North Wales!

It seems, then, that Charles’ musings about the implications of Victorian marriage were only partially correct. While becoming a husband and father inevitably impacted on his ability to focus exclusively on scientific pursuits, in many ways his marriage can be seen as signalling the start rather than the end of his illustrious career in the natural sciences.

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In April 1838, on the back of a letter he’d received earlier in the month, Charles Darwin scribbled down the pros and cons of becoming a married man . As an ambitious young Naturalist who had travelled the world on The Beagle and recently begun to formulate his work on the transmission of species, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Darwin’s central concern seems to have been the impact that marriage might have on his work; “If not marry”, Darwin wrote, “- Travel. Europe, yes? America????”. “If marry”, he went on, “…London life, nothing but society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books”.  Perhaps unlike the majority of bachelors, while Darwin’s concerns were partly about the loss of his social freedom (“[the] conversation of clever men at clubs”), his primary concern seems to have been the impact that being “a man tied down in London” would have on his work.

Despite his concerns, in July 1838 Darwin concluded that he would “Marry-Marry-Marry” and six months later he and Emma Wedgwood were married at Maer in Staffordshire. So, what was it that drove Darwin to take the plunge? While he and Emma were clearly very much in love,  if we take into account his burning desire to have the “freedom to go where one liked” and the specific timing of his decision to marry Emma (he had, after all, known her since birth) it seems that forces other than romantic interest were at work.

Darwin’s turmoil reminds us of the cultural pressures under which young, middle class men laboured in the early nineteenth century. While historians have discussed at length the impact that ‘Victorian domestic ideology’ had on middle class women, far less has been said about its impact on men.[1] In sacrificing some of his personal aspirations in order to have “Children”, “a constant companion” and “[a] Home”, Darwin met the expectations of a culture in which masculinity was measured not just by a man’s public professional achievements but also by his private familial accomplishments. While as a woman Emma was never afforded the freedom to decide whether or not to marry, Darwin’s private musings remind us nonetheless that it wasn’t only women who were subject to the restrictions of Victorian cultural mores.

[1] See L. Davidoff & C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English middle class, 1780 – 1850 (London, 1987) and M. Roper & J. Tosh (eds.), Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain since 1800 (London, 1991).

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