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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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William Darwin FoxOn September 4th 1850, Charles Darwin penned a letter to his cousin and friend William Darwin Fox in which he reported that he and Emma were “at present very full of the subject of schools”. As a middle class family, the Darwins had a number of options to choose from: they could follow in Fox’s footsteps and home school their sons, they could send their boys to a grammar school, or they could opt to educate them at public school where they would receive a classical education centered around the study of Latin and Greek.

Charles clearly had considerable reservations about the latter option; “I cannot endure to think of sending my Boys to waste 7 or 8 years in making miserable Latin verses,” he told told Fox. In a later, more candid exchange Darwin declared that, “No one can more truly despise the old stereotyped stupid classical education than I do.”

Why did Darwin object so vehemently to classical education? According to Charles, a classical education had a “contracting effect” on young boys’ minds; it entailed “no exercise of the observing or reasoning faculties,—no general knowledge acquired.” It was, he said, “a wretched system”. Darwin’s preference seems to have been for the more diverse and skills-focussed education offered by grammar schools; “we have heard some good of Bruce Castle School, near Tottenham“, he told Fox in 1850, “which is partly [based] on the Fellenberg System”. [1]

Rugby SchoolDespite his reservations, however,  in 1852 Charles reluctantly reported that his son, William, had embarked on a classical education; “I have not had courage,” Darwin confessed to Fox, “to break through the trammels. After many doubts we have just sent our eldest Boy to Rugby”.

Why such an orthodox move from a man considered to be something of a maverick? The answer most likely lies in prevailing middle class gender ideology. A classical education may have lacked diversity and the opportunity for creativity, but it provided access to an exclusive middle class masculine world. As Anthony Fletcher has shown, Latin was “the male elite’s secret language, a language all of its own, a language that that could be displayed as  a mark of learning, superiority, of class and gender difference.” [2]

Charles and William DarwinClassical education held a practical appeal also; monotonous, solid study in subjects with little intrinsic interest for its students was well-designed to check youthful high spirits and transform boys into studious, dedicated and all-round decent middle class men. As Darwin commented to Fox, “a Boy who has learnt to stick at Latin & conquer its difficulties, ought to be able to stick at any labour.”

Charles might have considered William’s schooling “stupid” and “wretched”, but as a middle class father concerned for his son’s professional future and progression into manhood, a classical education ultimately proved too valuable an opportunity for him to miss.

[1] The Hill School at Bruce Castle was a relatively radical institution founded by Rowland Hill, a close friend of Thomas Paine, Richard Price and Joseph Priestly. The Fellenberg System prioritised learning through experience, primarily through the study and practice of agriculture.

[2] Anthony Fletcher, Gender Sex and Subordination, (London, 1995), p. 302.

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