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Posts Tagged ‘Henrietta 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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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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Editors. All good writers need them, and Darwin was no exception. Although many members of the Darwin family helped refine his manuscripts, it was his daughter Henrietta on whom Darwin arguably relied the most, particularly during the 1860s when he edited the Descent of Man. This is a fascinating point in itself of course, but it becomes all the more interesting when we consider the subject matter of the Descent. With its frank discussions of sexual display and its argument that sexual selection (and thus evolution) was driven ultimately by feminine aesthetic taste,  Descent was considered both racy and controversial — a point confirmed by the anxious comments of Darwin’s publisher, John Murray.

We might wonder, then, what Darwin thought his daughter’s perspective might bring to his work? Did he perhaps hope that Henrietta’s feminine perspective might temper his work and ensure its all-important respectability? Was Henrietta a kind of female censor for Darwin?

Although we can never be certain, it would seem that the answer is no.  What’s clear from their exchanges is that Darwin had a high estimation of Henrietta’s intellect and editorial judgement; she helped him tighten his prose, making it more active and readable. After sending her the second chapter Darwin asked her to, “Please read the Ch. first right through without a pencil in your hand, that you may judge of general scheme… I particularly wish to know whether parts are extra tedious”. Darwin was worried that “parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?”.   (see the letter).

While we can never know for sure whether Henrietta’s sex played a part in her involvement in Darwin’s editorial process, it’s clear that Henrietta’s role was to help Darwin sharpen and clarify his arguments rather than merely to sanitise or civilise his work.


Source: Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin : The Power of Place. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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