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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

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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Charles Darwin correspondended with a large number of women, many of whom were the wives of some of his closest scientific associates.  Looking at the letters exchanged between Darwin and these women reminds us not only of the interconnectedness of Darwin’s personal and professional circles, but also of the difficulties that we face in trying to define and understand women’s roles during the Victorian era. On one level Darwin’s exchanges with his colleagues’ wives make it clear  that Victorian women could – and indeed did  – gain entry into the scientific world, but the letters also raise some interesting questions about  the degree to which their scientific status was acknoweldged by those around them.

While Charles Darwin was undoubtedly more willing than many of his contemporaries to embrace the notion of the ‘woman scientist’, comments made in a letter to his future wife in 1839 suggest that even he considered science to be a pursuit which could lay outside the realm of women’s interests.  Discussing a visit by Charles and Mary Evans Lyell, Darwin confessed to Emma that; “I was quite ashamed of myself to day; for we talked for half an hour, unsophisticated geology, with poor Mrs Lyell sitting by, a monument of patience.— I want practice in illtreating the female sex.— I did not observe Lyell had any compunction: I hope to harden my conscience in time: few husbands seem to find it difficult to effect this.” (see the letter)

What’s interesting here is the fact that Mary Lyell was an accomplished conchologist in her own right; she frequently accompanied her husband on his geology expeditions collecting specimens both for his use and to facilitate her own scientific research. It would be interesting to know whether Darwin reflected on his apparently unfounded anxiety about Mary’s boredom when, eight years later, he wrote to her in order to thank her for forwarding a number of specimens which Mary had collected in the course of her scientific research; “I am much obliged for the Barnacles” he said, before progressing on to a discussion of the ice-lake theory of glacial formation. (see the letter)

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