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Posts Tagged ‘Masculinity’

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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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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