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John Stuart Mill, Vanity Fair (1873).

J. S. Mill, caricatured in Vanity Fair as "feminine" for his promotion of sexual equality

Charles Darwin is not well known as a promoter of women’s rights. Indeed, much of his work explicitly opposed the arguments for sexual equality put forward by first wave feminists of the nineteenth century. In The Descent of Man, for example, Darwin makes explicit reference to Harriet and John Stuart Mill’s early feminist work The Subjection of Women (1869) which, he said, ignored the fact that there existed fundamental and enduring “differences in the mental powers of the sexes“.

The differences in the intellectual capacities of men and women, Darwin said, were the inevitable product of the evolutionary process; where men had honed their brainpower and skills of dexterity through combat with rival males, women had evolved primarily off the back of their physical attractiveness and as such were creatures of beauty but not intellect;

“Although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives,” Darwin said, “…yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes”. Thanks to the workings of the evolutionary process, then, women were naturally inclined toward a life of domesticity centered around “the early education of our children” and on ensuring “the happiness of our homes“.

Lydia BeckerGiven his views on women’s intellect and their corresponding social role, Darwin’s correspondence with Lydia Becker comes as something of a surprise. Becker was a leading member of the suffrage movement, perhaps most well known for publishing the Women’s Suffrage Journal between 1870 and 1890. She was also a successful biologist, astronomer and botanist and, between 1863 and 1877, an occasional correspondent of Charles Darwin.

Initiated tentatively by Becker in a detached letter in 1863, the majority of correspondence between Becker and Darwin concerned the suitably a-political topic of botany. Becker provided Darwin with samples from plants indigenous to her home town, Manchester. She also provided detailed observations which helped feed into his ongoing work on plant dimporhism. In return, Darwin acted as something as mentor to Becker; he responded to her questions, gave feedback on her writing and advised on where best to publish her articles.

Letter from Lydia Becker to Darwin (13th Jan, 1869)

Letter from Becker to Darwin written on the headed paper of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage

Perhaps most surprising, though, was Darwin’s willingness to provide Becker with material to be used as part of an education initiative at her local scientific feminist organisation, the surreptitiously titled Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society. Thus, on December 22nd 1866 Becker wrote to Darwin to ask if he would “be so very good as to send us a paper to be read at our first meeting”. “Of course we are not so unreasonable as to desire that you should write anything specially for us” Becker said, “but I think it possible you may have by you a copy of some paper such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness.”

Darwin responded by sending not one but three papers to be read at the ladies’ inaugural meeting.[1] Whether Darwin realised that he was providing materials for a feminist organisation is unclear, although Becker’s use of headed paper and the enclosure in her letter to Darwin of the society’s first pamphlet certainly made no secret of her political affiliations.

Regardless, what is interesting is that despite what he said in the public context about women’s intellectual in-capabilities and designated social role, in private his thoughts and actions were very different. Darwin was happy to work in collaboration with many women like Becker. He encouraged women’s scientific interests wherever possible, frequently sharing observations, samples and reading materials with women across the world. In some rare instances he was even happy to acknowledge that a woman’s scientific skill and knowledge might be superior to his own!

Why Darwin’s private actions so dramatically defied his public statements on women is difficult to decipher. Seen in the context of attacks on men like J. S. Mill – whose support for sexual equality rendered him “feminine” to the Victorian mind – it might have been the case that Darwin was anxious to protect his masculinity. This might have been particularly important at a time when science was increasingly deemed to be a pursuit for strong-minded, rational, perhaps even pedantic individuals – all distinctly masculine characteristics.

As we’ve seen elsewhere, it might also have been the case that respectable men of science were required to tow the ‘establishment’ line, irrespective of their personal convictions. Regardless, what Darwin’s correspondence with women like Lydia Becker shows very clearly is that however dominant nineteenth-century gender ideology might appear through analyses of mainstream published material, we need to look more broadly and think critically about the impact of ideology in real terms if we’re ever properly to understand the nature and workings of nineteenth-century gender in all its complexity.

[1] In addition to `Climbing plants’, Darwin sent `Dimorphic condition in Primula‘ and probably `Three forms of Lythrum salicaria‘. See Becker’s letter of thanks for more detail.

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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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One question which arises a lot when sifting through Darwin’s letters is are we prying? Did Darwin and his correspondents consider their letters to be public objects or private exchanges intended only for the eyes of the sender and recipient in question? The answer appears to be both.

Letter 2545 from Erasmus Darwin to Charles Darwin with 'confidential' section (1859)As a rule, Darwin’s correspondents tended to state explicitly when a letter (or a specific section of a letter) was “private” or “confidential” – a custom which suggests that they assumed that their written exchanges were by default public property, or at least potentially so.

In Darwin’s case, the practice of flagging-up private content developed out of – perhaps bitter! – experience. As he explained to one of his correspondents in 1871; “I put “private” from habit only as yet partially acquired, from some hasty notes of mine having been printed, which were not in the least degree worth printing.”

William Sharpey

Darwin perhaps referred in part here to a frustrating experience he had in 1857 when William Sharpey read content from one of his letters to the Council of the Royal Society. Darwin’s annoyance over this transgression is clear both in a letter he wrote to Hooker on the subject and in an uncharacteristically confrontational reply he wrote to Sharpey.[1]

Letter 8837 marked 'confidential' by Darwin on the subject of religion Even where an explicit request was made for a letter to remain private, however, it was impossible to ensure that it did. As scholars of the epistolary form have shown over and again, despite best intentions letters have a habit of hanging around and ultimately being consumed by a far wider public audience than was perhaps intended. [2]

Interestingly, some of Darwin’s correspondents seem to have been aware of this risk. Thus, when dealing with content that was deemed especially sensitive, some correspondents requested that their letters be burned after reading.

One extremely rare example of a male correspondent who made this request is provided by John William Salter, a Geologist and Paleontologist who wrote to Darwin on new year’s eve, 1866 to ask him for help in supporting his family; “Are you rich enough to aid me at all,” he asked, “—and make me your debtor for any help I can give in looking over the paleozoic part of your reasonings in your great book.” Salter signed off his letter by stating that, “I trust you will burn my letter— I had hoped for so different a career—”. As far as Salter was concerned, then, sensitive content equated to professional failure, unemployment and the inability to act as breadwinner and support his wife and children.

For women the case was very different. Where a middle class man’s public reputation hinged on his professional and financial success, a middle class woman’s reputation was measured by her modesty and chastity.

Young Charles Darwin

The vast majority of ‘burn this’ requests in the Darwin archive can be found in the correspondence of Fanny Owen, a woman who Darwin courted as a young man. Tame as the content is, Owen was evidently anxious about the letters she exchanged with Darwin, ending most of her correspondence with statements such as, “Burn this as soon as you have made out the nonsense“, “you must burn this when you get it” and – shortly before Darwin left on the Beagle – “Burn this before you sail for pitys sake.

Owen’s repeated requests that her letters be destroyed reflect the pressures that she laboured under as a young middle class woman whose volatile reputation depended primarily on her modesty and chastity. These characteristics were key a part of her feminine status and crucial if she was successfully to secure a husband and thus future happiness. As she herself said to Darwin in 1828, “For Heaven’s sake burn this, or if it falls into the hands of any of the young men, what would they think”. [3]

While some of the letters in Darwin’s archive were never meant for public consumption, there is a great amount to be gained from an analysis of “public” and “private” letters alike. A comparative analysis of these different sorts of correspondence helps us to develop a sense of what kinds of information and styles of delivery were deemed appropriate – and indeed inappropriate – for the public sphere. We also get a sense of how public profiles were constructed and, crucially, the means by which they might have been undermined. More fundamentally, an analysis of Darwin’s most confidential letters reminds us of the serendipitous and incomplete nature of his archive. After all, we will never know for sure how many letters managed to remain private nor how many Darwin burned after reading.

[1] In this instance Darwin’s concern was for his professional reputation which was built on well-crafted ideas and considered, balanced prose; “[I] fear I expressed myself dogmatically“, he told Hooker. More generally, the letters/content which Darwin marked as explicitly private or confidential falls neatly into two categories: one which, like the Sharpey case, concerned his professional status and another which concerned religion – a controversial topic which he was always reluctant to discuss publicly.

[2] For an introduction to the historiography of the epistolary form see Rebecca Earle (ed.), Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers 1600 – 1945, (Aldershot, 1999).

[3] For more on the gendered workings of the courtship ritual see Laura Gowing, ‘The economy of courtship’, in her Domestic Dangers, (Clarendon, 1996).


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