Posts Tagged ‘Victorian Marriage’

Charles Darwin’s private letters suggest that he was not keen on socialising.  Dedicated scientist that he was, Darwin’s preference was for “society – and little of it”. Indeed, one of Darwin’s concerns about getting married was that it would entail taking a far more active part in London’s social scene, resulting in a life made up of “nothing but society – no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books“.

It seems that Darwin was right to worry;  the endless invites which he and Emma circulated among their friends and colleagues and their regular acceptance (and, sometimes, refusal!) of others’ invitations shows that Charles and Emma were active (if perhaps reluctant) members of the London social scene.

Contrary to Charles’ concerns, however, his social networking had a positive (rather than wholly negative) effect on his work.  While certainly time consuming, Charles’ social life (organised primarily by Emma) allowed him to share and develop his ideas with some of the most influential natural scientists, botanists, geologists, historians and philosophers of the time. In one typical invitation dated May 1840, Charles and Emma were asked to dine with mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage and one M. Sismondi “an influential historian”. Botanist and geologist J.S. Henslow was later invited along to join them.

At a time when one’s social and professional worlds were inextricably linked,  the social world so dreaded by Darwin the bachelor arguably played a key part in fostering a network of intellectual connections which proved crucial to the content, integrity and thus success of his research and works. Like many nineteenth-century scientists’ wives , Emma Darwin played an important part in liberating Charles from a life of scientific dedication and introduced him to the important and highly influential world of Victorian polite society. Charles, it seems, appreciated her influence; “I think that  you will humanize me,” he told in Emma in 1839, “& soon teach me that there is greater happiness than building theories & accumulating  facts in silence  & solitude”.


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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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