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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian’

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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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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What’s the difference between a woman and a peahen?

Seems a silly (if not insulting) question.  But in Descent of Man Darwin proposed a theory which, uncharacteristically, set women decisively apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

According to Darwin, certain features  (such as the beautiful plumage of peacocks) could not be accounted for by natural selection but were instead the product of sexual selection (i.e. aesthetic taste). Crucially, in the animal kingdom it was the female who acted as mate selector; Female birds, Darwin explained in a letter, “select the victorious or most beautiful cock”. (see the letter) Since female birds often selected their mates according to their plumage, so generation after generation male birds evolved with excessively extravagant plumage. Thus, according to Darwin, across the whole of the animal world – from birds to bees and everything in between – females were the driving force behind sexual selection.

There was, however, one important exception: human females. When it came to human courtship men chose their wives – of this Darwin was absolutely sure.  “The members of our aristocracy,” he reported in Descent of Man, “… from having chosen during many generations from all classes the more beautiful women as their wives, have become handsomer, according to the European standard of beauty, than the middle classes; ”

The crucial question here, of course, is why was the story different for humans? Could it be that Darwin was inadvertently (maybe even consciously) reflecting the respectable values of Victorian society? It’s possible that this was an element of his thinking, but a book with so much frank discussion of human and animal sexuality would have already trespassed many boundaries of respectable literature.

We can never know for sure, but maybe Darwin’s uncharacteristic eagerness to separate the human and non-human worlds in Descent testifies the extent to which his scientific viewpoint was influenced by the patriarchal culture  in which he lived? Perhaps the notion that human evolution was driven by feminine aesthetic taste and that males had evolved not for their brute force or intelligence but for their mere beauty was just one step too far for Victorian Britain?

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