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)