Female Censorship?

Editors. All good writers need them, and Darwin was no exception. Although many members of the Darwin family helped refine his manuscripts, it was his daughter Henrietta on whom Darwin arguably relied the most, particularly during the 1860s when he edited the Descent of Man. This is a fascinating point in itself of course, but it becomes all the more interesting when we consider the subject matter of the Descent. With its frank discussions of sexual display and its argument that sexual selection (and thus evolution) was driven ultimately by feminine aesthetic taste,  Descent was considered both racy and controversial — a point confirmed by the anxious comments of Darwin’s publisher, John Murray.


We might wonder, then, what Darwin thought his daughter’s perspective might bring to his work? Did he perhaps hope that Henrietta’s feminine perspective might temper his work and ensure its all-important respectability? Was Henrietta a kind of female censor for Darwin?


Although we can never be certain, it would seem that the answer is no.  What’s clear from their exchanges is that Darwin had a high estimation of Henrietta’s intellect and editorial judgement; she helped him tighten his prose, making it more active and readable. After sending her the second chapter Darwin asked her to, “Please read the Ch. first right through without a pencil in your hand, that you may judge of general scheme… I particularly wish to know whether parts are extra tedious”. Darwin was worried that “parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?”.   (see the letter).


While we can never know for sure whether Henrietta’s sex played a part in her involvement in Darwin’s editorial process, it’s clear that Henrietta’s role was to help Darwin sharpen and clarify his arguments rather than merely to sanitise or civilise his work.


Posted by Myrna Perez

Source: Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin : The Power of Place. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

3 Responses to Female Censorship?

  1. Samantha Evans says:

    Wouldn’t it be great to know what Henrietta’s comments actually were? I’ve always been interested by Darwin’s effusive praise of Henrietta’s work (Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!) and his more critical approach to his sons’ writing (think carefully before publishing; are you entirely certain of your results; isn’t the penultimate sentence a little off?: this is a flavour of them). Of course, she was doing a different job, but my guess is that in addition he saw Henrietta essentially as an amateur (amateurs must be praised) and the boys as professionals (professionals must expect bucketloads of criticism). This is no reflection on Henrietta’s intelligence or Darwin’s appreciation of it, but maybe different codes — both gendered and professional — are at work here? This would affect both Henrietta’s role and Darwin’s response to her, maybe …

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