Charles & Emma Darwin: a typical Victorian marriage?

Kirstie Hampson recently completed a Graduate Certificate in History at Birkbeck, University of London, and used the Darwin Correspondence Project online archives while researching her dissertation; “Having access to such an amazing archive online made the research aspect much easier!”, Kirstie said.


Kirstie’s dissertation focused on Emma Darwin and Ellen Lubbock (the wife of Sir John Lubbock, a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin), and their relationships with their respective husbands. Here, she gives us an glimpse into Charles and Emma Darwin’s marriage through a reading of their correspondence. 



“My dear Mammy, I had two wretched days on Friday & Saturday, but the second & largest boil has just broken…” Not the most romantic opening to a letter from husband to wife, but Charles Darwin perhaps redeems himself later on: “I do love & adore you“.


Emma Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

Emma Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

Early in their relationship, he expressed his hope that Emma would “humanise“ him. The idea of a ‘companionate marriage’ – marrying someone not just for socio-economic reasons but also for their personal qualities – was a common goal for many during the Victorian era. [1] Emma was trusted by Charles to edit his scientific writings and correspond with other scientists during his periods of illness. [2] She was bold enough to criticise his theories on occasion, particularly when they conflicted with her faith; “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.”


Faith could have been a contentious issue within their marriage, but Charles never attempted to change Emma’s views or impose his own on their children, allowing his wife to bring them up in her own faith. [3] He may have seen her religious views as integral to her role as “a good strict wife“ and mother – the moral and spiritual guardian of his home. Victorians viewed women as an important moral influence on men[4] and Darwin himself wrote about this in The Descent of Man[5]


Charles Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

Charles Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

My own poor dear unhappy wife…You must remember that you are my prime treasure (& always have been)”: Charles and Emma’s efforts to comfort one another during their daughter Annie’s fatal illness are touching to read. In a time when many died in childhood, some historians have argued that parents invested less emotionally in their children [6] (although others strongly disagree). [7] As the correspondence shows very clearly, this was emphatically not the case for the Darwins, who mourned Annie’s loss for the rest of their lives. They derived solace from each other and Emma admitted to Charles that, “My only hope of consolation is to have you safe home to weep together.”


The ideal Victorian marriage envisaged a strong, patriarchal husband protecting a loving, submissive wife. [8] Charles and Emma do not fit this picture: in many ways she was stronger than him emotionally and he relied on his “dear Mammy” enormously. Mutual respect and great affection enabled them to stay close, despite their different beliefs and through personal tragedy. They can truly be said to have had what Lawrence Stone would refer to as a “companionate marriage”.


Posted by Philippa Hardman


[1],[6],[8] Stone, L. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977) p. 343

[2] Browne, J. Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2003) p. 240

[3] Keynes, R. Creation: the true story of Charles Darwin (2009) p. 54

[4] Morgan, S. A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century (International Library of Historical Studies 40, 2007) p. 39

[5] Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, Vol. 2 (Second Edition, 1879) p. 326: “Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness…”

[7] Jalland, P. Death in the Victorian Family (1996) p. 121


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