Reviewing Uncle Charles’s new book

Charles Darwin’s readership largely consisted of other well-educated Victorian men, nonetheless, there were a few women who did read, review, and respond to Darwin’s work. One of these women was Darwin’s own niece, Julia Wedgwood, known in the family as “Snow”. In July 1861 Wedgwood published a review of Origin entitled “The Boundaries of Science” in Macmillan’s Magazine. As a family member and one of the few female reviewers of Darwin’s work, Wedgwood’s review merits further exploration.

 

Julia Wedgwood was said to be one of the smartest of her generation in the impressively intellectual Wedgwood and Darwin families. Through her family, Julia Wedgwood gained connections to many academic and literary luminaries of the day including Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Thomas H. Huxley, Elizabeth Gaskell, John Ruskin, James Martineau, and Thomas Erskine. At her zenith, Wedgwood was considered one of the great female intellectuals. Deeply interested in reconciling intellectual Christianity and Darwinism, Wedgwood worked for 22 years on a volume entitled Moral Ideal: a Historic Study.  Her book is a history of the evolution of ethics in the great world civilizations, from antiquity through Victorian scientific positivism and theological modernism.

 

Given her interest in reconciling Darwinism and Christianity, it is unsurprising that Wedgwood structured her review of Origin as a dialogue between the religiously orthodox “Philocalos” (lover of beauty) and the defender of Darwinism “Philalethes” (lover of truth). Importantly, Wedgwood’s review suggests that natural selection is not inherently at odds with Creation. The crux of Wedgwood’s argument is that natural selection provides an explanation of the origin of species but says nothing of the origin of life. Therefore, Creation is upheld as the means by which life came to be and natural selection is upheld as the means by which God’s creatures reach His ultimate goal. As Wedgwood wrote:

 

“The principle of natural selection is the answer to the question, How were these forms perfected? It throws no light on the question, Whence do they  originally spring?

 Wedgwood’s review was well-received by Charles Darwin. Indeed, Darwin wrote to Wedgwood about her review, saying:

 

“Some one has sent us ‘Macmillan’; and I must tell you how much I admire  your Article; though at the same time I must confess that I could not clearly   follow you in some parts, which is in main part due to my not being at all  accustomed to metaphysical trains of thought. I think that you understand  my book perfectly, and that I find a very rare event with my critics.” [Letter  July 11, [1861] from Darwin, C.D. to Wedgwood, F.J.]

 

Although Wedgwood was an accomplished thinker and writer, her scholarly career was impeded by the societal expectations placed on her as a maiden aunt in a large family circle. As a result of her familial position, Wedgwood spent much of her adult life caring for relatives’ children and ailing elderly relatives.

 

Toward the end of her life Wedgwood regretted that she had not had the opportunity to attend university as many of the younger generation, and lamented that she might have made so much more of her life.   On 8 March 2013, International Women’s Day, when the Darwin Correspondence Project hosted an event to augment wikipedia entries on some of the women encountered in Charles Darwin’s letters, Snow Wedgwood was one of our priority figures and her entry was largely re-written. It can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Julia_Wedgwood

 

Posted by Myrna Perez

and Katie Ericksen Baca

 

Sources:

Jose Harris, ‘Wedgwood, (Frances) Julia (1833–1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/52808, accessed 14 Sept 2010]

 

[Wedgwood, Frances Julia]. 1860–1. The boundaries of science, a dialogue. Macmillan’s Magazine 2 (1860): 134–8; 4 (1861): 237-47.

 

Wedgwood Barbara and Hensleigh Wedgwood. 1980. The Wedgwood Circle, 1730-1897. Studio vista. London.

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