Burn After Reading

One question which arises a lot when sifting through Darwin’s letters is are we prying? Did Darwin and his correspondents consider their letters to be public objects or private exchanges intended only for the eyes of the sender and recipient in question? The answer appears to be both.

 

Letter 2545 from Erasmus Darwin to Charles Darwin with 'confidential' section (1859)As a rule, Darwin’s correspondents tended to state explicitly when a letter (or a specific section of a letter) was “private” or “confidential” – a custom which suggests that they assumed that their written exchanges were by default public property, or at least potentially so.

 

In Darwin’s case, the practice of flagging-up private content developed out of – perhaps bitter! – experience. As he explained to one of his correspondents in 1871; “I put “private” from habit only as yet partially acquired, from some hasty notes of mine having been printed, which were not in the least degree worth printing.”

 

William Sharpey

Darwin perhaps referred in part here to a frustrating experience he had in 1857 when William Sharpey read content from one of his letters to the Council of the Royal Society. Darwin’s annoyance over this transgression is clear both in a letter he wrote to Hooker on the subject and in an uncharacteristically confrontational reply he wrote to Sharpey.[1]


Letter 8837 marked 'confidential' by Darwin on the subject of religion Even where an explicit request was made for a letter to remain private, however, it was impossible to ensure that it did. As scholars of the epistolary form have shown over and again, despite best intentions letters have a habit of hanging around and ultimately being consumed by a far wider public audience than was perhaps intended. [2]


Interestingly, some of Darwin’s correspondents seem to have been aware of this risk. Thus, when dealing with content that was deemed especially sensitive, some correspondents requested that their letters be burned after reading.

 

One extremely rare example of a male correspondent who made this request is provided by John William Salter, a Geologist and Paleontologist who wrote to Darwin on new year’s eve, 1866 to ask him for help in supporting his family; ”Are you rich enough to aid me at all,” he asked, “—and make me your debtor for any help I can give in looking over the paleozoic part of your reasonings in your great book.” Salter signed off his letter by stating that, “I trust you will burn my letter— I had hoped for so different a career—”. As far as Salter was concerned, then, sensitive content equated to professional failure, unemployment and the inability to act as breadwinner and support his wife and children.

 

For women the case was very different. Where a middle class man’s public reputation hinged on his professional and financial success, a middle class woman’s reputation was measured by her modesty and chastity.

 

 

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

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

The vast majority of ‘burn this’ requests in the Darwin archive can be found in the correspondence of Fanny Owen, a woman who Darwin courted as a young man. Tame as the content is, Owen was evidently anxious about the letters she exchanged with Darwin, ending most of her correspondence with statements such as, “Burn this as soon as you have made out the nonsense“, “you must burn this when you get it“ and – shortly before Darwin left on the Beagle – “Burn this before you sail for pitys sake.


Owen’s repeated requests that her letters be destroyed reflect the pressures that she laboured under as a young middle class woman whose volatile reputation depended primarily on her modesty and chastity. These characteristics were key a part of her feminine status and crucial if she was successfully to secure a husband and thus future happiness. As she herself said to Darwin in 1828, ”For Heaven’s sake burn this, or if it falls into the hands of any of the young men, what would they think”. [3]


While some of the letters in Darwin’s archive were never meant for public consumption, there is a great amount to be gained from an analysis of “public” and “private” letters alike. A comparative analysis of these different sorts of correspondence helps us to develop a sense of what kinds of information and styles of delivery were deemed appropriate – and indeed inappropriate - for the public sphere. We also get a sense of how public profiles were constructed and, crucially, the means by which they might have been undermined. More fundamentally, an analysis of Darwin’s most confidential letters reminds us of the serendipitous and incomplete nature of his archive. After all, we will never know for sure how many letters managed to remain private nor how many Darwin burned after reading.

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman

 

[1] In this instance Darwin’s concern was for his professional reputation which was built on well-crafted ideas and considered, balanced prose; “[I] fear I expressed myself dogmatically“, he told Hooker. More generally, the letters/content which Darwin marked as explicitly private or confidential falls neatly into two categories: one which, like the Sharpey case, concerned his professional status and another which concerned religion – a controversial topic which he was always reluctant to discuss publicly.

[2] For an introduction to the historiography of the epistolary form see Rebecca Earle (ed.), Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers 1600 – 1945, (Aldershot, 1999).

[3] For more on the gendered workings of the courtship ritual see Laura Gowing, ‘The economy of courtship’, in her Domestic Dangers, (Clarendon, 1996).


Women and Science, Past and Present

International Women's DayInternational Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women, particularly those who have struggled to participate in society on an equal footing with men. Darwin’s correspondence is a rich source of evidence of extraordinary women who did just that; from international travellers and diamond prospectors to naturalists, botanists, entomologists and pioneering members of the suffrage movement.

 

Lydia BeckerLydia Becker (1827 – 1890), for example, was not just paid secretary of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage, president of the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society, editor of the Women’s Suffrage Journal and founding member of the Married Women’s Property Commission — she was also a keen botanist, a published science writer and a correspondent of Charles Darwin.


Antoinette Brown BlackwellAntoinette Brown Blackwell (1825 – 1921) was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States, a vociferous social reformer and promoter of women’s rights. She was also a keen philosopher and scientist who, like Becker, published scientific works and corresponded with Charles Darwin.

 

The achievements of women like Becker and Blackwell should not be underestimated; at a time when science was deemed a gentlemanly pursuit reserved for the so-called “rational sex”, they were part of a select group of women who broke the trammels and defied gender ideology in order to participate in the masculine world of science.[1] In this way Becker and Blackwell’s science embodied their politics; they attempted to eradicate inequality and make a masculine pursuit sexless and universal.


In real terms, however, Becker and Blackwell were far from the equals of Darwin and his male corespondents. Denied access to formal scientific education and refused membership of formal societies, women scientists existed somewhere on the periphery of the world of institutional science. While Becker and Blackwell were able to access the world of science through the private and appropriately feminine channel of letter-writing, their involvement in the public world of science was severely limited by dominant gender ideology which celebrated women as moral and feeling but ultimately irrational and thus destined by their nature to be domestic, nurturing creatures.

 

The notion of the private, domestic middle class woman was so pervasive in nineteenth-century Britain that scientific women often felt compelled to publish their works anonymously; Becker’s 1864 publication Botany for Novices , for example, was published under her initials, a strategy which - alongside her detached narrative and deliberate use of gentlemanly discourse – left her work free from any suggestion that it might have been produced by a woman.

 

Botany for NovicesDarwin’s letters suggest that while he was open to the concept of women being involved in the world of science (he relied heavily on women observers, for example), his default position was that science and scientific correspondence was the preserve of men. Thus, when Antoinette Brown Blackwell sent a copy of her Studies in General Science to Darwin in 1869, he assumed from its content and subject matter that its author – “A. B. Blackwell” – was male; “Dear Sir,” Darwin wrote in reply, “I am much obliged to you for your kindness in sending me your “Studies in General Science”, over which, as I observe in the  Preface, you have spent so much time.”

 

International Women’s Day offers us an important opportunity to celebrate the achievements of great women past and present. Celebrating the achievements of women should not, however, make us blind to the cultural barriers which stood and continue to stand in the way of sexual equality. Today should not just be about celebrating the achievements of great women but also about appreciating the ongoing nature of their struggle. In a world where girls continue to be deterred from studying science at school and where women still find it difficult to enter the scientific professions, it is clear that while some women’s battles have been won, others – including that of Becker and Blackwell – are ongoing.

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman

 

[1] For a discussion of the so-called “masculinisation” of science - particularly botany – in the nineteenth century  see A. Schteir,  Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, (John Hopkins University Press, 1999).


What can Darwin teach us about sexuality?

LGBT History MonthThis month is LGBT History Month, an annual event which celebrates the lives of the LGBT community both past and present. The event helps draw attention to the ongoing work of organisations like Schools Out, which encourage teachers to give lessons on ‘significant’ gay people like Alan Turing, the forefather of modern computing whose work as a Cryptanalyst helped to defeat Nazi Germany. Alternatively, teachers might opt to take Science lessons based on research which shows that homosexual behaviour typically occurs in hundreds of species of animals. [1]


Any Science teachers who try to draw on Darwin’s work in this context will be rather disappointed with what they find. Despite dedicating his life to the observation of the natural world, no reports of homosexual behaviour appear ever to have been made by Darwin.[2] This is surprising given that recent academic research shows overwhelmingly that “nearly all species” of animals exhibit some degree of homosexual behaviour both in the wild and in captivity.

 

Expert observations of Rhesus monkeys’ behaviour, for example – behaviour which Darwin studied very closely - has shown conclusively that both male and female members of the species demonstrate homosexual as well as heterosexual behaviour over the course of their lives. Thus, according to Professor Paul Vasey, same-sex Rhesus monkeys are typically “affectionate to each other, touching, holding and embracing” one another.[3]


Darwin’s observations of Rhesus monkey behaviour were decidedly more hetero-normative, focussing exclusively on interactions between the sexes at the expense of interactions within single-sex pairings.  As an animal of “the order to which man belongs“, Rhesus monkey courtship behaviour appeared to Darwin as identical to the human equivalent –  a heterosexual, male-driven process in which “ornamental” females were selected according to their perceived physical attractiveness.

 

So why did Darwin and his contemporaries fail to observe the homosexual behaviour which naturally occurs in species like the Rhesus monkey? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in Victorian Britain’s narrow definition of sexuality. While during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries sexual acts between people of the same sex were deemed “part and parcel of ‘normal’ sexual behaviour”, over the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “natural” sexuality became more narrowly defined as productive, marital and thus heterosexual.[4]


Sir Charles LyellAs a man who dedicated his life to analysing the selective forces which influenced the evolutionary process – from the weather, to geography, to physical strength and aesthetic adornments - one would expect Darwin to have taken a keen interest in the potentially critical evolutionary consequences of same-sex behaviour in animals and humans alike. In neither his public work nor private letters, however, did he describe sexuality as anything other than a heterosexual/reproductive phenomenon; “Sexuality”, he told Charles Lyell in 1861, should be defined as the uniting of “two elements” which “go to form the new being“.

 

In a world where homosexual behaviour was increasingly labelled “unnatural”, it might have been the case that Darwin simply did not see homosexual behaviour in the natural world – that he was somehow culturally blinded to its existence in nature. Alternatively, it might have been the case that as an aspiring respectable man of science whose work was considered by many to tread a fine line between “real” scientific endeavour and “indecent aestheticism”, Darwin lacked the freedom to observe, discuss and thus “naturalise” types of behaviour which had the potential to offend and alienate his middle-class audience.[5]


While Darwin’s work does little to help teachers convey the complexity of human sexuality to their students, it nonetheless provides an extremely rich insight into the relationship between science and culture. Contrary to what we tend to be taught at school, it is impossible for even the most dedicated and “detached” of scientists to offer insights that are entirely objective and wholly a-political. In looking at Darwin’s work both as a piece of science and as a product of culture, students can learn valuable lessons about the subjectivity of what we “know” and about the ways and means by which heterosexuality has been constructed  as the norm from which other sorts of sexuality diverge.

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman

 

[1] For discussions of homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom see Volker Sommer & Paul L. Vasey, Homosexual Behaviour in Animals, An Evolutionary Perspective, (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, (London, 1999) and Frans De Waal & Frans Lanting, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, (California, 1998).

[2] There is a single reference to homosexual behaviour in animals in a rather distressing letter written to Darwin by Robert Swinhoe in 1865. Interestingly, in the letter Swinhoe interprets a violent dog fight as motivated by an innate homophobic instinct. There is no reply from Darwin that we know of, but it is significant that the issue of homosexuality does not feature in any of his discussions of dog behaviour in Variation, Descent or Expression.

[3]  Sommer & Vasey, Homosexual Behaviour in Animals, (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[4] See T. Hitchcock, ‘The Development of Sexuality’, English Sexualities 1700 – 1800, (London, 1997), p. 65. Generally speaking, while in the earlier period masculinity was measured by the quantity of sex a man had, by the early nineteenth century it was increasingly measured by its (heterosexual) quality.

[5] For a discussion of the cultural pressures under which Darwin laboured see G. Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability,(Cambridge, 2007), introduction.

What’s so good about a classical education?

William Darwin FoxOn September 4th 1850, Charles Darwin penned a letter to his cousin and friend William Darwin Fox in which he reported that he and Emma were “at present very full of the subject of schools”. As a middle class family, the Darwins had a number of options to choose from: they could follow in Fox’s footsteps and home school their sons, they could send their boys to a grammar school, or they could opt to educate them at public school where they would receive a classical education centered around the study of Latin and Greek.

 

Charles clearly had considerable reservations about the latter option; “I cannot endure to think of sending my Boys to waste 7 or 8 years in making miserable Latin verses,” he told told Fox. In a later, more candid exchange Darwin declared that, “No one can more truly despise the old stereotyped stupid classical education than I do.”

 

Why did Darwin object so vehemently to classical education? According to Charles, a classical education had a “contracting effect” on young boys’ minds; it entailed “no exercise of the observing or reasoning faculties,—no general knowledge acquired.” It was, he said, “a wretched system”. Darwin’s preference seems to have been for the more diverse and skills-focussed education offered by grammar schools; “we have heard some good of Bruce Castle School, near Tottenham“, he told Fox in 1850, “which is partly [based] on the Fellenberg System”. [1]


Rugby SchoolDespite his reservations, however,  in 1852 Charles reluctantly reported that his son, William, had embarked on a classical education; ”I have not had courage,” Darwin confessed to Fox, “to break through the trammels. After many doubts we have just sent our eldest Boy to Rugby”.

 

Why such an orthodox move from a man considered to be something of a maverick? The answer most likely lies in prevailing middle class gender ideology. A classical education may have lacked diversity and the opportunity for creativity, but it provided access to an exclusive middle class masculine world. As Anthony Fletcher has shown, Latin was “the male elite’s secret language, a language all of its own, a language that that could be displayed as  a mark of learning, superiority, of class and gender difference.” [2]


Charles and William DarwinClassical education held a practical appeal also; monotonous, solid study in subjects with little intrinsic interest for its students was well-designed to check youthful high spirits and transform boys into studious, dedicated and all-round decent middle class men. As Darwin commented to Fox, “a Boy who has learnt to stick at Latin & conquer its difficulties, ought to be able to stick at any labour.”

 

Charles might have considered William’s schooling “stupid” and “wretched”, but as a middle class father concerned for his son’s professional future and progression into manhood, a classical education ultimately proved too valuable an opportunity for him to miss.

 

Posted by Philippa Hardman

 

[1] The Hill School at Bruce Castle was a relatively radical institution founded by Rowland Hill, a close friend of Thomas Paine, Richard Price and Joseph Priestly. The Fellenberg System prioritised learning through experience, primarily through the study and practice of agriculture.

[2] Anthony Fletcher, Gender Sex and Subordination, (London, 1995), p. 302.

The Darwins’ Christmas Fayre


Emma Darwin's Recipe BookThose of us who are planning a ‘double dip recession Christmas’ might find frugal inspiration in Emma Darwin’s traditional Victorian fayre. Over the course of her family life Emma Darwin noted down around forty recipes in her personal cookery notebook which she proudly entitled “Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book”.[1]


When it came to the Darwins’ family cookbook, the women were very clearly in charge; it was Emma, Henrietta and other female family members who took charge of selecting and noting down a range of recipes, from delicious sounding delights like gingerbread and apple compote to perhaps less palatable concoctions such as skim milk pudding, preserved eggs, turnip cresselly and veal cake.[2]


Charles appears to have contributed to the notebook just once when, in his distinctive hand and with characteristic precision, he noted how to make the perfect boiled rice (which was perhaps served up as an accompaniment to Emma’s chicken curry); “keep it [the rice] boiling for twelve minutes by the watch,” he said, “then pour off the water and set the pot on live coals during ten minutes”.

 

Typical Victorian Christmas Card (circa. 1870)When Christmas came around, the Darwin family recipe book provided a wealth of seasonal options. Christmas party staples such as cheese straws and gingerbread biscuits were noted, as was festive cured ham, cranberry sauce and – of course – mince pies which, according to Emma’s extremely festive recipe, contained no less than a quarter of a pint of brandy.

 

Even Emma’s indulgent festive recipes, however, could not draw Charles away from his work.  In typical fashion, on Christmas day 1871 he retired from his family Christmas gathering at Down in order to write a letter to Physican and Naturalist William Ogle; “I have read your paper with the greatest possible interest” Charles said,  before proceeding to detail observations and notes he had recently made on left and right handedness.

 

[1] Cambridge University Library, CUL-DAR214.(0-157).

[2] For more information see D. Bateson & W. Janeway, Mrs Darwin’s Recipe Book: revived and illustrated (New York, 2008).

Darwin on Social Networking

Charles Darwin’s private letters suggest that he was not keen on socialising.  Dedicated scientist that he was, Darwin’s preference was for “society – and little of it”. Indeed, one of Darwin’s concerns about getting married was that it would entail taking a far more active part in London’s social scene, resulting in a life made up of “nothing but society - no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books“.

 

It seems that Darwin was right to worry;  the endless invites which he and Emma circulated among their friends and colleagues and their regular acceptance (and, sometimes, refusal!) of others’ invitations shows that Charles and Emma were active (if perhaps reluctant) members of the London social scene.

 

Contrary to Charles’ concerns, however, his social networking had a positive (rather than wholly negative) effect on his work.  While certainly time consuming, Charles’ social life (organised primarily by Emma) allowed him to share and develop his ideas with some of the most influential natural scientists, botanists, geologists, historians and philosophers of the time. In one typical invitation dated May 1840, Charles and Emma were asked to dine with mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage and one M. Sismondi “an influential historian”. Botanist and geologist J.S. Henslow was later invited along to join them.

 

At a time when one’s social and professional worlds were inextricably linked,  the social world so dreaded by Darwin the bachelor arguably played a key part in fostering a network of intellectual connections which proved crucial to the content, integrity and thus success of his research and works. Like many nineteenth-century scientists’ wives , Emma Darwin played an important part in liberating Charles from a life of scientific dedication and introduced him to the important and highly influential world of Victorian polite society. Charles, it seems, appreciated her influence; “I think that  you will humanize me,” he told in Emma in 1839, “& soon teach me that there is greater happiness than building theories & accumulating  facts in silence  & solitude”.

Keeping it in the Family

Charles and William DarwinAs suggested in an earlier blog post, Darwin was something of a reluctant bride groom. His chief concern about getting married and having children centred on the loss of freedom it would entail and, of course, the impact that this would have on his work. For Darwin, becoming a husband and father meant entering a new life that would be marked by anxiety, expense and a severe “loss of time“.

 

His private correspondence shows that, in some ways at least, Darwin was absolutely correct; he proved to be an anxious husband and father who regularly expressed concern about his wife’s well-being and who was preoccupied throughout much of his life by a concern that his children were blighted by some sort of hereditary weakness. His childrens’ financial and professional prospects also caused him a considerable degree of anxiety.


Origin of Species, published 20 years into Darwin's marriageWhile Darwin the bachelor might have had a good grasp of the impact that marriage would have on his life, he proved far less insightful about the impact that it would have on his work. Despite his fears, as a husband and father Darwin was able to publish over twenty works including arguably his three most influential publications, On the Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotion (1872).


Contrary to Darwin’s assumptions, becoming a husband and father seems to have helped rather than hindered his research.  Even before they were married, it is clear that a loose division of labour existed between Charles and Emma. Thus, by taking chief responsibility for the management of the family and household, Emma left Charles free to dedicate much of his time to observation, experimentation and writing.


Plate from Darwin's "Expression of Emotions"Importantly, Emma was not just an efficient housekeeper and mother – she was also a trusted observer who took an active part in Darwin’s research.  During the period 1854 – 1856, for example, she closely observed their childrens’ behaviour, making notes which – along with Charles‘ and other contributorsobservations – culminated in the publication of The Expression of Emotion.


The Darwin children were not just a rich source of information for Charles – like Emma they too were trusted observers, editors and contributors to his work. As discussed in an earlier post, Darwin considered his daughter Henrietta’s editorial input crucial. Even before they were engaged, Charles took the liberty of recruiting his son’s future fiancée (Amy Ruck) to count wormcasts for him in North Wales!


It seems, then, that Charles’ musings about the implications of Victorian marriage were only partially correct. While becoming a husband and father inevitably impacted on his ability to focus exclusively on scientific pursuits, in many ways his marriage can be seen as signalling the start rather than the end of his illustrious career in the natural sciences.

Dawkins, Darwin and friends

In an article and book review published in The Guardian in 2003, Richard Dawkins excitedly reported that “an obscure letter in a library” suggested that Charles Darwin was the forefather not only of the theory of evolution but also of modern genetics.


The letter to which he referred was written by Darwin to fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in February 1866. Bringing to light a little-known yet highly significant discussion of early Pangenesis, Darwin and Wallace’s written exchange is a powerful reminder of the wealth of important information contained within Darwin’s private correspondence. As Dawkins noted,  the letter reminds us that Darwin “was not only a deep thinker” but also “a master encyclopaedist” who “collated huge quantities of information from around the world” on a great variety of subjects.


Indeed, Darwin’s private correspondence shows very clearly that he was part of a surprisingly broad network of naturalists on whose expertise he relied very heavily and Dawkins is correct to suggest that Darwin was arguably more of a scientific collaborator than he was a lone hero. There is, however, a glaring error in Dawkins’ portrayal of Darwin’s scientific network: “…each gentleman [was],” Dawkins says, “meticulously acknowledged for having ‘attended to’ the subject”. Darwin was indeed the most polite and conscientious of correspondents, but his scientific network was made up not just of gentlemen like Alfred Russel Wallace but also a large number of women, including Mary Treat, Lydia Becker, Carolina Dodel Port, Mary Barber and Margaretta Hare-Morris to name but a few.


Delving into Darwin’s private correspondence offers great potential for us to better understand both the full breadth of his ideas and the collaborative nature of his work. It will also help to correct the enduring assumption that during the nineteenth century science was a world inhabited exclusively by the so-called “scientific gentleman”.

Talking to Teachers

Armed with homemade cakes and a dictaphone, the project has been heading out to meet with secondary school teachers to discuss opportunities for making use of Darwin’s correspondence in the classroom. This first stage of an ongoing consultation process has already generated plenty of ideas and clear scope for cross curricula working. If your school would like to join in, do contact us.

 

Teachers will be asked for feedback regularly as online resources are drafted and developed, and we are grateful for their help in creating useful and relevant materials. We want to ensure that what we produce reflects the riches of the letters but also encourages pupils to share Darwin’s sense of endless curiosity about the world.