The Reluctant Bride Groom?

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

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

In April 1838, on the back of a letter he’d received earlier in the month, Charles Darwin scribbled down the pros and cons of becoming a married man . As an ambitious young Naturalist who had travelled the world on The Beagle and recently begun to formulate his work on the transmission of species, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Darwin’s central concern seems to have been the impact that marriage might have on his work; “If not marry”, Darwin wrote, “- Travel. Europe, yes? America????”. “If marry”, he went on, “…London life, nothing but society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books”.  Perhaps unlike the majority of bachelors, while Darwin’s concerns were partly about the loss of his social freedom (“[the] conversation of clever men at clubs”), his primary concern seems to have been the impact that being “a man tied down in London” would have on his work.


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

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

Despite his concerns, in July 1838 Darwin concluded that he would “Marry-Marry-Marry” and six months later he and Emma Wedgwood were married at Maer in Staffordshire. So, what was it that drove Darwin to take the plunge? While he and Emma were clearly very much in love,  if we take into account his burning desire to have the “freedom to go where one liked” and the specific timing of his decision to marry Emma (he had, after all, known her since birth) it seems that forces other than romantic interest were at work.


Darwin’s turmoil reminds us of the cultural pressures under which young, middle class men laboured in the early nineteenth century. While historians have discussed at length the impact that ‘Victorian domestic ideology’ had on middle class women, far less has been said about its impact on men.[1] In sacrificing some of his personal aspirations in order to have “Children”, “a constant companion” and “[a] Home”, Darwin met the expectations of a culture in which masculinity was measured not just by a man’s public professional achievements but also by his private familial accomplishments. While as a woman Emma was never afforded the freedom to decide whether or not to marry, Darwin’s private musings remind us nonetheless that it wasn’t only women who were subject to the restrictions of Victorian cultural mores.


[1] See L. Davidoff & C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English middle class, 1780 – 1850 (London, 1987) and M. Roper & J. Tosh (eds.), Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain since 1800 (London, 1991).

Women and peahens: Darwin on sexual selection

What’s the difference between a woman and a peahen?


Seems a silly (if not insulting) question.  But in Descent of Man Darwin proposed a theory which, uncharacteristically, set women decisively apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.


According to Darwin, certain features  (such as the beautiful plumage of peacocks) could not be accounted for by natural selection but were instead the product of sexual selection (i.e. aesthetic taste). Crucially, in the animal kingdom it was the female who acted as mate selector; Female birds, Darwin explained in a letter, “select the victorious or most beautiful cock”. (see the letter) Since female birds often selected their mates according to their plumage, so generation after generation male birds evolved with excessively extravagant plumage. Thus, according to Darwin, across the whole of the animal world – from birds to bees and everything in between – females were the driving force behind sexual selection.

There was, however, one important exception: human females. When it came to human courtship men chose their wives – of this Darwin was absolutely sure.  ”The members of our aristocracy,” he reported in Descent of Man, “… from having chosen during many generations from all classes the more beautiful women as their wives, have become handsomer, according to the European standard of beauty, than the middle classes; ”


The crucial question here, of course, is why was the story different for humans? Could it be that Darwin was inadvertently (maybe even consciously) reflecting the respectable values of Victorian society? It’s possible that this was an element of his thinking, but a book with so much frank discussion of human and animal sexuality would have already trespassed many boundaries of respectable literature.


We can never know for sure, but maybe Darwin’s uncharacteristic eagerness to separate the human and non-human worlds in Descent testifies the extent to which his scientific viewpoint was influenced by the patriarchal culture  in which he lived? Perhaps the notion that human evolution was driven by feminine aesthetic taste and that males had evolved not for their brute force or intelligence but for their mere beauty was just one step too far for Victorian Britain?


Posted by Myrna Perez

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.

The Origin of Sex

Sex is a seemingly inescapable reality of the biological world. Surveying the animal and plant kingdoms, at least, seems to reveal a world distributed into male and female. But the ultimate cause of sexual difference was a mystery even to Darwin. Soon after the publication of the Origin of Species a botanist named Charles Daubney wrote to Darwin and provided a series of concrete statements about the origin of sexual variation. Darwin was not so confident and in his reponse to Daubney, called sexual difference “one of the profoundest mysteries in nature.” (see the letter)


Challenging Daubney’s argument that asexual reproduction only produced a copy of the parent, Darwin provided numerous examples of plants which produced sexual variation through asexual propagation. Darwin was more inclined to see sexual reproduction as a check on variation, stating in his notebook, “`My theory gives great final cause … of sexes …: for otherwise, there would be as many species, as individuals….” (Notebook E  p. 48-49). However in the Origin Darwin only went so far as to make a general comment on the biological explanation for sexuality, “it is a general law of nature … that no organic being self-fertilises itself for an eternity of generations” (Origin, p. 97). While key to Darwin’s theories, sexual difference was an issue which remained open to debate throughout the nineteenth century — a fascinating point to bear in mind as we contemplate his attitudes toward gender.


Posted by Myrna Perez

“Slyly disparaging remarks on my beloved Tennyson”

Although Darwin’s letters are a treasure of nineteenth-century natural history, they also reveal that he was engaged in lively conversations about a wide-range of subjects, including contemporary philosophy, politics and literature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these more casual exchanges occurred between Darwin and his women correspondents. These letters give us a unique perspective into Darwin’s world.


One such colourful and insightful exchange occurred in 1865 in a light-hearted conversation between Darwin and Henrietta Huxley, the wife of Darwin’s friend and colleague, Thomas Henry Huxley.  Like her husband, Henrietta was a close friend and great champion of Darwin and his work. She was also, it seems, a keen devotee of Tennyson.


Responding to an earlier note from Darwin which contained “slyly disparaging remarks on my beloved Tennyson”, Henrietta wrote to Darwin in jovial defence of Tennyson’s poem “Sea Dreams”. “I am grieved to find that a philosopher of your repute”, she said, “—should have damaged your reputation for accuracy so greatly as to tell me that the quotation was from “Enoch Arden” whereas it was from ‘Sea Dreams’”. “If the “facts?!” in the Origin of Species are of this sort”, she concluded, “—I agree with the Bishop of Oxford”. (see the letter)


Here, Henrietta makes reference to an 1860 debate between TH Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford in which the latter attacked the science in the Origin of Species. Though reports of the confrontation between the Bishop and Huxley were mixed at the time, the incident came to hold a vivid place in the Victorian imagination as a pivotal moment in an ongoing debate about the relationship between religion and naturalism. That Henrietta was able to make light-hearted reference to the debate no fewer than six years after the event suggests that, while it evidently still loomed large in Huxley and Darwin’s imagination, it was at least an episode that could serve as a source of comedy. Like much of the correspondence Darwin had with women, Henrietta’s letters give us an insight into the friendly intellectual climate of Darwin’s inner circle and – more fundamentally – into Darwin himself.


Posted by Myrna Perez


*Sea Dreams image by kind permission of Houghton Library, Harvard University

Talking to Naturalists

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)


Posted by Myrna Perez

Science – no job for a lady!

Darwin’s female correspondents give us a glimpse of just how many Victorian women were involved in scientific projects. They may have seen themselves as enthusiastic amateurs but the letters show that they carried out valuable observations and experiments in their own right. Several of the correspondents were also concerned with improving women’s access to education and were involved in women’s suffrage campaigns. The Darwin Project’s Education Officer is currently working with schools to explore the opportunities for learning more about these women’s lives. Contact us to find out how you can get involved.

The Darwin and gender project goes transatlantic!

Home Studies in NatureOur research into Mary Treat has been given a boost in the form of associate professor of nineteenth-century science and Mary Treat expert Tina Gianquitto of the Colorado School of Mines who has generously offered us her help.  In collaboration with both our Cambridge and Harvard offices, Tina has provided an article on the role of domesticity and Darwin in Treat’s Home Studies and has been interviewed by a member of the Harvard team while on a recent research trip to Boston.  We look forward to bringing you Tina’s article and audio interview as part of our case study on Mary Treat in the near future!

The ‘Darwin and Gender’ Twitter feed is launched!

The Darwin and Gender Twitter feed is now up and running! It offers the exciting chance to share in comments and observations made by Darwin’s many and varied women correspondents — from ground-breaking women scientists to prominent members of the suffragist movement to Darwin’s wife and daughters. Listen in now!

The ‘Darwin and Gender’ project is under way!

Dr Philippa Hardman has been appointed research associate for the gender stream of the Darwin Correspondence Project and is in the process of researching the life, works and achievements of Mary Treat — a nature writer and naturalist from Vineland, New Jersey.  Zephyranthes TreatiaeTreat corresponded with Charles Darwin more than any other of his women correspondents and is perhaps best known for her 1873 article Controlling Sex in Butterflies in which she made groundbreaking observations about the relationship between the amount of food ingested by butterfly larvae and the sex of adult butterfly. Treat also identified a number of new plant and insect species, including a rare fern, two new species of burrowing spider and the Zephyr Lily which was named Zephyranthes Treatiae in her honour.