On 11 November 1838 Darwin wrote in his journal that his day had been “The day of days!”. He had proposed to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and had been accepted. What did Darwin and his colleagues expect of married life? And what part did Emma and other ‘scientific wives’ play in the lives and work of their husbands?
Associated selected readings.
Wives in Theory
Darwin’s Notes On Marriage [April - July 1838]
In these notes, written shortly before his courtship with Emma, Darwin weighs up the pros and cons of married life for a man of science.
Letter 489 – Darwin to Wedgwood, E., [20 January 1839]
In this letter, written shortly before their marriage, Darwin details the influence that he hopes Emma will have on his life and character.
Letter 1557 – Hooker, J. D. to Darwin, [26 February 1854]
In this letter, Hooker compares his work and love of botany with his feelings towards his wife and child.
Letter 1757 – Darwin to Huxley, T. H., [29 September 1859]
In this letter, Darwin congratulates Huxley on his productivity and expresses hope that Huxley’s marriage will not make him idle.
Letter 3662 – Darwin to Gray, A., [23-24 July 1862]
In this letter, frustrated by a lack of productivity, Darwin muses over whether men of science ought to have wives and children.
Letter 3945 – Darwin to Bates, H. W., [26 January 1863]
In this letter, Darwin congratulates Bates on his engagement. From his experience, marriage is a man’s best and only chance for happiness.
Letter 5576 – Haeckel, E. P. A. to Darwin, [28 June 1867]
In this letter, Haeckel writes to Darwin in part to pass on news of his engagement. Haeckel describes his fiancée’s character and details the influence that he hopes she might have on his life.
Wives in Practice
Letter 1122 – Darwin to Lyell, M. E., [4 October 1847]
In this letter, Darwin thanks Mary Lyell for the barnacle samples that she has sent in the post. Darwin also provides detailed information for Mary to pass on to her husband.
Letter 1266 – Darwin to Lyell, M. E., [24 October 1849]
In this letter, Darwin asks Mary Lyell to translate a paper on barnacles written by Sven Lovén. He does not know where else to turn and is “dreadfully interested” in the barnacles described.
Letter 3368 – Lubbock, E. F. to Darwin, E., [January 1862]
In this letter, Ellen Lubbock, wife of the English naturalist John Lubbock, asks Emma to attempt to persuade Darwin to visit her and John’s home. Her husband doesn’t know that she has written to Emma but he is having trouble at work and would benefit from a “talk with Mr. Darwin”.
Letter 4498f – Darwin, E. to Darwin, W. E., [17 May 1864]
In this letter, Emma passes on family news and instructions from Darwin to their eldest son, William. Emma also provides the equipment necessary for the observations in question.
Letter 4882 – Darwin to Gray, A., [15 August 1865]
In this letter, Darwin describes to Asa Gray how the women of the family read aloud to him in the evening. Their most recent reads include works by Lubbock, Tylor and Lecky.
Letter 4940 – Cresy, E. to Darwin, E., [20 November 1865]
In this letter, Edward Cresy, Jr. seeks Darwin-family support for Elizabeth Garrett’s candidacy for the position of Professorship of physiology at Bedford College for girls. Appealing to Emma’s “feminine sympathies”, he is keen to stress that Garrett’s education and interests have in no way “impaired the charm of her manner or her social converse” and that she is “neither masculine nor pedantic”.
Letter 5249 – Darwin to Lyell, M. E., [19 October 1866]
Letter 6039 – Huxley, H. A. to Darwin, E., [22 March 1867]
In this letter, Henrietta Huxley, wife of English naturalist T. H. Huxley, combines household news with observations of baby Ethel Huxley, which she passes on for Emma’s consideration.
Letter 5408 – Darwin to Huxley, T. H., [21 February 1868]
In this letter, Darwin asks Thomas Huxley to pass on a message to his wife and Darwin’s “colleague”, Henrietta Anne Huxley. He begs that, in the course of her observations of babies, she does not “forget the corrugator supercilii”.
Letter 8700 – Lubbock, E. F. to Darwin, E., 
In this letter, Ellen Lubbock declares her wish to help change the name of the Anthropological Society to the Ethnological Society. The current name “isn’t the right one” and irritates both her and her husband. She has told the president of the Anthropological Society that she will raise the funds necessary to free the society from debt and change its name and asks Emma if Darwin will head the subscription.
Letter 10093 – Lane-Fox, A. L. to Lubbock, E. F., [25 July 1875]
In this letter Alice, the wife of collector Pitt-Rivers, passes on information to Ellen Lubbock, the wife of naturalist John Lubbock, about the amputation and regrowth of her son’s extra digit. She says that she “has been trained to take sufficient interest in all scientific investigations” and states that she almost wrote to Darwin on the subject directly after reading his account of amputation and regrowth in Descent.
Letter 10614 – Darwin, E. to Haeckel, E. P. A., [22 & 26 September 1876]
In this letter, Emma writes to Professor Haeckel on Darwin’s behalf. She explains that Darwin is excited about Haeckel’s visit to Down House. Emma offers advice on train times, in part to ensure that Haeckel’s visit fits around Darwin’s strict daily routine.
Scientists’ Wives Exercise: Ellen Lubbock
a) Scientific Wives’ Correspondence
Read the following letters written by Ellen Lubbock:
Letter 8700 – Lubbock, E. F. to Darwin, E., 
In this letter, Ellen Lubbock writes to Emma Darwin declaring her wish to help change the name of the Anthropological Society to the Ethnological Society. The current name “isn’t the right one” and irritates both her and her husband. She has told the president of the Anthropological Society that she will raise the funds necessary to free the society from debt and change its name and asks Emma if Darwin will head the subscription.
Letter 8701 – Lubbock, E. F. to Darwin, 
In this letter, Ellen Lubbock writes to Charles Darwin to offer some observations she had made of her pet cat.
1. How does Ellen present herself in her letter to Emma Darwin? What seems to motivate her actions?
2. How does Ellen present herself in her letter to Charles Darwin? Does she adopt a different style to the one she chooses in her letter to Emma? Why might she do this?
b) Remembering the Wives of Scientists:
Read the extract below and perhaps also look at other biographies of scientists like Lubbock and Darwin, written at different times:
“Ellen was an immense help to John in his early scientific days, she acted quite as a secretary, kept his papers in order, looked up references, did all the diagrams for his lectures. She was an exceptionally charming letter-writer, and kept up all the correspondence with his scientific friends. She wrote a beautiful hand and was a clever, brilliant woman, with the kindest heart and the most genial manner, and made all the friends who came to Lamas (and when the elder Sir John died it was all kept up at High Elms) so welcome and happy that everyone felt at ease with her. We used to go on Sunday afternoons to Lamas and sit on the long flight of high steps having delightful talks with Tyndall, Hirst, Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and all the rising men of the day.” (Written for Hutchinson by a cousin of Ellen’s.)
Hutchinson, H. G., Life of Sir John Lubbock, (London, 1914), vol. 1 p. 79.
1. How are the wives of male scientists presented?
2. What is expected of them?
3. What contributions are they said to have made to their husbands’ lives and work?
c) Scientific Wives’ Writing:
Ellen Lubbock contributed a chapter on her and her husband’s travels in Denmark to Galton’s 1864 publication, Vacation Tourists and Notes of Travel. Read her chapter and think about the following questions:
1. What impression do you get of Ellen’s interests from her own scientific writing in Vacation tourists?
2. How does Ellen Lubbock’s writing compare with other sorts of scientific writing, for instance, Charles Darwin’s or her husband’s?
3. What can we learn from works like this about the lives and experiences of scientists’ wives?