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Darwin Correspondence Project

Julia Wedgwood

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Frances Julia (Snow) Wedgwood
Frances Julia (Snow) Wedgwood
CUL 457.d.93.124
Cambridge University Library

Charles Darwin’s readership largely consisted of other well-educated Victorian men, nonetheless, some women did read, review, and respond to Darwin’s work. One of these women was Darwin’s own niece, Frances Julia Wedgwood, known in the family as “Snow”.

Snow was the daughter of Emma Darwin’s brother, Josiah Wedgwood. She was considered the cleverest of her generation in the impressively intellectual Wedgwood and Darwin family circles. Through her family she was well connected to many academic and literary luminaries of the day including Thomas H. Huxley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruskin, as well as James Martineau and Thomas Erskine. Deeply interested in the reconciliation between an intellectual Christianity and Darwinism, Julia worked for 22 years on a volume titled Moral Ideal: a Historic Study, a history of the evolution of ethics in the great world civilizations, from antiquity down to Victorian scientific positivism and theological modernism. At the zenith of her reputation Julia Wedgwood was a considered one of the great female intellects, beneath only George Eliot, as far as her ability to handle ‘masculine subjects’ and modern topics. However, her work was impeded by the expectations placed on her as a maiden aunt in a large family circle, and she spent much of her adult life caring for relatives’ children, and ailing elderly relatives. Towards the end of her life Julia 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, and her work has been largely forgotten to the present day.

Snow had a particularly notable exchange with Darwin over a review she wrote of Origin  in July of 1861 for Macmillan’s Magazine. Deeply interested in reconciling Darwin’s newly published theories with the tenets of Christianity, Julia structured her review as a dialogue between the religiously orthodox “Philocalos” and the defender of Darwinism “Philalethes.” 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. Darwin praised Julia’s Macmillan’s review, in particular lauding her comprehension of Origin.

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

Written 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.