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Darwin Correspondence Project

Julia Wedgwood


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

Though Charles Darwin’s readership largely consisted of other well-educated Victorian men, a few women did read, review and respond to his work. One of the foremost was his niece, Julia Wedgwood.

She was the eldest child of Emma Darwin’s brother, Hensleigh Wedgwood, and Fanny Mackintosh, the favourite child of Sir James Mackintosh, the Scottish philosopher, historian, jurist and politician. “Snow’s” education though irregular was the best then available to a young woman. She attended Rachel Martineau’s school in Liverpool for a year and was then in the first intakes at both Queen’s and Bedford Colleges in 1848 and 1849. Her teachers included James Martineau, Frederick Denison Maurice, Francis Newman and Alexander Scott. Though some in the family looked askance at her painfully acquired learning she was recognised as the cleverest of her generation. From childhood she knew leading women writers like Maria Edgeworth, Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell, who she helped when she was writing her biography of Charlotte Bronte. She made a successful debut as a novelist in 1857 but turned away from fiction after her father criticized her second novel. Her first important periodical contributions were on Darwin, Lyell, the debate on the origins of language, which keenly interested her father, and the new relationship of science and religion. With encouragement from Richard Hutton, the editor of the Spectator, she extended her range, writing with insight on the Classical world, English mysticism, history, literature, theology, Comtism, German Biblical criticism and politics. She also argued the case for female suffrage, helped Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s campaign for election to the first London Education Board in 1870 and served as informal Classics tutor in the first year of what became Girton College, Cambridge.

She and Robert Browning had an intense friendship when he returned to London after the death of his wife. Some in the family expected it to lead to marriage but she broke it off suddenly. Nonetheless she was the only person he showed The Ring and the Book to in proof. Her lack of sympathy for his long poem ended their active relationship. She then began calling on George Eliot, who she always described as “the greatest woman” she had known, despite their very different views on religion and Eliot’s irregular private life.

Wedgwood’s The Moral Ideal, the outcome of twenty years of reading, thinking and writing, traced the development of man’s aspiration towards the divine through the great civilisations beginning with ancient Egypt. Its sections on Classical thought and politics were particularly admired. She intended it, in part, as her answer to Darwinism. The Message of Israel (1888) aimed to make the findings of German Biblical criticism accessible to the thoughtful churchgoer. In Nineteenth Century Teachers (1909) she republished several of her profiles of leading Victorians she had known such as Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, Dean Stanley, John Ruskin, Richard Hutton and her spiritual mentor, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen. In her later years she was assisted by the young E. M. Forster, who thought highly of “the formidable Snowie”, particularly admiring her unconventional domestic set-up with a young untutored Welsh housemaid installed as her companion to take care of household management and free her to devote her time to her work. Emma Darwin was irritated by Wedgwood family criticism of this arrangement made at the time when Julia’s parents were elderly and ailing.

Though Wedgwood was described, after Frances Power Cobbe’s retirement to Wales, as “the thoughtful woman par excellence”, she never lost her essential modesty. Given the brilliance of her teachers and the proximity of her uncle Charles Darwin, she ought, she said, “to have been something larger than I am”.

Wedgwood’s reactions to Darwin’s work went through distinctive phases: initial excitement at his discoveries, frustration at his refusal to consider their theological implications, dislike of the combative stance of some of his supporters, notably Huxley, disappointment at what she saw as his contribution to a growing agnosticism, admiration for his work as a scientist and, ultimately, an idealist recognition of the Darwinian world as a progressive prefiguration of the perfection to come in the afterlife.

Her first review of his work was a two-part dialogue published in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1860 and 1861, “The Boundaries of Science”, about On the Origin of Species. Wedgwood welcomed Darwin’s discoveries and sought to understand their theological significance. She suggested that natural selection was not inherently at odds with Creation. It provided an explanation of the origin of species but not the origin of life. Her emphasis on the progressive character of natural selection prefigured the basis on which idealist churchmen were eventually reconciled with Darwinism. Darwin wrote to his niece: “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”. (Charles Darwin to F. J. Wedgwood, 11 July [1861].)

Wedgwood’s review of The Descent of Man in the Spectator on 18 March 1871 was one of two that caught his eye, unaware though he initially was of its authorship. (The other was by Alfred Wallace.) In it Wedgwood largely avoided the debate on Darwin’s explanation of the natural development of morality, delighting instead in his many examples of similarities in animal and human behaviour, particularly in courtship. Darwin’s emphasis on man’s discovery of “disinterested affection” as a result of his physical weakness had its parallel, she suggested, in Pauline doctrine. In her conclusion she reclaimed Darwin as a Theist. When Fanny Wedgwood disclosed the review’s authorship to him, he described it as “very clever”, despatching his wife to congratulate Julia as “the sole person, except pure naturalists, who have noticed this part [on the significance of sexual selection] with approbation.” (Charles and Emma Darwin to F. J. Wedgwood, [March 1871?].)

In 1885, when the family could not agree on how to present Darwin’s views on religion in the biography of him Frank Darwin was preparing, Wedgwood was invited by her cousin, Henrietta Litchfield, to read the section on religion in Darwin’s “Development of my Mind”. She agreed with Frank that it should be included, welcoming its “absolute sincerity & directness”, but in deference to Henrietta’s objections produced a sanitised version toning down Darwin’s objections to Christianity. Both the Litchfields and Darwin’s sons rejected it as not what Darwin had written and Wedgwood stepped back from the continuing family row. When the Darwin biography was published Wedgwood’s review in the Spectator, published anonymously but readily identifiable as hers, struck a rare negative note in attacking her uncle as “a destroyer” and criticising his reluctance to reconcile Darwinian theory with Christian belief in the way that he might have done. Her article caused great offence to the Darwin sons but was accepted by Emma Darwin, with whom Wedgwood remained on close terms until her death.

Wedgwood died in November 1913 leaving a sizeable part of her large estate to animal welfare causes. Her death went largely unremarked, except by one of her two collaborators on the revision of The Moral Ideal, Professor Harold Herford, who described her in the Spectator as “one of the most gifted Englishwomen of her time”. The other, E. M. Forster, retained a vivid memory of her, defending the reputation of “the formidable Snowie” when her correspondence with Browning was published in 1937 and praising her “fine qualities of the heart as well as the head”.


Sue Brown, Julia Wedgwood, the unexpected Victorian: the life and writing of a remarkable female intellectual (Anthem Press, Nineteenth Century Series, 2022)

Jose Harris, ‘Wedgwood, (Frances) Julia (1833–1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [, 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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About this article

Based on an article originally written by Myrna Perez and Katie Ericksen Baca and updated in light of later research by Sue Brown, author of Julia Wedgwood, the Unexpected Victorian: the life and writing of a remarkable female intellectual (Anthem Press, Nineteenth Century Series, 2022).