On the bi-centenary of the birth of her husband, Charles

Posted 4th February 2009 by Emma Darwin

On the occasion of my dear husband’s 200th birthday, and in response to the prodigious quantity of material and events marking the year, I am compelled to add my voice, soft though it may be, to the loudening din.

Before I begin with regard to Charles, however, I must acknowledge that – to my acute embarrassment, it appears my own private diaries are published – oh dear, oh dear! – as are my husband’s list of the pros and cons of marriage.  Even my own humble recipe book has apparently been ‘revived’ and published – to my great personal pride – as far and wide as the Amazon!

Now, though I am pleased to learn that my husband’s biographers have echoed down through the years his own assertion - that ‘the voyage of the Beagle was by far the most important event’ in his life (with the Lord’s help I have learned not begrudge the Beagle that primacy), it seems that in the popular consciousness, the nuanced multiplicity of effects the voyage had on him is not always remembered. Charles was indeed exposed to a wonderful yet baffling array of geological, zoological and botanical facts, which he was then compelled by his insatiable curiosity to make sense of, but there were other legacies as well.

Beyond his occasional nostalgic humming of the sailors’ shanties (scandalous!), beyond his blanching at the memory of his chronic seasickness, and beyond all the other small legacies, like the foreign shells he would sometimes bring down from the attic for the children to play with, there are two particular ways that the voyage shaped Charles’s life.

Firstly, he would often remember with heart-wrenching disgust his encounter with the barbarous practice of slavery in the Brazils, and the memory of his ensuing arguments with Captain FitzRoy on the matter upset him most regrettably. Yes, Charles was a passionate abolitionist – as were our whole family – but his passion was lit doubly by first-hand experience – so much so that he even viewed his scientific efforts as part of this ‘sacred cause’.

Charles’s compassion towards humanity even extended to our fellow creatures.  Indeed he and I both felt so strongly on this matter, that we published an appeal to stop the use of steel vermin traps which inflicted such terrible suffering on the poor, innocent creatures caught therein.

Secondly, my poor dear husband’s health was, in precisely what way I do not know, permanently marred by his voyage around the world.  His illness weighed heavily on my mind and I made great efforts to record every detail of my invalid’s progress in the hope that some pattern might be revealed and thus hint at a cure. Looking back on my notes now, I laugh to see how clearly they betray that my husband’s disciplined habits of impartial observation, and his attempts to derive simple explanations for complex and seemingly disparate facts, were transferred to myself!

While on the topic of science, I am most comforted to learn that my husband’s legacy has helped guide the development of cures for the deadly afflictions that ultimately took the lives of our dearest Annie and Charles Jr. and so many other innocent children.

Now waves of nostalgia wash over me, and I am moved to recall Charles’s last words, so marked by his physical pain and yet so full of love for me and our children, and concern for our welfare above his own. It grieves me to learn that some in these modern times think of him as a cold, hard man failing in – or even actively shunning – the preciousness of human life, for it was in its very cause that my husband worked so painstakingly to demonstrate that the bond of common descent is shared by all living things.

Emma Darwin (1808-1896) married Charles in 1839 and outlived him by 14 years. They had 10 children. She was assisted in writing for us by Karen James, a geneticist in the Botany Department of the Natural History Museum who is also co-ordinating the Museum’s Darwin200 science projects. Karen is also Director of Science for the HMS Beagle Project, in association with which she co-writes The Beagle Project Blog

For information about events and activities taking place across the UK throughout the bi-centenary year, visit Darwin200.

You can also read the blog kept by Charles Darwin at Nature Network


Comments

Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

6th February 2009

Dear Emma, We are proud and fortunate to be able to publish your thoughts in this fortnight spanning the birth of your husband Charles (12 February 1809), and we warmly welcome you to UKRC and the world of 'blogging'. It is clear that your companionship, care and housekeeping skills ensured an environment in which your often ailing husband could work, and we owe you much gratitude for this. I am looking forward to learning more about your life. Thank you for joining us.


Emma Darwin:

6th February 2009

Oh! It is my most humble pleasure, Ruth. I will watch this space with great interest over the coming fortnight and endeavour to answer whatever questions your correspondents may write here.


larry:

7th February 2009

Hi Emma, You are such a beautiful writer and have such interesting things to say. Your husband was one of the greatest intellectuals of all time. As you know, he had to overcome not only the prejudice of others, such as the views of Adam Sedgwick, he had to overcome his own previous beliefs. One of his greatest achievements was his ability to allow the data to assist him in framing his theory. You know yourself how rare this is. Indeed, your tolerance for beliefs contrary to your own is a testament to your own intellectual independence. This year must be a great one for you. Do you think your husband would be embarrassed by all the adulation he is receiving this year?


Melanie:

7th February 2009

Dear Emma, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I don't want to pry, but I notice you were 31 when you married - was that usual for the time? And your husband was one year younger. Can you tell me a little more about that period of courtship and your thoughts about it? You then had TEN children, at a time when medical provision was fairly primitive compared to now and when many died in childbirth. How old were you when the last was born? And how was your health?


Emma Darwin:

7th February 2009

Dear Larry, sincerest thanks for your kind remarks about my writing and my husband's accomplishments. He never liked being the centre of public attention and yet he always did aspire in his heart of hearts to take his place among the great men of science and surely this celebration leaves no room for doubt that he succeeded!


Emma Darwin:

7th February 2009

Dear Melanie, thank you for your interest in our humble lives. As I mentioned in my missive above I am most amazed about the advances in medicine since our own time - not so long ago if you think of it - and since writing it I have also learned of wondrous progress in women's health and education. My heart is glad beyond measure that parents today don't have to suffer as much as we did - losing three of our ten dear children was almost more than we could bear. I suppose I was older than most when we married but more unusual was the fact that we were first cousins. During our courtship my dear Charles was full of energy - always scribbling in those little private notebooks about what we then called 'transmutation'. He wrote to me before we married, "I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you." As for my feelings for him, he was the most open, transparent man I ever saw, and every word expressed his real thoughts. He was particularly affectionate . . . and possessed some minor qualities that add particularly to one's happiness, such as not being fastidious, and being humane to animals.


Sarah Pemberton:

9th February 2009

Dear Emma, It is fascinating to read about your life. I am a huge fan of your husband’s work and find it amazing that his theory of natural section was reported less than 200 years ago and that we are still fascinated by collecting the evidence to support and promote this theory. I wonder if your husband was given to any ‘eureka’ moments and how did it feel to have his work finally published which was hugely controversial in it’s time, and not without controversy today.


Thomas Henry Huxley:

9th February 2009

My dear Emma, It is gratifying to see your dear Charles having the accolades he so deserved being laid at his feet as it were. It is long overdue. As you know, I was initially doubtful of what I shall here call the "new evolution" until Charles persuaded me otherwise. Nevertheless, to my eternal shame, I remained skeptical of Charles' theory of natural selection. As you are aware, this was not because I did not think it a good hypothesis, but because there seemed to be insufficient evidence to support it. Charles convinced me that evolution did indeed take place, so my skepticism concerned only a particular mechanism, natural selection, and how it operated in the natural world to create new species. How shortsighted I was in this respect. Please accept my apologies on his behalf. Were I able to live through this period again, I would be an unequivocal supporter without serious reservations whatsoever. Hindsight is a grand thing in hindsight, is it not. I do so hope that you are enjoying this year. With affection, T. H. Huxley, 1825 - 1895 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Henry_Huxley


Dusha Bateson:

9th February 2009

Dear Emma Knowing that Down House was not only your home but also the place where C.D. did all his writing and experiments. The "skeletonizing" of animal corpses and the examining of specimens sent from all over the world must have been hard to bear, even for someone, like you who was not known to be especially tidy or house-proud! So my question for you is this, How do you put up with all the ghastly smells and the mess from your husband's work? For the modern reader who would like to try a recipe from your notebook, the one for Cheese Straws which we reproduced in our book is very simple, easy to follow and the results are delicious with, say, drinks before dinner. I give it below. With great respect Dusha Bateson


Emma's recipe for Cheese Straws:

9th February 2009

For many of us in 2009 the invention of the food processor has turned pastry-making from a lottery into a certainty. All those wise saws about cool hands and light fingers can be consigned to the past; we just whizz the flour and butter, add whatever liquid the recipe calls for - milk, water, eggs, whole or yolks - another quick whirl and the job is done. Having said all that, the amounts given for Cheese Straws add up to just about the minimum volume with which an ordinary processor can function properly. If you have a Rolls Royce of a machine with a large capacity, the modern cook could double the quantities or fall back on the cool hands and light fingered method. 1½ oz Parmesan, finely grated (other hard cheese which may liquefy on baking) 1½ oz plain flour ¾ oz butter cut in small cubes A good pinch cayenne pepper A little salt Milk 1. Whizz the first 5 ingredients in a food processor until nicely blended. 2. Add milk, with the machine running slowly, until the pastry shows signs of coming together. 3. Tip out the mixture onto a floured surface and knead quickly into a ball. 4. Roll out the pastry until it is very thin. 5. Cut into strips - about 1/3 wide and 3 inches long. Place on a baking sheet and cook in a 150 oC oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. 6. Carefully transfer onto a wire rack and leave to cool. They will become crisp and easier to handle as they grow cold. Store in an air-tight tin - if you have any left to store! To view Emma's handwritten recipe visit http://www.ukrc4setwomen.org/html/women-and-girls/getsetwomen-blog/emma-darwin-recipe/


Emma Darwin:

10th February 2009

Dear Sarah, My humblest thanks for your kind words. It seems many today are labouring under the misapprehension that my husband had a 'eureka' moment in Galapagos, in fact the only one he describes with certainty came in his carriage near Down House, about which he later wrote, "and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature". About publishing the Origin, I am fairly certain my husband had mixed emotions: sometimes delighted - as when he saw that it was selling well in train stations - and sometimes frustrated (I wouldn't say it was regret) with some of the silly, sensationalist reactionary responses from certain circles. My warm regards, Emma


Emma Darwin:

10th February 2009

My dear Thomas, How delightful to hear from you! I hope you will not burden yourself too much with regrets; after all, posterity seems to remember you as "Darwin's Bulldog" and not at all the doubts that you at one time expressed, which, anyhow, were most suitable at the time and Charles himself knew well, and acknowledged, all those discoveries, which, if made, would undermine his theory. It is truly gratifying to learn that science has borne out his theory with such strong support! Yours very truly, All the best &c., Emma


Emma Darwin:

10th February 2009

Dear Dusha, I am glad to know my cheese straw recipe is still enjoyed! I cannot deny that occasionally the 'skeletonising' did try my patience. My correspondent at the Natural History Museum tells me the process has now been greatly improved with the use of flesh-eating beetles in place of boiling water and chemicals, though she says it still smells awful. Regards, Emma


Kaye Heyes:

11th February 2009

Dearest Emma How wonderful to meet you. If it's not too personal a question, I was wondering how you personally felt about Charles' theories of eveolution in light of your strict Christian beliefs? And how did you cope with some of the more extreme reactions from the Church?


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

11th February 2009

Dear Emma, Your great great granddaughter Ruth Padel has a series of four short radio programmes going out once a week this month about Charles. Do you get Radio 4? The programmes are full of insights into your life together, including the amazing level of care you gave him when he was ill. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/darwin/my_ancestor.shtml Programme 2 says you turned away nine suitors before accepting Charles, and that Chopin taught you to play the piano! I'd love to hear a bit more about your life before marriage. (By the way, you can find out more about your talented great great granddaughter here: http://www.ruthpadel.com )


Alfred Russel Wallace:

13th February 2009

Dear Emma, I would like to thank you once again for the hospitality that you and Charles showed me when you invited me down to Down House. It was very generous of you both. I was very grateful. I never minded, as you know, that Charles received the lion's share of the credit for the theory of natural selection. After all, he did come up with the idea before I did, and he did do the back breaking work of showing by example after example how it might work. I have to confess to you that I was ever so slightly disappointed that my work in biogeography, particularly island biogeography, has never been really appreciated. While Charles and I never cared for adulation, respectful acknowledgment is another thing. Would you argue that I was before my time? I can think of three major works in the 20th century that carry out my approach - The Distribution and Abundance of Animals by Andrewartha and Birch, Geographical Ecology by Robert MacArthur, and The Theory of Island Biogeography by MacArthur and E. O. Wilson, none of whom cite me, and one in the 21st century, The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography by Stephen Hubbell, who does not cite me either. You may feel that I am being petty, and you may be right. I must admit to some embarrassment feeling the way I do about being so ignored, no doubt due partially to the passage of time and circumstance; nevertheless, I am buoyed up by Charles' view of my work. As you know, his opinion has always been of importance to me. As you know, we were united in our intellectual independence, though the critical barriers he faced were so much greater and more vituperative than mine. I do hope that this celebration of your dear husband's achievements, so difficult to accomplish against what were almost insuperable obstacles, will give you comfort. I know it does me. A R Wallace 1823 - 1913 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Russel_Wallace


Anne Glover - Chief Scientific Adviser f:

13th February 2009

Dear Emma The research that Charles published changed the way we think about life on the planet and is a constant inspiration. He also combined this with a very full family life and lots of other interests. On a recent visit to the National Library of Scotland, who hold the archive of John Murray who published much of Charles\' work, I found out that Charles had a weakness for romantic novels (19th century Mills&Boon?). This made him seem very human to me, not just a great intellect. If he was with us today, do you think he would have been passionate about science engagement and prepared to be an inspirational role model for combining a diversity of interests in life and still achieving greatness? Best wishes, Anne


Emma Darwin:

17th February 2009

Dear Kaye, I was always supportive of my dear husband but it was difficult to watch his fading belief in the Lord. www.post-gazette.com/pg/09039/947445-109.stm I was so concerned that we might not be reunited in heaven, and he knew of my concern and it caused him pain. With regard to your second question, about the church, you know it's rather interesting - http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/denisalexander/blog/2009/02/09/darwin_lets_get_the_history_right_ I don't recall the reaction from the Church being 'extreme' in my time. Yours very sincerely, Emma


Man In Background With Dog:

17th February 2009

Dear Mrs Darwin - we in Cromer look forward to your visit at the end of this month.


Emma Darwin:

17th February 2009

Dear Ruth, Oh! I am truly grateful for news of my great great granddaughter! With regard to my life before marriage, it appears that my diaries which Mr van Wyhe has 'scanned' and published (my embarrassment at this is rather unbearable) go as far back as age sixteen and include such things as my European tour with my sisters and parents and my time in Geneva.


Emma Darwin:

17th February 2009

Man in Background With Dog, Thanks to you and your dear family for the kind invitation! Emma"


Emma Darwin:

17th February 2009

Dear Alfred, The pleasure of hosting you at Down House was entirely ours, I assure you. Certainly you were a man ahead of your time: my recent correspondence with modern scientists suggests that you are now considered the 'father of biogeography' and you have a number of champions not least your very own "Wallace's Rottweiler"! My highest regards, Yours very truly, &c., Emma Darwin http://thebeagleproject.blogspot.com/2008/07/guest-post-by-wallaces-rottweiler-on.html


Emma Darwin:

17th February 2009

Dear Anne, I am humbled that someone as accomplished as yourself should take an interest in my missive here, for which my sincerest gratitude. You asked whether my dear Charles 'would have been passionate about science engagement' and the answer is, without a doubt, 'yes' - indeed one of the things that delighted him most about the popularity of his book On the Origin of Species was that it sold well in train stations! He also donated to help build a women's college laboratory in Cambridge. He even said


Alfred Russel Wallace:

17th February 2009

Dear Emma, How kind you are. And I am very grateful for you bringing to my attention that I have a "Rottweiler", Dr Beccaloni. As you know, I do not get into 'civilization' much. Nevertheless, I did have a chance to read his notice that you so graciously put up. It is gratifying to see a noted scientist with a deep interest in the history of his subject. His explanation of my "eclipse" has the ring of truth to me, though I would add something to it. Traveling as I do in jungle territory far from western populations, it is difficult for me to be sure, but on reading what Dr Beccaloni wrote, I wondered whether an additional factor in my being forgotten might be that natural scientists of the 20th century have become virtually uninterested in the histories of their subjects, thinking that such histories have become largely irrelevant to working scientists except for the few. I wonder whether Dr Beccaloni would consider this to be the emergence of some kind of scientific philistinism. Whatever the case may be, do thank Dr Beccaloni profusely for me for bringing my work in this area to general attention. Although it sometimes feels unseemly, I admit to feeling greatly pleased at being viewed as the "father of biogeography". It is a great honour. I hope this letter finds you well. Yours very sincerely, A R Wallace


Thomas Henry Huxley:

21st February 2009

My dear Emma, In this year of the celebration of the birth of Charles and the publication of his On the Origin of Species, what should be published but this approach to the financial sector: Financial Darwinism: Create Value or Self-destruct in a World of Risk by Leo M. Tilman (Wiley 2009). I guess no one should be surprised by this. And Tilman does link his perspective to the current financial crisis. His intention is to provide an evolutionarily based decision-making framework that will enable financial executives and investors to better adapt to the new financial world in which, in his opinion, they now must live. (Whether this new financial world is as inevitable as the author (along with others) appears to assume is a matter of debate.) While no one could reasonably disagree that social and cultural systems evolve, one might dispute the value of any close analogy between them and biological systems. One can find similar discussions in Spencer and Sumner, and Sumner's views especially created quite a furor, principally due to their extreme nature. Christian tolerance of the afflicted did not seem to be one of William's virtues. I doubt myself that Charles would be completely happy with this new kind of extension of his ideas. I am concerned, however, about how this might affect you. Yours affectionately, T H Huxley


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

21st February 2009

Dear Emma, its Saturday 21 February and I know that these are your last couple of days with us (perhaps if a late query comes in we can still contact you.... ?). Thank you for your ready responses to such a range of readers, your contemporaries and people alive today. I was thinking about the end of your life - you lived 15 years longer than Darwin, and I think you spent your final years in Cambridge. Loosing Charles and leaving Down must have affected you deeply. Can you tell us a little about those final years?


Emma Darwin:

23rd February 2009

Dear Mr. Huxley, I have no doubt that you are right with regard to Charles' reaction to applications of his theory outside of biological science. He was very clear on that point even while he still lived. Thank you once again for your kind remarks. Yours very truly, Emma Darwin


Emma Darwin:

23rd February 2009

Dear Ruth and all of my correspondents here, Our discourse has been a very great pleasure to me. I would be delighted to respond to any further comments as they may trickle in throughout the year, so long as you are kind enough to alert me on their arrival. As for the late years of my life, yes, I did live in Cambridge for a time, in a house I am told is now part of the Fitzwilliam Museum. It seems fitting that Cambridge is still home to so many of my descendents including Richard Darwin Keynes, a scientist himself, who has done so much in his long life to further knowledge of my husband\'s life and writings to both scholars and the general public. Yours very sincerely and truly


Rachel Feldberg:

23rd February 2009

Dear Emma, We do very much hope that you and Charles might consider joining us at Ilkley Literature Festival in October. As I have no doubt you remember only too well, you and the family were staying in Ilkley where your husband was enjoying the water cure at the Hydro, when The Origin of Species was first published. We are hoping to stage a number of events, including reflections on your husbands many achievements from thinkers of the day and an exhibition of your trip to this delightful spot - to commemorate your visit and it would give us so much pleasure to have you with us, Dear Mrs Darwin, and hear your point of view on the matter. Very Sincerely, Rachel Feldberg , Director, Ilkley Literature Festival


Emma Darwin:

4th March 2009

Dear Rachel, What a delightful prospect: to visit Ilkley again! You are most welcome to contact me by what my correspondent tells me is called 'email' at k.james@nhm.ac.uk


Emma Darwin:

4th March 2009

Dear Great-great-granddaughter, I am quite simply overflowing with delight and pride at all of these accomplishments you\'ve been kind enough to list in your missive above, not least your own, which I see here are in no small store! How happy you make me that our love for family has been remembered in the face of all of this attention - this \'industry\' as you call it. With much love and affection


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