A Wife, That Most Interesting Specimen

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

Portrait of Emma Darwin
Darwin Heirlooms Trust, ©English Heritage Photo Library J980021

After a year or so in London, the 29-year-old Darwin began to think seriously about marrying. But like many an ambitious scientist, he was torn between determination to make a mark and desire to have a family. Would supporting a wife and children mean abandoning his scientific career? A methodical man, Darwin drew up a list of the pros and cons of marriage--and what he called the "nice wife on a sofa" won out. He soon proposed to a woman he had known since childhood, first cousin Emma Wedgwood. Both parties--and both families--agreed it would be the perfect match.

The prediction turned out to be true. Bonds of real affection linked Emma and Charles throughout their long lives, and they would establish a warm, lively and loving family. Yet two troubling issues surfaced in those early years. Darwin's growing skepticism about religion caused Emma great pain, which in turn caused her husband deep sadness. And Darwin began to suffer increasingly severe and mysterious bouts of illness that would plague his entire working life.

To Wed or Not to Wed?

List made by Charles Darwin
 July 1838
 Page 1 and 2 of 3

By the time Darwin drew up this list of the pros and cons of marriage, his father had assured him of a generous living allowance. Still, the issue of freedom to work dominated Darwin's internal debate. Was he willing to give up the "conversation of clever men at clubs," or risk being forced into a time-consuming and frivolous social life? Could he tolerate "less money for books"? A negative even slips in, unnoticed, among the positives: "terrible loss of time."

Darwin may not have had a candidate in mind when he wrote this list, but Emma was a logical choice. The Darwins and Wedgwoods were linked by several generations of matrimony, and Emma was the only Wedgwood daughter of marriageable age.

"Children-(if it Please God)--Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one,--object to be beloved and played with.-better than a dog anyhow.--Home, & someone to take care of house-charms of music and female chit-chat.--These things good for one's health.-but terrible loss of time.--."

"My Own Dear Future Wife"

Letter from Charles Darwin to Emma Wedgwood
 January 20, 1839
 Page 3 of 4

Charles was by turns charming, boyish and thoughtful during his three-month engagement. In high spirits here, he describes his adventures on the train to London from Emma's home at Maer, the arrival of a curious wedding present--which turned out to be asparagus tongs--and a shopping spree to buy odds and ends for the house Charles had rented for the couple in London.

He then turns serious, and after confessing that his solitary time on the Beagle was "the commencement of my real life," he confides his hopes for a future life with Emma:

"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."

"Tears of Joy"

Letter from Emma Wedgwood to Jesse Sisimondi
 November 15, 1838

The brief courtship of Emma and Charles had nearly enough twists and turns to qualify as romantic comedy. "I knew how much I liked him," says Emma in this letter, written four days after her engagement. But Charles was "so fond of Maer and all of us" that she assumed he thought of her as just another cousin.

Charles finally summoned the nerve to propose, but the effort left him with such a headache--and left Emma so startled by the unexpected question--that "we both looked very dismal." So dismal did they look, in fact, that several aunts went to bed assuming the proposal had somehow misfired. But all turned out well in the end. When the couple spoke to Emma's father--the same "Uncle Jos" who had argued in favor of Charles' Beagle voyage-he wept "tears of joy."

Here Emma tells her favorite aunt of her fianc's many virtues:

"He is the most open, transparent man I ever saw, and every word expresses his real thoughts. He is particularly affectionate . . . and possesses some minor qualities that add particularly to one's happiness, such as not being fastidious, and being humane to animals."

"Every Thing That Concerns You Concerns Me"

Letter from Emma Darwin to Charles Darwin
 February 1839
 Page 2 of 4

Dr. Darwin had advised Charles to keep his spiritual doubts to himself--"some women suffered miserably" if they thought their husbands were not going to heaven, he told his son. But this letter, which Emma wrote soon after their marriage, shows Charles must have ignored his father's advice.

Emma took a much more literal view of resurrection and salvation than did her husband. She believed Charles tended to apply scientific standards of proof to questions of faith, and--as revealed here--his skepticism worried her deeply.

"May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension."

At the bottom of this letter is a poignant note in Darwin's hand. "When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D."