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‘Wise adviser’ to ideas man

15 July 2022

Rod Garner celebrates the life and contribution of Emma Darwin


Emma Wedgwood Darwin (1808-96)

Emma Wedgwood Darwin (1808-96)

IN 1838, the idea of marriage seemed somewhat remote to Charles Darwin. Three years after his return to England from his long voyage of astonishing discoveries on HMS Beagle, there was still much work to do on the theories that would, in 1859, bring him international acclaim as the author of On the Origin of Species.

A wife and children might prove impediments to his research and a sacrifice of precious time. On the other hand, he needed a home, and someone who might be interested enough in him to look after it. After careful thought — two columns of arguments, pro and con, set down methodically on paper — he opted for marriage.

To his delight and surprise, his proposal to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, was accepted. Emma had previously turned down offers from several suitors. Intelligent, accomplished in music and languages, well travelled, and robust in her opinions concerning artistic merit, politics, and religion, she cared little for kettles, pots, and pans, and even less for a tidy and ordered household.

Unlike Charles, whose father and grandfather were both agnostics, she came from a devout Unitarian family. As a freethinker, who had been raised to relish arguments, she was indifferent to Christian creeds and long sermons. Her faith was grounded in a personal God, the necessity and efficacy of prayer, and a firm belief in an afterlife.

ALMOST from the beginning of their relationship, Emma became aware of Charles’s lack of belief. It gave her some concern, but never divided them. She came to love his transparent sincerity and the restless curiosity concerning the natural world which marked him as a seeker of truth. They married on 20 January 1839.

In marked contrast to the upheavals that would define their future life together, the service was a quiet affair. Charles believed that in Emma he had found a partner who would humanise him, and teach him that there was “a greater happiness than holding theories and accumulating facts” — or, for that matter, his inordinate enthusiasm for collecting and classifying beetles.

In a marriage that lasted more than 40 years, until Charles’s death in 1882, Emma taught him many things. In his own words, she became his “wise adviser”. To this role, she brought a sharp mind and a dry, infectious humour that enriched their conversations, and tolerated the nauseating smells that permeated the house from the endless scientific experiments: “plants rotting in green slime, skinned birds and animals”. She even played the piano with a jar of worms on the lid so that Charles could record their reactions to music.

Emma proof-read and corrected his manuscripts (Charles was a notoriously bad speller), and, by way of helpful distraction from the treadmill of work, she introduced him to the pleasures of the theatre. When stress or pain threatened to overwhelm him, she provided guidance and reassurance.

Charles’s debt to Emma was immense. Without her, he might have been — like his brother Erasmus — a clever man who achieved little or an ambitious scientist thwarted by illness. From his early years, Charles had suffered from eczema, boils, palpitations, stomach pains, hysterical crying, and uncontrollable retching and vomiting attacks that often proved agonising and embarrassing. Emma was compassionate but clear-sighted in her care for him.

SHE had to contend with other equally pressing priorities that bore down on her time and her own physical health. She suffered from persistent attacks of migraine, and for 16 years was almost continually pregnant, bearing ten children, the last when she was 48. Three died, including their eldest daughter, Annie, who succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of ten.

Annie’s death and the suffering that preceded it proved devastating, and confirmed Charles’s doubts concerning a providential God. Emma found solace in the hope of heaven, and the thought that Annie had been spared future pain. But her grief was palpable, and for a while her faith was tested: writing to her sister Fanny, Emma confided: “we have done little else but cry together and talk about our darling.”

Despite also enduring serious bouts of illness, the surviving children looked back on their earlier years as a time of happiness. For all the demands and difficulties of the household, they knew that they were loved by their parents, and remembered summers full of sunshine with “Father lying on the grass under the row of lime trees humming with bees” and “Mother dressed in lilac muslin, wondering why the blackcaps did not sing the same song here as they did at Maer” (the family estate in Staffordshire where she had grown up).

AFTER Charles’s death, Emma lived another 14 years. Her mental alertness and range of interests made her stimulating company, and she retained a youthful outlook. At 87, she felt stronger than in previous years. In a letter to her daughter Etty, she wrote: “Life is not flat to me.” She was reading Carlyle, taking a great interest in politics, dismissing the letters of Coleridge as “a mixture of gush and mawkish egotism and what seems like humbug”, and sending letters of measured prose almost daily to her grandchildren.

Emma died peacefully, two days after reading Henry James and Thomas Hardy. Like her wedding, the funeral was a quiet affair. She was buried in the country churchyard, in the family vault that had also been intended for Charles. He now lay in Westminster Abbey, beneath the statue of Sir Isaac Newton and surrounded by the tombs of the distinguished dead.

Emma had never particularly cared for her legacy or reputation. Independent, energetic, and forthright to the end, she had favoured the quiet path of distinction and service. In so doing, she enabled a Victorian scientist of frail disposition to formulate, according to the philosopher Daniel Dennett, “the single best idea anyone ever had”.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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