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Emma Darwin

Emma Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin

Emma Darwin (née Wedgwood) (2 May 1808 – 7 October 1896) was the wife and first cousin of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, scientist and author of On the Origin of Species. They were married on 29 January 1839 and were the parents of 10 children, three of whom died at early ages.


  • Early life 1
  • Marriage 2
  • Religious views 3
  • Role in editing / publishing work of Charles Darwin 4
  • Later life 5
  • Children 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • St. Mary the Virgin, Downe 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life

She was born at the family estate of Maer Hall, Maer, Staffordshire, the youngest of seven[1] children of Josiah Wedgwood II and his wife Elizabeth "Bessie" (née Allen). Her grandfather Josiah Wedgwood had made his fortune in pottery, and like many others who were not part of the aristocracy they were nonconformist, belonging to the Unitarian church. Charles Darwin was her first cousin; their shared grandparents were Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, and as the Wedgwood and Darwin families were closely allied, they had been acquainted since childhood.

She was close to her sister Fanny, the two being known by the family as the "Doveleys", and was charming and messy, accounting for her nickname, "Little Miss Slip-Slop". She helped older sister Elizabeth with the Sunday school which was held in Maer Hall laundry, writing simple moral tales to aid instruction and giving 60 village children their only formal training in reading, writing and religion.

The Wedgwoods visited Paris for six months in 1818. Though Emma was only 10 at the time, the strangeness and interest of arriving in France remained in her memory.[2]

In January 1822 the 13-year-old Emma and her sister Fanny were taken by their mother for a year at Mrs Mayer's school at Mrs Fitzherbert. After this time, Emma was taught by her elder sisters as well as tutors in some subjects.[3] For the rest of her life Emma continued to be a fine pianist, with a tendency to speed up slow movements. She had piano lessons from Moscheles, and allegedly "two or three" from Chopin.[4]

In 1825 Josiah took his daughters on a grand tour of Europe, via Paris to near Geneva to visit their Aunt Jessie (Madame de Sismondi, née Allen, wife of the historian Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi) and then on In the following year the Sismondis visited Maer, then took Emma and her sister Fanny back to near Geneva to stay with them for eight months.[5] When her father went to collect them he was accompanied by their cousin, Caroline Darwin, and also took Charles Darwin, Caroline's brother, as far as Paris, where they all met up again before returning home in July 1827. She was keen on outdoor sports and became a "Dragoness" at archery.

At Maer on 31 August 1831 she was with her family when they helped Charles Darwin to overturn his father's objections to letting Charles go on an extended voyage on the Beagle. During the voyage Charles' sisters kept him informed of news including the death of Emma's sister Fanny at the age of 26, and the gossip that his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin was "paired off" with Emma to avert "an action in the Papers" over his "carrying on" with Hensleigh Wedgwood's wife, Fanny. When Charles returned and was quick to visit Maer, she joined in the interest in his travels.

Emma herself had turned down several offers of marriage, but after her mother suffered a seizure and became bedridden Emma had to nurse her as well as care for her elder sister Elizabeth who suffered from dwarfism and severe spinal curvature.


She accepted Charles' marriage proposal on 11 November 1838 at the age of 30, and they were married on 29 January 1839 at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Maer. Their cousin, the Reverend John Allen Wedgwood, officiated.

After a brief period of residence in London, they moved permanently to Down House, located in the rural village of Down, around 16 miles (26 km) from St Paul's Cathedral and approximately two hours by coach and train to London Bridge. The village was later renamed Downe.[6]

Charles and Emma raised their 10 children in a distinctly non-authoritarian manner, and several of them later achieved considerable success in their chosen careers: Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society.[7]

Emma Darwin is especially remembered for her patience and fortitude in dealing with her husband's long-term illness. She also nursed her children through frequent illnesses, and endured the deaths of three of them: Anne, Mary, and Charles Waring. By the mid-1850s she was known throughout the parish for helping in the way a parson's wife might be expected to, giving out bread tokens to the hungry and "small pensions for the old, dainties for the ailing, and medical comforts and simple medicine" based on Dr. Robert Darwin's old prescription book.

Emma often played the piano for Charles, and in Charles' 1871 The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin spent several pages on the evolution of musical ability by means of sexual selection.

Religious views

Emma's religious beliefs were founded on Unitarianism which emphasises inner feeling over the authority of religious texts or doctrine. Her views were not simple and unwavering, and were the result of intensive study and questioning.[8] Darwin was open about his scepticism before they became engaged, and she discussed with him the tension between her fears that differences of belief would separate them, and her desire to be close and openly share ideas. Following their marriage, they shared discussions about Christianity for several years. She valued his openness, and his genuine uncertainty regarding the existence and nature of God, which gradually developed into agnosticism. This may have been a bond between them, without necessarily resolving the tensions between their views.[8]

By early 1837 Charles Darwin was already speculating on transmutation of species. Having decided to marry, he visited Emma on 29 July 1838 and told her of his ideas on transmutation. On 11 November 1838, he returned and proposed to Emma. Again he discussed his ideas, and about ten days later she wrote:
"When I am with you I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain. It is perhaps foolish of me to say this much but my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you. Will you do me a favour? yes I am sure you will, it is to read our Saviour's farewell discourse to his disciples which begins at the end of the 13th Chap of John. It is so full of love to them & devotion & every beautiful feeling. It is the part of the New Testament I love best. This is a whim of mine it would give me great pleasure, though I can hardly tell why I don't wish you to give me your opinion about it."[9]

Darwin had already wondered about the materialism implied by his ideas.[10] The letter shows Emma's tension between her fears that differences of belief would separate them, and her desire to be close and openly share ideas. Emma cherished a belief in the afterlife, and was concerned that they should "belong to each other" for eternity.[8] The Gospel of John says "Love one another" (13:34), then describes Jesus as the Word Incarnate saying "I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6). Desmond and Moore note that the section continues: "Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" (15:6).[11] As disbelief later gradually crept over Darwin, he could "hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."[12]

Following their marriage in January 1839, they shared discussions about Christianity for many years. They socialised with the Unitarian clergymen James Martineau and John James Tayler, and read their works as well as those of other Unitarian and liberal Anglican authors such as Francis William Newman whose Phases of faith described a spiritual journey from Calvinism to theism, all part of widespread and heated debate on the authority of Anglicanism. In Downe Emma attended the Anglican village church, but as a Unitarian had the family turn round in silence when the Trinitarian Nicene Creed was recited.[8]

Soon after their marriage, Emma felt that "while you are acting conscientiously & sincerely wishing, & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong,"[13] and although concerned at the threat to faith of the "habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved", her hope that he did not "consider his opinion as formed" proved correct. Methodical conscientious doubt as a state of inquiry rather than disbelief made him open to nature and revelation, and they remained open with each other.[8][13]

Role in editing / publishing work of Charles Darwin

In a letter dated 5 July 1844, Charles Darwin entrusted to Emma the responsibility of publishing his work, in the case of his sudden death.[14]

Later life

In older age

After Charles' death in 1882, Emma spent the summers in Down House, and bought a large house called The Grove on Huntingdon Road in Cambridge, where she lived during the winters. Her son Francis had a house, which he named Wychfield, built in the grounds of The Grove. He lived there during most winters, spending summers in Gloucestershire. Emma's son Horace also had a house built in the grounds, and named it The Orchard.[15][16]

The Grove is now the central building of Fitzwilliam College,[17] and provides common room facilities for graduates, Fellows and senior members.[18] In January 2009, Cambridge City Council gave the College planning permission to demolish its gatehouse, Grove Lodge, which now forms part of Murray Edwards College. After local residents and academics expressed concern and there was a campaign against the demolition, the college council decided to reconsider possible alternative uses;[19] their decision at the end of September 2009 was to keep and refurbish Grove Lodge.[20][21] Architects, consultants and builders were appointed for conversion work,[22] which when completed in September 2011 provided five new studies for Fellows.[23]

Emma was buried in St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Downe, Kent, with Charles' brother, Erasmus. Nearby is Down House, the home of the Darwin family. Other Darwins are buried in the same churchyard. Her husband is buried in Westminster Abbey.


Emma with son Leonard, 1853

The Darwins also brought up Francis' son Bernard Darwin (1876-1961) after the death of Bernard's mother a few days after he was born.

In popular culture

In 2001 a biography of Emma was published written by Edna Healey, though it has been criticised for attempting to give credit to Emma for her husband's ideas, whereas most other historians agree she had little, if any, scientific input.

In 2008 Mrs Charles Darwin's Recipe Book was published, with profits going to the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University.[24]

The 2009 film Creation focuses in part on the relationship between Charles and Emma. Emma is played by Jennifer Connelly.

St. Mary the Virgin, Downe

Eight members of the Darwin family are buried in St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Downe, Kent; nearby is Down House, the home of the Darwin family. Darwins buried at Downe include: Bernard Darwin and his wife Elinor Monsell, who taught her husband's cousin Gwen Raverat, author of Period Piece, engraving; Charles Waring Darwin; Elizabeth Darwin, "Aunt Bessy"; Emma Darwin, "Charles Darwin's wife"; Erasmus Alvey Darwin; Mary Eleanor Darwin; Henrietta Etty Darwin, later Litchfield, "Aunt Etty". Charles Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Litchfield 1904, p. 145.
  3. ^ Litchfield 1904, pp. 182–183.
  4. ^ Litchfield 1904, pp. 84–85.
  5. ^ Litchfield 1904, pp. 216–219, 242–245.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c d e
  9. ^
  10. ^ Darwin 1838, p. 166
  11. ^ Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 269–271
  12. ^ Darwin 1958, p. 87.
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^
  15. ^ Freeman 1984, pp. 55–57
  16. ^ Freeman 2007, p. 293
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Swaine, Joe. "Revealed: the recipes that fuelled Charles Darwin" The Telegraph 21 December 2008.


Further reading

  • Healey, E. Wives of fame : Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx, Emma Darwin London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986. 210 pp. (see also Emma Darwin, above.)
  • Healey, Edna. Emma Darwin: The inspirational wife of a genius London: Headline, 2001. 372 pp. ISBN 0 7472 6248 9

External links

  • Emma Darwin at Find a Grave
  • Emma Darwin's diaries 1824-1896
  • UKRC GetSET Women blog "featuring" Emma Darwin]
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