Shrewsbury School

Emma Darwin

The second girls' boarding house is named after Charles Darwin's wife, Emma. The following article was published in the Summer 2010 edition of The Salopian, written by Laura Whittle of the history deprartment, and it reveals a very substantial woman in her own right.

Emma Wedgwood was born on 2 May 1808 at Maer Hall, in Staffordshire. She was the youngest of eight children. Her grandfather Josiah Wedgwood had left a vast fortune. Emma's father, Jos, inherited the Wedgwood factory and all the models and equipment. In modern terms Jos and his seven brothers and sisters were billionaires. The Wedgwoods would never worry for money, yet Jos himself was anxious to distance himself from the source of his wealth. He left much of the running of the Wedgwood factory to others, and in the years following his father's death he devoted himself to farming, hunting and shooting. In short, he wished to establish himself as a gentleman. Yet despite his best efforts towards this end, to the old country families he would always remain Jos Wedgwood, a potter's son.

Emma was to look back on her childhood at Maer as one of happiness and tranquillity. Her aunt referred to her as 'the happiest being that was ever looked on.' Her best friend was her elder sister Fanny. So close were the two that their elder sister Charlotte wrote: 'I always think of you as one person.' Their collective nickname was 'Miss Pepper and Salt', though Emma had her own: 'Miss Slip-Slop." Messy, lively and pretty, Emma was a favourite of her family. As she grew up she proved herself to be an intelligent and interested young woman. Her mother had a fairly relaxed view of formal education (she subscribed to Mrs Somerville's view that children should not receive more than ten minutes instruction at a time, as all else after that would not be absorbed) and Emma herself spent only one year at school. However, Maer Hall itself provided a liberal education. Josiah Wedgwood had left a well-stocked library, covering topics ranging from science to the arts. Emma was famous for having read the entirety of Paradise Lost as a child. Yet more important perhaps was the freethinking and questioning approach that Emma inherited from her parents. One family friend remembered that: 'I never saw anything pleasanter than the ways of going on of this family, and one reason is the freedom of speech upon every subject; there is no difference in politics or principles of any kind that makes it treason to speak one's mind openly, and they all do it.' Such open-mindedness could be traced back to Emma's grandfather Josiah. Although he had not managed to instil his passion for pottery into his sons, Josiah had ensured that they grew up with humanitarian ideals. Josiah himself had been a supporter of the early stages of the French Revolution (though he abhorred the bloodshed into which it later descended) and his children and grandchildren would also demonstrate a commitment to liberal ideals – in particular towards the campaign for the abolition of slavery.

Charles Darwin was the son of Emma's Aunt Sukey. The two cousins had known each other since childhood. Charles along with his brother and two sisters spent much time at Maer Hall. It was a sharp relief to the constraints of their life at Shrewsbury, where the death of their mother in 1817 had left their father bereft and volatile. His black moods terrified the young Charles, who grew increasingly close to his uncle Jos. Yet despite these close familial connections there is little to suggest that there was any great early attachment between Emma and Charles. On the 17th April 1831, shortly before his voyage on the Beagle, Charles stayed with the Wedgwoods. Yet he paid Emma no particular attention. He was at this time in love with a neighbour, Fanny Owen. He wrote: 'as all the world knows [she] is the prettiest, plumpest most charming personage that Shropshire posseses [sic], aye and Birmingham too.'

Emma herself was at this time engaged with other matters. She became close to her aunt, Sarah Wedgwood, who herself was closely involved in the anti-slavery campaign. Jos shared her concern, and Bessy, along with her daughters, established a Ladies' Society at Newcastle – 'but we don't meet with much success among the higher gentry. The set below them…is much more impressible.' In 1828 Emma organised a bazaar for fever wards of the local infirmary. Although she afterwards stated that she and her sister Charlotte 'don't mean to mention the name of a bazaar for the next three years' she in fact went on to organise similar events for foreign concerns, for Greek and Italian refugees, and for the campaign to abolish slavery. Emma also enjoyed the pleasures of Midlands society. Balls, visits to London, concerts in Birmingham and entertaining at Maer all gave her great pleasure, and she was known as an attractive and cheerful young woman. She had her admirers, and turned down several offers of marriage. One tried to appeal to her love of music by claiming to be an expert flautist, but when his playing did not impress his 'tootlings', along with his interest in her, were dismissed. By the time that Charles Darwin returned from the voyage of the Beagle in 1836 it seemed that Emma, aged twentyeight, was destined for a life of Victorian spinsterhood.

One event in Emma's early life was to have a profound effect on her character. In 1832 a cholera epidemic was sweeping the country, and this was certainly uppermost in her mind when her sister Fanny was taken ill in August. Fanny died after two weeks' illness. Her death changed her younger sister. She became more serious, and more devout. The Unitarian faith in which she had been brought up now became a real comfort to her. A diary entry made shortly after Fanny's death demonstrates the depth of her despair, and the strength of the faith she turned to. "I am afraid I never valued her enough but let me keep it as a reality before my mind that I may yet make amends to her for any neglect or forgetfulness I may have shown her. God will help me I know if I pray sincerely. Oh God help me pray to thee in spirit and in truth."

Charles visited the family at Maer shortly after his return from the Galapagos. Emma's subsequent letter to her aunt offers one of the first insights into her thoughts of him: 'We enjoyed Charles's visit uncommonly…Charles talked away most pleasantly all the time we plied him with questions without any mercy.' In the months following the visit Charles went to Cambridge to work on his notes and specimens, and Emma went on a family trip to Paris. The group included Catherine Darwin, Charles's sister. Yet despite the brevity of contact between them, Emma had begun to develop enough of an attraction towards the now studious and strong willed Charles. After her engagement she confessed to one of her Allen aunts that 'I was not the least sure of his feelings…and the week I spent in London on my return from Paris, I felt sure that he did not care for me.'

Charles was also turning his mind towards matrimony. In 1837 he approached the issue in a typically methodical manner. He wrote up a list of arguments for and against marriage. In the arguments against, he noted that marriage would potentially lead to loss of freedom, being forced to visit relatives, and quarrelling. The arguments for marriage included children, the charms of music and 'female chit-chat' and a companion – one that would be, in any case, 'better than a dog'. The 'arguments for' column was longer and so Charles decided to marry. Yet whilst Emma was a desirable choice he was not entirely confident of her affection. She was close to his brother Erasmus and she had already turned down a number of suitors. He was also worried that she would find his studious nature and scientific interests boring. However Emma had lost her heart to the young Charles. 'He is the most open, transparent man I ever saw', she wrote, 'and every word expresses his real thoughts.' To the delight of both sides of the family, Charles proposed in November 1838, and they were married on 20 January 1839. For Emma's eldest sister Elizabeth, who had taken the role of running the household as Bessy became increasingly ill, the day was a bittersweet one. 'Her sunny face', she wrote, 'would leave a vacancy.'

Charles and Emma Darwin were happily married until Charles's death in 1882. His groundbreaking work in evolution, and the inherent challenge this placed on his Christian faith, would trouble Emma. However, with characteristic open mindedness, she took pains to understand, if not share, her husband's religious scepticism. An early letter between the two offers a touching insight into this. Shortly after his proposal 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.' Throughout their marriage Emma would struggle with the fear that their differing religious beliefs would drive them apart. Yet paradoxically it was this very fear that helped to foster a mutual respect and trust between the two. A second letter from Emma, written later, demonstrates this: "while you are acting conscientiously & sincerely wishing, & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong,"

Charles and Emma lived first in London, where they enjoyed a busy and tiring social life. However, Charles's declining health prompted a move to Down House, sixteen miles outside of London. It was here that Charles completed the work for On the Origin of the Species. However Down House did not offer a quiet sanctuary suitable to writing. From 1839 to 1856 Emma gave birth to ten children, and her life in the early years of their marriage was one of almost continual confinement. She did not complain however, as her fourth child and third daughter Etty would remember: 'My mother had ten children and suffered much from ill health and discomforts during those years…My father was often seriously ill and suffering…though her life could not but be anxious and laborious I think it will be seen by her letters that it was happy as well as blessed.' Friends and relatives would often stay with the Darwins, and although Charles professed an increasing dislike of socialising, he greatly enjoyed the company of their extended family.

Three of their children did not survive infancy. In 1842 their third child, Mary, died shortly after being born. 'Our sorrow', Emma wrote, 'is nothing to what it would have been if she had lived longer and suffered more.' The death of their eldest daughter, Annie, would prove even more painful. Annie became ill in October 1850. At first her father applied the same treatments to her that he himself had tried in an attempt to cure his painful stomach. One of the more alarming was 'sweating by the lamp', when the patient, wrapped in sheets, sat on a chair under which a lamp containing spirits of wine was lit. Despite her father's best efforts Annie's health continued to decline. She died in Malvern shortly after Easter in 1851. She was only ten years old. Etty remembered that Emma 'rarely spoke of Annie, but when she did the sense of loss was always there unhealed.' For his part, Charles 'could not bear to reopen his sorrow'. His children never heard him speak of Annie again. Whilst Emma found comfort in the thought of Annie in Heaven, Annie's death pushed Charles further into agnosticism. In his autobiography he referred to Christianity as a 'damnable doctrine'. This passage was not published in Emma's lifetime.

Having made a name for himself as a reputable scientist and writer, Charles spent the 1850s developing the theories that had sprung from his voyage to the Galapagos. In 1859 On the Origin of the Species was published to immediate interest. Despite the success of his work Charles's health began to deteriorate. Letters of congratulation poured in, but there was also stinging criticism of his findings. Combined with this was also Charles's fear over the often poor health of his children. By 1863 Charles was on the edge of nervous collapse. A letter from Emma to Charles reveals much about the love she felt for her husband: 'I cannot tell you the compassion I have felt for all your suffering…I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God's hand…I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities and feelings and all I would hope is that you would direct them upwards, as well as to one who values them above everything in the world.'

The next twenty years saw the marriages of six of their children, and the births of two grandchildren. This family happiness was marred by Charles's continual ill health. Emma was indispensable, both in easing his physical pains and in nursing him through his mental collapse. One relation remembered her as the 'exception to every wife.' Etty married Richard Litchfield, a man twelve years her senior, in 1871. They had a very happy marriage, and shortly after the wedding Etty wrote to her mother: 'You are the dearest Father and Mother that ever anyone had.'

In 1882 Charles's health again failed him. He died on the 19th April. Emma did not demonstrate her grief publicly, and even Etty was surprised by her mother's apparent calm: 'To us, who knew how she had lived in his life, how she had shared almost every moment…her calmness and possession seemed wonderful then and are wonderful now to look back upon.' Over the next fourteen years until her death Emma attempted to recreate a framework for her life. To Etty she wrote with some emotion: 'The regularity of my life was such an element of happiness, and to be received every time I joined him by some word of welcome.' Whilst her faith remained strong, she did not lose her sense of religious enquiry. In 1895 she wrote that 'I quite agree that the remains of Christian feeling makes us unable to judge of the present race of agnostics.'

Emma died in 1896. Throughout her life she had been loved and respected by all who knew her. Her husband's fame and the controversy that his work had provoked did not alter her. His ill health and the religious differences between them did not drive them apart. Charles himself was acutely aware of the debt he owed to his Emma. In his autobiography he wrote: 'She has been my greatest blessing…She has been my wise adviser and cheerful comforter throughout life.'

Laura Whittle

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