DARWIN AND WOMEN: A SELECTION OF LETTERS by Samantha Evans, ed., Reviewed by George Levine
 

DARWIN AND WOMEN: A SELECTION OF LETTERS
Ed. Samantha Evans
(Cambridge, 2017) xxviii + 270 pp
Reviewed by George Levine on 2017-08-02.

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Out of the vastness of the Darwinian Archive, whose editing will take the scholarly industry well into the next decade, Samantha Evans has gathered together letters that are centered on women -- to them, from them, about them. Except for a few obvious items, like Darwin's almost comical list of the advantages and disadvantages of marriage as he was making up his mind to marry Emma Wedgwood, these are not the sort of documents that have attracted much attention in Darwin studies. But obviously, women mattered in Darwin's life and in his work, and these letters broaden our understanding of Darwin and the community that made his work possible. The real object of the book, however, is not to tell us much more about Darwin (though it manages to do so), but "to throw light on the lives of the women around Darwin, what they were doing in science and other fields, and what kind of conversations they were having about women's rights and women's education" (xix). One of the effects of the book, however, is to remind Darwin lovers that however charming, thoughtful, gentle, and warmly generous he was, he was also a child of his times and shared his culture's sexism (was perhaps in this respect even more retrograde). As the book amply demonstrates, he was surrounded by women whose intellectual strengths should have at least modified his theory of human sexual selection, Yet while he was extraordinarily attentive to everything else, he seemed not to notice how their intelligence might affect his own theories. By virtue of the integrity and seriousness of his studies, he allowed that female birds, for example, exercised choice in mating and thus shaped evolutionary history, but he did not allow that human females had made such choice or had exercised any but the obvious authority due to the angel in the house. "We may...infer" he wrote "that if men are capable of decided eminence over women in many subjects, the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women." (Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex [1871] 2:327). Yet some pretty smart and capable women show up in this collection.

As background, it is worth noting that the most important woman in his life barely squeaks into his autobiography: "My mother died in 1817, when I was a little over eight years old, and it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her except her death-bed, her black velvet gown, and her curiously constructed work-table. I believe that my forgetfulness is partly due to my sisters, owing to their great grief, never being able to speak about her or mention her name; and partly to her previously invalid state" (Autobiography [1887], 22). John Bowlby, in a large, psychoanalytically oriented biography of Darwin, claims that Darwin's repression of his own grief helps account for his famously shaky health as an adult. While this contention is, to say the least, controversial, there can be little doubt that the death of his mother, and the maternal roles later played by his older sisters, significantly shaped his conception of women and their roles in (and absences from) human culture and history.

Rather than straying into such speculation, Evans healthily highlights the actual role in Darwin's life of women who---more than nurturing, maternal, or wifely presences--were active participants in his work. That they remained secondary and only partly visible is both dramatized and undercut in the letters. In her business-like Preface, Evans points out that only five percent of Darwin's correspondence is with women. But her selection of these letters-- abundant enough in so vast an archive --offers an important and salutary shift of perspective.

The result is not so much a coherent book as a series of fragments --none of which tells a whole story--from conversations with a surprising range of women from all over the world. Lacking continuity and development, the fragmentary texts display many women fleetingly, and one wishes in vain to know them better. Their writings intimate points that do not get explained, and scraps of information about lives, friendships, and difficulties beg to be expanded. Rather than fleshing out the lines of Darwin's intellectual development or even building another biography of him, this selection of his letters shows how the experience of women informed the atmosphere of his life and work. Though women flit in and out of correspondence, the letters offered here never spell out their complete story, This fragmentariness aptly evokes the experience of women in and around a Victorian scientific community. Quite startlingly, it suggests that the enormous body of the main correspondence, on which Darwin scholars have been depending for years, actually provides only a partial view of him. Unlike the women, who are entangled--Evans notes-- in everyday details, Darwin rarely wrote letters "diarising his inner life" (xvii). He "usually only wrote when he had something to say," or had business to do. On the whole, therefore, his letters do not provide an adequate sense of his interior life, his domestic one, or even his scientific one, in all of which women played far more than a "five percent" role.

The "diarising" turns out to be largely the work of women. To display this work, Evans includes not only letters Darwin wrote to and received from women, but letters that one will not find in the main body of his Correspondence because they are not addressed to him-- like the many homey, gossipy letters addressed to Emma. Yet it is almost certain that Darwin knew of them and that Emma read them to him.

So despite its necessary fragmentariness, this is very much a book. Together, the letters not only reveal to us a somewhat different Darwin, but more important, they show what an enormous and complicated substructure of family and friendly relations underlay what has seemed to be the exclusively male enterprise of producing the theory of evolution by natural selection. In an excellent, concise, and learned foreword to the volume, Gillian Beer points out how the letters provide "insights into the scientific community" that the predominantly male entries in the Correspondence cannot provide (vii). While that community did include women, they rarely allowed their names to be mentioned.. His daughter Etta (Henrietta), for instance, was partly responsible for the quality of Darwin's prose and had more than an editor's understanding of what he was up to.

The fragmentariness of the book is accentuated by Evans's quite sensible decision to organize it thematically. While half the women's letters, Evans writes, were friendly and family "chatter," many of the writers were doing various kinds of scientific work. So the book includes sections not only on "observing plants" (botany was on the whole the preferred science of women), but also on "observing humans," "religion" (a chapter edited by Paul White), "companion animals," and non-domesticated animals such as barnacles. Each section is prefaced and punctuated by brief supplementary information that attempts to establish the context of the correspondence to follow, and at the same time temptingly introduces a range of figures more or less unknown to all but specialists in Victorian culture, although their husbands and families are often well known.

Besides the expected chapters on family relations, a fascinating sequence of letters concerns the wives of scientists. In one of these we learn that Darwin's own wife Emma really didn't like Frances, the wife of Joseph Hooker (who was Darwin's closest friend), but in the interest both of the families and of science, Emma was pleased to have been able to conceal her dislike from both Hooker and Frances. Delightfully gossipy and chatty as this is, it also importantly indicates how the scientific community functioned and how carefully women worked to facilitate its operation. A later sequence contrasts the two women: while Emma skilfully protected Darwin from the need to worry much about domestic matters, Frances was often too sick to run the Hooker household and manage her servants. Thus Hooker was often distracted from his studies by what he considered "women's work."

Brought together in one volume, all of these fragments provide a fresh perspective on the actual practice of science in mid and late nineteenth-century England, and of course on the centrality of women not only in the domestic but in the broader cultural spheres of the time. As Gillian Beer reminds us, Darwin spent his life "surrounded by spirited, enlightened, and supportive women" (vii). What has been previously considered background, by and large, here takes foreground. As we read the meticulously curious letters in which Darwin asks women for the kind of information that he is well known to have sought from male naturalists all over the world, the scientific needs of the inquisitive Darwin give way in importance to the nature and feelings of the largely unknown women from whom he doggedly sought evidence.

Though the women often sound all too submissive and apologetic, expressing or implying their sense of inferiority to the great man, they have clearly worked hard and thought hard about the questions he raises. They need not have been so humble. Take for instance a letter to Darwin written by Lydia E.Becker, who, according to Evans, published a book on Botany for Novices (1864) and wrote as well "on women's suffrage and women's access to science" (152). Sending Darwin a copy of her book, she writes of it defensively:

It is intended chiefly for young ladies but I trust this circumstance alone would not cause you to consider it beneath your notice, for it is precisely those who have attained the greatest eminence in the pursuit of science who might be expected to feel pleasure in the thought that others however far removed from them, should be led to share in some degree, the happiness which the study of nature is capable of affording. (153)

No response from Darwin is included.

All of this correspondence also strongly demonstrates the tightness of the Victorian intellectual community, a tightness long ago described by Noel Annan and clearly enacted here. The correspondents include Charles Lyell's wife, E. M. Forster's aunt, Robert Chambers's daughter, Asa Gray's wife, and even--for an instant-- George Eliot. Many of these women had considerable competence as scientific observers and there is no doubt that Darwin took their correspondence seriously. In this respect he was a scientific opportunist, eager for facts wherever he might find them, and thus rather less sexist as a scientist than he is as a theorist. And no wonder: as one wanders through the book, it is difficult not to be struck by how intelligently and learnedly Darwin's women correspondents can write about specific scientific problems despite their entirely amateur status.

In the Descent of Man, Darwin famously remarked that women could not equal men until they became breadwinners. While citing this remark, Evans reminds us that a great many female breadwinners lived "in his own household" (194). Though Darwin was apparently a kind and generous employer who often liked and admired the maids and governesses working for him, their breadwinning never registered in his work. Several of the Darwins' governesses reveal the quality of their minds and characters in letters written to and from them, and they played a fundamental part in the lives of Darwin and his family, but since Emma was largely responsible for managing the household, Darwin wrote very little about them.

Perhaps the most satisfyingly dramatic sequence in the book comes in the last section -- "Ascent of Woman" -- a thinly disguised play on The Descent of Man. Although many of Darwin's women correspondents participated in the suffrage movement and some of his family were "involved in setting up of Newnham and Girton Colleges at Cambridge" (210), few of them, Evans points out, mentioned such activities in correspondence with Darwin. Darwin was particularly vexed by women's leadership of the anti-vivisection movement; he thought their animus sprang from women's "tenderness of heart and profound ignorance" (222). Ironically, their resistance to vivisection led Darwin to argue strongly for their education.

The letters in this section tend to be less submissive, more boldly direct, and more self-confident. Elinor Dicey, who overcame her own unease at operations on animals, challenges Darwin's opinion that women should not watch animals undergoing operations. Yes, she writes, if it were a matter of "mere curiosity." But since this is a matter of ultimate aid to mankind, she concludes, isn't there "danger of compassion becoming morbid ?" (223).

And finally, in a fitting and satisfying conclusion that somehow manages to give all these fragments a unified point, Darwin responds to Caroline Kennard, who--in the 1880s and 1890s-- would play a leading role in the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In 1882, after she writes to ask Darwin if he still believed in the intellectual inferiority of women, Darwin answers with admirable directness. Yes, he writes, "there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance. . . in [women's] becoming the intellectual equals of men." But, he adds, they might recover their aboriginal equality with men if they became "regular 'breadwinners,' as are men" (qtd. 226). Caroline Kennard is not abashed. She throws back at Darwin the laws of heredity, since there is increasing evidence that women in higher education are doing well and they will have children. And as to breadwinners -- here it is difficult not to cheer -- "have they not been and are they not largely, bread-winners, though unrecognized generally, as such?" (227). Her last sentence makes a marvelous conclusion to the book: "Excuse this great liberty and I am your obliged Caroline A. Kennard." The deference in that sign-off carries with it an edge of, let us say, chutzpah. While she echoes the deferential tone typical of women's letters to Darwin, the intellectual power of her letter turns it to irony. I would have loved to read Darwin's response, but there apparently was none. Women were, after all, becoming feisty, and yet Darwin's science and the very texture of his life depended on them.

George Levine is Professor of English Emeritus at Rutgers University.


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