Books or Marriage? The Dilemma of Charles Darwin in 1838

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 My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all.—

Darwin in 1854, aged 45, then working towards
publishing On the Origin of Species

It’s July 1838, and Charles Darwin has just returned from a break in Scotland to remedy his overwork. Upon opening one his trademark notebooks, we might think he’s about to jot down some thoughts on animal breeding or geological variation. However, he instead divides a piece of paper into two, before writing the following headings: “Marry” and “Not Marry”.

Choosing whether or not to marry Emma Wedgwood, granddaughter of potter Josiah Wedgwood, turns out to be a serious business. However, Emma’s personal qualities seem to be the least of Darwin’s worries (except that she’s “better than a dog anyhow”), especially when the prospect of “less money for books” must be considered.

Charles Darwin’s list of the pros and cons of marriage

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, and someone to take care of house—Charms of music and female chit-chat. These things good for one’s health. Forced to visit and receive relations but terrible loss of time.
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all.—
No, no won’t do.—
Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.—Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, and books and music perhaps—compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt Marlboro’ St.

Not Marry

What is the use of working without sympathy from near and dear friends—who are near and dear friends to the old except relatives.
Freedom to go where one liked
—Choice of Society and little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs.—
Not forced to visit relatives, and to bend in every trifle—to have the expense and anxiety of children—perhaps quarrelling.
Loss of time—cannot read in the evenings—fatness and idleness —anxiety and responsibility—
less money for books etc—if many children forced to gain one’s bread.—(But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation with indolent idle fool—

Marry—Marry—Marry Q.E.D.

HMS Beagle, by Conrad Martens


So, books or marriage?

On the advice of his father, Darwin went to visit Emma on 29 July. He did not get around to proposing, but mentioned his ideas on transmutation (against his wise father’s advice).

With marriage now on hold, at least for the moment, Darwin immersed himself in reading. This, it turns out, had a favourable outcome, as Darwin soon came across Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. 

Shortly afterwards came his theory of natural selection. However, in January 1839, so too did marriage. In the end, it seemed that Darwin could enjoy both books and marriage, although in this case maybe books did come first – by a very small margin.

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