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.
Read Emma Darwin's diaries. She was born at the family estate of Maer Hall, Maer, Staffordshire, the youngest of seven children of Josiah Wedgwood II and his wife Elizabeth "Bessie". 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 because their shared grandparents were Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, and as the Wedgwood and Darwin families were closely allied, she had been acquainted with him 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.
For a time in her youth she was sent to Paris, where she studied piano with the celebrated composer Frédéric Chopin, and conducted a grand tour of Europe. In 1826 she went with her sister Fanny to stay with their Aunt Jessie (Madame de Sismondi, wife of the historian Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi) for eight months near Geneva. When her father went to collect them he was accompanied by Caroline Darwin and also took Charles Darwin 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 the Voyage of 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. 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 what was then the rural village of Down, close to the city.
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: George, Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society.
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.
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. 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.
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."
Darwin had already wondered about the materialism implied by his ideas. 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. 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."
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 Taylor, 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.
Soon after their marriage, Emma felt that "while you are acting conscientiously & sincerely wishing, & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong," 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.
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.
In January 2009, Cambridge City Council gave the College planning permission to demolish Grove Lodge, Emma Darwin's gatehouse, 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 alternatives; their decision at the end of September 2009 was to keep and refurbish Grove Lodge.
Emma is buried at Downe near Charles' brother, Erasmus. Her husband is buried in Westminster Abbey.