Plenty of us struggle, in the age when so many traditions in so many parts of the world now seem perpetually up for revision, with the choice of whether to get married. It even confounded no less a mind than that from which On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection flowed. This happened back in 1838, over twenty years before the publication of that most important book in biology. And, for a moment, it must have seemed almost as vexing as the question of how all the species came about.
Lists of Note tells us that the “29-year-old naturalist Charles Darwin found himself facing a difficult decision: whether or not to propose to the love of his life, Emma Wedgwood. This was his handwritten solution — a list of the pros and cons of marriage that includes such gems as ‘better than a dog anyhow’ and ‘not forced to visit relatives.'” (See original document above. Or click here to view it in a larger format, and read a complete transcription.)
Of the tantalizing claims of the single life, Darwin also includes “freedom to go where one liked,” “conversation of clever men at clubs,” freedom from the “expense & anxiety of children,” and no risk of the awful possibility that “perhaps my wife won’t like London.” But matrimony presents a strong case of its own, in the form of a “constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one,” “someone to take care of house,” “charms of music & female chit-chat.” (And note his writing of “Children — (if it Please God)” under the pros, an interesting phrasing given the sorts of debates his name gets hauled into today.)
And so Darwin reaches his conclusion: “My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & 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, & books & music perhaps.” He would indeed marry and spend the rest of his life with Wedgwood, a union that produced ten children (one of whom, Francis, would go on to informally illustrate On the Origin of Species manuscript pages).
You can peruse the full list, even in Darwin’s own handwriting (if you can decipher it), at Darwin Online. If he went on to write a list of his secrets of a successful marriage, Darwin scholars haven’t yet discovered it, but I think we can safely say that it would include at least this recommendation: think the decision through, but don’t let it keep you from your life’s work.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
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