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Better Than a Dog
Why, the shape of his head is quite altered.
—DR. ROBERT DARWIN, IN 1836,
AFTER CHARLES’S FIVE-YEAR VOYAGE
In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper. He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world. He was in his late twenties. It was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side, he wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question. It was easy for Charles to think of things to write under Not Marry.
"Freedom to go where one liked," he began. Charles loved to travel. His voyage had lasted almost five years; he had been the naturalist on the HMS Beagle, a British surveying ship. He was horribly seasick while on board, but he spent as much time as he could on land, exploring on horseback and onfoot, and collecting thousands of specimens, from corals in the Cocos-Keeling Islands of the Indian Ocean to beetles in Australia to a fox in Chiloe; Island, Chile. He now lived in London with his servant from the Beagle, Syms Covington, "Fiddler and Boy to the Poop Cabin." Charles had taught Syms to shoot and skin birds and to help him list and catalogue the specimens. Now Charles and Syms were surrounded by neatly stacked wooden crates, casks, and barrels filled with many of their treasures from Patagonia, Brazil, Chile, and Tierra del Fuego: fossil bones, skins, shells, fish preserved in spirits of wine, mammalia in spirits of wine, insects, reptiles and birds in spirits of wine, plants, rocks, carcasses of dead animals, and beetles. What if Charles wanted to go on another adventure and collect more specimens? How could he do that if he got married?
Next, under Not Marry he wrote: "—choice of Society & little of it.—Conversation of clever men at clubs—" On Great Marlborough Street, Charles lived just a few doors away from his older brother, Erasmus, and he was
spending much of his time with Eras and his circle of intellectual friends, which included the historian and writer Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane; the writer Harriet Martineau; and the Darwins’ first cousin, Hensleigh Wedgwood. They discussed the huge changes in England brought on by industrialization. When Charles had left for his voyage, there were a few trains; now the railroad zigzagged all over the country, reaching places only horse-drawn carriages had gone before. The growing number of mills and factories changed the landscape as well; towns and cities were expanding, as was the division between rich and poor. The rich benefited from the new industry and from Great Britain’s burgeoning empire.
The poor suffered in the squalor that Charles Dickens was capturing so well in his serialized novels. Erasmus and his circle debated the Poor Laws, which were shunting the destitute into workhouses; they discussed the need for social
There were divisions in religion in nineteenth-century England, too. Religious zealots and religious dissenters were making noise while members of the Church of England and Unitarians like the Darwins also quietly questioned their
faith. Freethinking liberals, Eras and his circle were respected members of the British upper classes, and Charles found it easy—and stimulating—to be with them. Because they were open-minded and liberal, Charles knew he could broach with them some of the radical scientific thoughts he was beginning to have. This was what mattered to him. Not going to dinner parties, teas, and other torturous social occasions where people inundated him with seemingly endless questions about his travels.
Not that all of his social occasions were torturous. Charles was spending time with—and being courted by—three sisters in one family. The Horner girls were clever young women, well-read and educated, with promising intellectual
futures. They even shared his interest in natural history, geology, and zoology. Their oldest sister, Mary, was already married to a new friend of his, Charles Lyell, a prominent geologist. Mr. Horner approved of Charles Darwin as a son-inlaw and hoped for a match. "I have not seen anyone for a long time with a greater store of accurate knowledge," he wrote to Mary. Erasmus teased Charles, calling Mrs. Horner "Motherin-law." So the marriage question was not hypothetical. And Charles Darwin was a good catch. He was a tall man, about six feet, thickset—big but not fat. He was athletic and fit from his adventures on the voyage. He dressed conservatively in the styles of the day: tailcoat, fine linen shirt with standing collar, and tall hat. He had gray eyes, a ruddy complexion, and a pleasant face, though he did not like his nose, which he felt was too big and bulbous. He was from an upstanding, wealthy
family; he had much to talk about, and he had a promising future. His reputation had, as they say, preceded him. While he was traveling, Charles had sent back thousands of his specimens to his old Cambridge professor, John Stevens Henslow. Some of these specimens had begun to make him famous in the natural history world before he had even returned to England, including a rare fossil head of a giant ground sloth he had found in Argentina "in horizontal position in the cemented gravel; the upper jaw & molars exposed," as Charles had written in his first geological specimen notebook. The remarkable fossil sloth head had been presented at a meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science in Cambridge.
But if he were to marry one of the Horner girls, or anyone else, he could see the obligations ahead, whereas if he remained single, he would be freer to pursue his science. He added to the Not Marry side of his list, "Not forced to
visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle." He liked his brother, his sisters, his cousins the Wedgwoods. But what if he didn’t like his wife’s relatives? There was so much compromising you had to do if you were married. He could see it in his friends, many of whom had gotten married while he was away.
Walking down the street one day not long after he had gotten back, he had seen his cousin Hensleigh carrying a child in one hand and a round box in the other. Hensleigh had married a cousin from the other side of his family in 1832, the year Charles left on the voyage. (First cousins often married at this time, especially in the upper classes.) Now Hensleigh had two children, and Charles shuddered at the thought of all the juggling a young father had to do. Did he want the responsibility? His reaction to this scene was so strong that it made the rounds of the family gossip: Emma Wedgwood, Hensleigh’s sister, wrote to her sister-in-law with amusement how struck Charles was by Hensleigh’s juggling. Not surprising, therefore, that Charles continued his Not Marry list with "—to have the expense & anxiety of children— perhaps quarrelling." It wasn’t just the time and distraction that worried him; although he was frugal, he doubted he would ever make enough money by collecting beetles and writing about coral. Lack of money always led to fights, that he knew. And could he stand the anxiety and worry of having children? Cholera, a deadly disease, had just reached England for the first time, and there were epidemics of typhus, typhoid fever, and scarlet fever. Children got sick, children died. So there would be worry about health along with worry about money. And it all would take so much time. That was the crux of the issue. He wrote and underlined twice "Loss of time."
Charles needed as many hours a day as he could have to do his work. First of all, he had