Darwin's Marriage - Sex, Romance, And Love

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Darwin's Marriage
Sex, Romance, And Love

Like a child that has something it loves beyond measure, I long to dwell on the words my own dear Emma... . My own dear Emma, I kiss the hands with all humbleness and gratitude, which have so filled up for me the cup of happiness ... hut do dear Emma, remember life is short, and two months is the sixth part of the year.

— Darwin in November 1838, in a letter to his fiancee, urging an early wedding

Sexual desire makes saliva to flow ... curious association.

— Darwin in his scientific notebook, same month, same year.1

In the decade of Darwin's marriage, the 1830s, the number of British couples filing for divorce averaged four per year. This is in some ways a misleading statistic. It probably reflects, in part, the tendency of men back then to die before reaching the climax of their midlife crises. (A misnomer; often the wife's middle age, more than the man's, brings on the crisis.) And it certainly reflects the fact that getting a divorce required — literally — an act of Parliament. Marriages also ended in other ways, especially through privately arranged separations. Still, there's no denying that marriage back then was, by and large, for keeps, especially within Darwin's upper-middle-class social stratum. And marriage stayed that way for half a century after 1857, the year the Divorce Act made breaking up easier to do.2 There was {108} something about Victorian morality conducive to staying married. There is no telling how much misery was generated in Victorian England by unhappy, unendable marriages. But it may well not exceed the misery generated by modern marital dissolution.3 In any case, we do know of some Victorian marriages that seem to have been successful. Among these is the marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin. Their devotion was mutual and seems, if anything, to have strengthened with time. They created seven children who lived to adulthood, and none of them penned nasty memoirs about tyrannical parents ("Darwin Dearest"). Their daughter Henrietta called their marriage a "perfect union."4 Their son Francis wrote of his father: "In his relationship towards my mother, his tender and sympathetic nature was shown in its most beautiful aspect. In her presence he found his happiness, and through her, his life, — which might have been overshadowed by gloom, — became one of content and quiet gladness."5 Viewed from today, the marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin appears almost idyllic in its geniality, tranquility, and sheer durability.


On the Victorian marriage market, Darwin must have been a fairly desirable commodity. He had a winning disposition, a respectable education, a family tradition that augured well for his career, and, in any event, his looming inheritance. He wasn't notably handsome, but so what? The Victorians were very clear about their division of aesthetic labor, and it was consistent with evolutionary psychology: good financial prospects made for an attractive husband, and good looks made for an attractive wife. In the large correspondence between Darwin and his sisters — while he was at college, or, later, on the Beagle — there is much talk of romance, as his sisters report gossip and relay any reconnaissance work they've done on his behalf. Almost invariably, men are gauged by their ability to provide materially for a woman, while women are seen as providing a pleasant visual and auditory environment for a man. Newly betrothed women, and the women who qualify as prospects for Charles, are "pretty" or "charming" or, at the very least, "pleasant." "I am sure you would like her," Charles's sister Catherine wrote of one candidate. "She is so {109} very merry and pleasant, and I think very pretty." Newly betrothed men, on the other hand, are either of means or not of means. Susan Darwin wrote to her brother during his voyage: "Your charming Cousin Lucy Galton is engaged to marry Mr. Moilliet: the eldest son of a very fat Mrs. Moilliet... . The young Gentleman has a good fortune, so of course the match gives great satisfaction."6

The Beagle's voyage lasted longer than expected, and Darwin wound up spending five years — the heart of his twenties — away from England. But, like undistinguished looks, advancing age was something men didn't have to worry greatly about. Women of Darwin's class often spent their early twenties on prominent display, hoping to catch a man while in their prime. Men often spent their twenties as Darwin did — singlemindedly pursuing the sort of professional stature (and/or money) that might later attract a woman in her prime. There was no rush. It was considered natural for a woman to marry a markedly older man, whereas a Victorian man who married a much older woman was cause for dismay. While Darwin was aboard the Beagle, his sister Catherine reported that cousin Robert Wedgwood, who was around Darwin's age, had "fallen vehemently and desperately in love with Miss Crewe, who is 50 years old, and blind of one eye." His sister Susan chimed in sarcastically, "just 20 years difference in their ages!" And sister Caroline: "a woman more than old enough to be his Mother." Catherine had a theory: "She is a clever woman, and must have entrapped him by her artifices; & she has the remains of great beauty to help her."7 In other words: the man's age-detection system was functioning as designed, but he happened upon a woman whose enduring beauty — that is, youthful appearance — fooled it.

The realm within which the young Darwin was likely to find a mate was not vast. From adolescence on, the likely candidates came from two well-to-do families not far from the Darwin home in Shrewsbury. There was the ever-popular Fanny Owen — "the prettiest, plumpest, Charming" Fanny Owen, as Darwin described her during college.8 And then there were the three youngest daughters of Josiah Wedgwood II, Darwin's maternal uncle: Charlotte, Fanny, and Emma.9

As of the Beagle's departure, no one seems to have picked Emma as the frontrunner for Charles's affections — though his sister Caroline, {110} in a letter sent to him around then, did note in passing that "Emma is looking very pretty & chats very pleasantly."10 (What more could a man ask for?) As fate would have it, the other three candidates dropped out of the running in short order.

First to go was Emma's sister Charlotte. In January of 1832, she wrote Darwin to announce her unexpected engagement to a man who, she admitted, had "only a very small income now" but stood to inherit much upon his grandmother's death, and, anyway, had "high principles & kind nature which gives me a feeling of security... ."11 (Translation: resources in the offing, and a reliable willingness to invest them parentally.) Charlotte had, in truth, probably been a dark horse as far as Charles was concerned. Though she had impressed both him and his brother Erasmus — they referred to her as "the incomparable" — she was more than a decade older than Charles; Erasmus was probably more smitten by her (as he seems to have been by a series of women, none of whom he managed to marry).

More unsettling than Charlotte's fate, probably, was the almost simultaneous news that the beguiling Fanny Owen was also to take the plunge. Fanny's father wrote to Charles of the news, plainly disappointed that the groom was "now not very rich & indeed probably never will be."12 On the other hand, her husband was a man of status, serving briefly in Parliament.

Darwin, responding to all this matrimonial news in a letter to his sister Caroline, made no pretense of happiness. "Well it may be all very delightful to those concerned, but as I like unmarried women better than those in the blessed state, I vote it a bore."13

The vision that Darwin's sisters had of his future — becoming a country parson and settling down with a good wife — was not growing more likely as potential wives fell by the wayside. Catherine surveyed the remains, Emma and Fanny Wedgwood, and gave the nod tov Fanny. She wrote to Charles that she hoped Fanny would still be single when he returned — "a nice little invaluable Wife she would be."14 We'll never know. She fell ill and died within a month, at age twenty-six. With three of the four contenders either married or buried, the odds shifted decisively in Emma's favor.

If Charles had long-standing designs on Emma, he hid them well. He had predicted, as Catherine recalled, that upon his return he would {111} find Erasmus "tied neck and heels to Emma Wedgwood, and heartily sick of her." In 1832, Catherine wrote to Charles that "I am much amused at your prophecy, and I think it may possibly have a good effect, and prevent its own fulfillment."15 Erasmus continued to show interest in Emma, but she was still available when the Beagle returned to England in 1836. In fact, you might say she was emphatically available. She had been a carefree twenty-three when the Beagle set sail, and over the next couple of years had gotten several marriage proposals. But now she was a year and a half from thirty and spending much time at home caring for her invalid mother; she wasn't getting quite the exposure she had once gotten.16 In preparation for Darwin's arrival, she wrote to her sister-in-law, she was reading a book on South America "to get up a little knowledge for him."17

There was cause to wonder whether "a little knowledge" would be enough to keep Charles's attention focused on childhood friends. Upon returning, he possessed something that women in all cultures and at all times seem to have prized in men: status. He had always had high social standing by virtue of his family's rank, but now he had a prominence all his own. From the Beagle, Darwin had sent back fossils, organic specimens, and acute observations on geology that had won a large scientific audience. He now rubbed elbows with the great naturalists of the day. By the spring of 1837, he had settled into London, in bachelor's quarters a few doors down from his brother Erasmus, and was in social demand.

A person of greater vanity and less certain purpose might have been drawn into a time-sapping social whirl — a corruption that the gregarious Erasmus would have been delighted to abet. Certainly Darwin was aware of his growing stature ("I was quite a lion there," he reported of a visit to Cambridge). But he was too measured and earnest a man to be a mingler by nature. As often as not, he saw fit to forgo large gatherings. He would, he told his mentor, Professor John Henslow, "prefer paying you a quiet visit to meeting all the world at a great Dinner." A note of demurral to Charles Babbage, the mathematician who designed the "analytical engine," forerunner of the digital computer, began, "My dear Mr. Babbage, I am very much obliged to you for sending me cards for your parties, but I am afraid of accepting them, for I should meet some people there, to {112} whom I have sworn by all the saints in Heaven, I never go out... ."18 With the time thus saved, Darwin embarked on a remarkable burst of accomplishment. Within two years of his return to England, he: (1) edited his shipboard journal into a publishable volume (which reads nicely, sold well, and is today in print, further abridged, under the title Voyage of the Beagle); (2) skillfully extracted a thousand-pound subsidy from the Chancellor of the Exchequer for publication of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle and lined up contributors to it; (3) consolidated his place in British science by presenting half a dozen papers, ranging from a sketch of a new species of American ostrich (named Rhea darwinii by the Zoological Society of London) to a new theory about the formation of topsoil ("every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasture land springs, has passed through the intestines of worms");19 (4) went on a geological expedition to Scotland; (5) hobnobbed with eminences at the exclusive men's club the Athenaeum; (6) was elected secretary of the Geological Society of London (a post he accepted reluctantly, fearing its demand on his time); (7) compiled scientific notebooks — on subjects ranging from the "species question" to religion to human moral faculties — of such high intellectual density that they would serve as the basis for his largest works in the ensuing four decades; and (8) thought up the theory of natural selection.


It was toward the end of this phase — a few months before natural selection dawned on him — that Darwin decided to marry. Not necessarily anyone in particular; it isn't clear that he had Emma Wedgwood even remotely in mind, and one common view is that she wasn't at the center of his thinking on the subject. In a remarkable deliberative memorandum, apparently composed around July of 1838, he decided the matter of marriage in the abstract.

The document has two columns, one labeled Marry, one labeled Not Marry, and above them, circled, are the words "This is the Question." On the pro-marriage side of the equation were "Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with." {113}

After reflection of unknown length, he modified the foregoing sentence with "better than a dog anyhow." He continued: "Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chitchat — These things good for one's health. — but terrible loss of time." Without warning, Darwin had, from the pro-marriage column, swerved uncontrollably into a major anti-marriage factor, so major that he underlined it. This issue — the infringement of marriage on his time, especially his work time — was addressed at greater length in the appropriate, Not Marry column. Not marrying, he wrote, would preserve "Freedom to go where one like — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle — to have the expense & anxiety of children — Perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one's bread."

Yet the pro-marriage forces carried the day, with this train of thought at the end of the Marry column: "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." After recording these images he wrote: "Marry-Mary[sic]-Marry Q.E.D."

Darwin's decision had to survive one more wave of doubt. The backlash began innocently enough, as Darwin wrote, "It being proved necessary to Marry, When? Soon or Late." But this question incited that final spasm of panic with which many grooms are familiar. Brides are familiar with it too, of course, but their doubt seems more often to be whether their choice of a lifelong mate is the right one. For men, as Darwin's memo attests, the panic isn't essentially related to any particular prospective mate; it is the concept of a lifelong mate that is at some level frightening. For — in a monogamous society, at least — it dampens the prospects for intimacy with all those other women that a man's genes urge him to find and get to know (however briefly).

This isn't to say that the premarital panic fixes itself coarsely on {114} images of would-be sex partners; the subconscious can be more subtle than that. Still, there is, somewhat reliably among men who are about to pledge themselves to one woman for life, a dread of impending entrapment, a sense that the days of adventure are over. "Eheu!!" Darwin wrote, with one final shudder in the face of lifelong commitment. "I never should know French, — or see the Continent — or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales — poor slave — you will be worse than a negro." But then, fatefully, he mustered the necessary resolve. "Never mind my boy — Cheer up — One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle. — Never mind, trust to chance — keep a sharp look out — There is many a happy slave — " End of document.20


Darwin had written an earlier deliberative memorandum, probably in April, in which he rambled on about career paths — teach at Cambridge? in geology? in zoology? or "Work at transmission of Species"? — and pondered the marriage question inconclusively.21 There is no way of knowing what drove him to reopen the question and this time settle it. But it's intriguing that, of the six entries made between April and July in his sporadically kept personal journal, two say he was feeling "unwell." Unwellness was to become a way of life for Darwin, a fact he may already have suspected. It is ironic that hints of mortality can draw a man into marriage, for often it is these same hints, much later, that drive him out, to seek fresh proof of his virility. But the irony dissolves when reduced to ultimate cause: both the impulses to profess lifelong love to a woman and to wander lie within a man by virtue of how often, in his ancestors, they led to progeny. In that sense, both are an apt antidote to mortality, though in the end futile (except from the genes' point of view), and, in the latter case — wandering — often destructive as well.

Anyway, on a less philosophical plane: Darwin may have sensed that he would before long need a devoted helpmate and nurse. And perhaps he even had a glimmer of spending many years working, in patient and needy solitude, on a big book about evolution. As Darwin's health had gotten worse, his grasp of that subject had gotten {115} better. He opened his first notebook on "transmutation of Species" in June or July of 1837, and his second in early 1838.22 By the time he was rigorously mulling marriage, he had gone some of the way toward natural selection. He believed that one key to evolution lay in initially slight hereditary difference; that when a species is divided into two populations by, say, a body of water, what are at first merely two variants of the species grow apart until they qualify as new and distinct species.23 All that remained — the hard part — was to figure out what guided that divergence. In July of 1838, he finished his second species notebook and opened his third, the one that would bring him the answer. And he may, as he penned his fateful marriage memorandum that same month, have had a sense of impending success.

In late September, the solution came. Darwin had just read Thomas Malthus's famous essay on population, which noted that a human population's natural rate of growth will tend to outstrip the food supply unless checked. Darwin recalled in his autobiography: "[BJeing well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work."24 Under the heading of September 28, Darwin jotted in his notebook some lines about Mai thus and then, without explicitly describing natural selection, surveyed its effects: "One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of Nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones. The final cause of all this wedgings, must be to sort out proper structure & adapt it to change."25

The direction of Darwin's professional life was set, and now he fixed the course of his personal life. Six weeks after writing this passage, on Sunday, November 11 ("The Day of Days!" he wrote in his personal journal), he proposed to Emma Wedgwood.

Viewed in the simplest Darwinian terms, Darwin's attraction to Emma seems strange. He was now a high-status and well-to-do man {116} in his late twenties. Presumably he could have had a young and beautiful wife. Emma was a year older than he and, though not unattractive (at least in the eyes of her portrait painter), was not thought beautiful. Why would Darwin do anything so maladaptive as to marry a plain woman who had already exhausted more than a decade of her reproductive potential?

First of all, this simple equation — rich, high-status male equals young, beautiful wife — is a bit crude. There are many factors that make for a genetically auspicious mate, including intelligence, trustworthiness, and various sorts of compatibility.26 Moreover, the selection of a spouse is also the selection of a parent for one's offspring. Emma's sturdiness of character foreshadowed the attentiveness she would bring to her children. One of her daughters recalled: "Her sympathy, and the serenity of her temper, made her children feel absolutely at their ease with her, and sure of comfort in every trouble great or small, whilst her unselfishness made them know that she would never find anything a burden, and that they could go to her with all the many little needs of a child for help or explanation."27

Besides, if the issue is how "valuable" a wife Darwin should be expected to seek, the question isn't, strictly speaking, how marketable a mate he was, but how marketable he had been given the impression he was. By adolescence, if not earlier, people are getting feedback about their market value, feedback that shapes their self-esteem and thus affects how high they aim their sights. Darwin doesn't seem to have emerged from adolescence feeling like an alpha male. Though large, he was meek, not much of a fighter. And, as one of his daughters noted, he considered his face "repellently plain."28

Of course, all of this was rendered less relevant by later achievement. Darwin may not have had high status as a teenager, but he got it later, and status per se can compensate, in the eyes of women, for mediocre looks and a lack of brute strength. Yet his insecurity seems to have persisted — as, indeed, insecurities formed in adolescence often do. The question is why.

Maybe the developmental mechanism that fine-tuned Darwin's insecurity was a vestige of evolution, an adaptation that would have tended to raise fitness in the ancestral environment but no longer does. In many hunter-gatherer societies, the male dominance {117} hierarchy is fairly firm by early adulthood; submissive, low-status men don't go to college, assiduously climb career ladders, and then wow ladies with their newly reached station. So in the ancestral environment, a self-esteem that began to harden shortly after adolescence may have been a reliable guide to one's enduring value on the marriage market; maybe it has become a faulty indicator only in a more modern environment.

Then again, maybe a stubbornly low opinion of oneself can be adaptive in almost any environment. Wives do cheat on husbands, after all. And folk wisdom, at least, has them often cheating with handsome, athletic men. Thus Darwin's low opinion of his animal magnetism may have kept him from marrying the kind of stunning woman who would draw overtures from world-class philanderers whom she would then find sexier than him.


Emma accepted Darwin's proposal, leaving him with feelings of "hearty gratitude to her for accepting such a one as myself." She was pleased, she later reported, to find that he had been unsure of her answer.29 It is everyone's desire not to be taken for granted by a mate, and naturally so, since this would bode ill for future devotion.

Emma shows no signs of having equivocated. She clearly admired Darwin's intelligence and, in explaining her assent, she also stressed his honesty, his affection toward his family, and his "sweet tempered" nature.30 (Translation: he probably has some good genes and he seems likely to be a generous and considerate parental investor.) And it could not have escaped her attention that he came from a wealthy family and was of high and rising professional stature (that he would have plenty of resources, material and social, to invest).

To be sure, Emma came from a wealthier family. Her grandfather was an innovative and immensely successful potter whose name lives on in the form of Wedgwood china. She could have married a pauper without fear that her children would grow up deprived. But, as we've seen, attraction to mates who command social and material resources may have been so consistently conducive to the fitness of women during evolution that it has become a fairly rigid part of their minds.


Even if Emma Wedgwood could have bought her way into London's high society — through philanthropy, say — Darwin's social status probably would have wowed her. At any rate, it did. During her engagement to Charles, the couple was entertained by the Cambridge University geologist Adam Sedgwick. "What an honour for the great Sedgwick to invite me to his house," marveled Emma. "Me only think of it! I feel a greater person already for it & how my head will stand it when I am really Mrs. D ... I can't tell."31

Men, of course, are hardly oblivious to the status and wealth of a mate. But if the importance of these things was indeed sexually asymmetrical during most of evolution, the male attraction to a moneyed or socially prominent woman may be less a matter of raw appeal and more a matter of conscious calculation. In the July marriage memorandum, when Darwin was fretting about the twin evils of marriage — the "loss of time every day" and the "horrid poverty" that could result, he slyly followed each of those phrases with a parenthetic qualifier: "without one's wife was an angel, & made one keep industrious," he added after the first worry. And after the second: "without one's wife was better than an angel & had money."

Regardless of how much Darwin did or didn't know about his future health and career, he had just given a composite sketch of the ideal wife for a chronically ill man who, while not affiliated with any university, is trying to write the most important scientific book of the century. And, regardless of whether he then had some inkling of who his wife would be, he had just given a roughly accurate portrait of Emma Wedgwood.32 Between her father's wealth, Darwin's father's wealth, Darwin's book royalties, and his knack for sound investment, there would be ample money in the Darwin household.33 And although Emma may not have "made" Darwin stay industrious, she certainly encouraged him to, nursing him faithfully and shielding him from distraction. Darwin, in characteristically oblique fashion, made this assignment clear from the beginning. Three weeks into the engagement, he wrote to her about the reaction of an acquaintance to the news: "She says 'so Mr. Darwin is going to be married; I suppose he will be buried in the country and lost to geology'. She little knows, what a good strict wife, I am going to be married to, {119} who will send me to my lessons, and make me better, I trust, in every respect... ,"34


To say that Darwin carefully and rationally selected his wife isn't to say that he wasn't in love with her. By the time of their wedding day, his letters to Emma were so laden with emotion as to raise a question: How did his feelings accelerate so rapidly? As of July, he is, depending on your interpretation of the evidence, either (a) not even dreaming of marrying her in particular; or (b) dithering violently over whether to marry her. In late July, he pays her a visit, and they have a long talk. On his next visit, three and a half months later, he pops the question. Now, suddenly, he is in ecstasy, writing florid letters about how he waits anxiously for the day's mail in the hope it will hold a letter from her; how he lies awake at night thinking of their future together; how "I long for the day when we shall enter the house together; how glorious it will be to see you seated by the fire of our own house."35 What has happened to this man?

At the risk of seeming to harp on a single theme, I direct your attention again to the subject of genes. In particular: the differing genetic interests of a man and a woman who have never had sex with one another. Pre-sex, a woman's genes often call for wary evaluation. Affection should not too quickly become overwhelming passion. The male's genetic interest, meanwhile, often lies in speeding things up, saying things that will melt the woman's reserve. High on the list of these things are intimations of deep affection and eternal devotion. And nothing produces more convincing intimations then feelings of affection and devotion.

This logic may be amplified by various circumstances, and one of them is how much sex the man has been getting up until now. As Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have observed, "any creature that is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure" should, in theory, try with increasing intensity to change this trajectory.36 That is: natural selection probably would not have been kind to the genes of men whose quest for sex wasn't accelerated by its prolonged absence. So far as anyone knows, Darwin went through his bachelor {120} years without ever having sexual intercourse.37 How little does it take to arouse a man who has been so long deprived? When the Beagle docked in Peru, Darwin saw elegant ladies shrouded in veils that exposed only one eye. "But then," he wrote, "that one eye is so black and brilliant and has such powers of motion and expression that its effect is very powerful."38 It is not surprising that when Emma Wedgwood was placed within reach — her whole face visible, and her body soon to be his — Darwin began to salivate. (Literally, it would seem. See Darwin's journal excerpt at the head of this chapter.)

It is hard to estimate the exact ratio of love to lust in Darwin's heart as the wedding approached; their relative reproductive value during our evolutionary past has varied widely from moment to moment (as it still does) and from millennium to millennium. A few weeks before the wedding, Darwin mused in one of his scientific notebooks, "What passes in a man's mind when he says he loves a person ... it is blind feeling, something like sexual feelings — love being an emotion does it regard — is it influenced by — other emotions?"39 Like many passages in Darwin's notebooks, this is cryptic, but in mentioning love and sexual feelings in the same breath, and in suggesting that love may be subterraneanly rooted in other feelings, it seems headed in the general direction of a modern Darwinian view of human psychology. And it suggests (as does his mention of salivation) that he was, at that point, experiencing more than one kind of feeling toward Emma.

What was Emma feeling? If indeed the male's intense interest in impending sex is often matched by lingering female wariness, she might be expected to feel somewhat less ardor than Darwin. There are all kinds of factors that could change things in any one case, of course, but this is the generic expectation: more female than male ambivalence about consummation. Thus the Victorian postponement of sex until marriage should theoretically have shifted power toward women during the engagement. While the man had cause to be eager for the wedding day (compared to today's men, at least), the woman had cause to pause and reflect (compared to today's women, at least).

Emma complied with theory. Weeks into the engagement, she suggested that the wedding be put off until spring, whereas Darwin {121} was pushing for winter. She cited the feelings of her sister Sarah Elizabeth, who, fifteen years her senior and still unwed, had mixed emotions about the event. But Emma added candidly, in a letter to Darwin's sister Catherine, "besides which I should wish it myself." She urged, "Do dear Catty clog the wheels a little slow."40

Darwin, enlisting some lush prose ("hope deferred does make my heart quite sick to call you in truth my wife"), kept the honeymoon from receding. But even after the wedding date was firm, he seems to have been left a bit insecure by Emma's reluctance, and perhaps by her overall tenor; her letters are warm, but they're far from effusive. Darwin wrote: "I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday." Emma tried to reassure him, but she wasn't under the same magical spell he was under: "You need not fear my own dear Charles that I shall not be quite as happy as you are & I shall always look upon the event of the 29th as a most happy one on my part though perhaps not so great or so good as you do."41 Ouch.

Now, all of this may reflect wholly on the peculiar dynamics between Charles and Emma, and not at all on the Victorian linkage of marriage with consummation. Emma was never an overly sentimental woman.42 And, anyway, she may have begun having doubts about Charles's health, doubts that would have been warranted. Still, the basic point is probably valid in the aggregate: if it is harder to drag men to the altar today than it used to be, one reason is that they don't have to stop there on the way to the bedroom.


Consummation can alter the balance of affection. Though the average woman is more selective in unleashing her ardor than the average man, she should, in theory, be less inclined to rein it in once it has left the gate. Having deemed a man worthy of joining in her epic parental investment, she typically has a strong genetic interest in keeping him involved. Again, Emma's behavior matches expectations. Within the first few months of their marriage she wrote: "I cannot tell him how happy he makes me and how dearly I love him and {122} thank him for all his affection which makes the happiness of my life more and more every day."43

Whether a man's devotion will be nourished by consummation is a less certain matter. Maybe his professions of affection were self-delusion; maybe, once his mate is pregnant, a better deal will come along. But in Darwin's case, the early signs were good. Months after his wedding day (and weeks after the conception of his first child), Darwin, writing in his notebook, groped for an evolutionary explanation of why a man's acts of "kindness to wife and children would give him pleasure, without any regard to his own interest," which suggests that his affection for Emma still felt deep.44

Perhaps this is not surprising. The tactical value of a woman's sexual reserve isn't just that men desperately want sex and to get it may say anything, even believe anything — including "I want to spend my whole life with you." If a Madonna-whore switch is indeed built into the male brain, then a woman's early reticence can lastingly affect a man's view of her. He is more likely to respect her in the morning — and perhaps for many years to come — if she doesn't weaken under his advances. He may say "I love you" to various women he yearns for, and he may mean it; but he may be more likely to keep meaning it if he doesn't get them right away. There may have been a bit of wisdom in the Victorian disapproval of premarital sex.

Even beyond this disapproval, Victorian culture was finely calibrated to excite the "Madonna" part of a man's mind and numb the "whore" part. The Victorians themselves called their attitude toward females "woman worship." The woman was a redeemer — innocence and purity incarnate; she could tame the animal in a man and rescue his spirit from the deadening world of work. But she could only do this in a domestic context, under the blessing of marriage, and after a long, chaste courtship. The secret was to have, as the title of one Victorian poem put it, an "Angel in the House."45

The idea wasn't just that men were supposed to at some point quit sowing wild oats, get hitched, and worship their wives. They were supposed to not sow the wild oats in the first place. Though the double standard for promiscuity prevailed in nineteenth-century Britain as elsewhere, it was battled by the more austere guardians of {123} Victorian morality (including Dr. Acton), who preached not just extramarital, but also premarital, abstinence for men. In The Victorian Frame of Mind Walter Houghton writes, "To keep body and mind untainted, the boy was taught to view women as objects of the greatest respect and even awe." Though he was supposed to give all women this respect, a certain kind of woman warranted something more. "He was to consider nice women (like his sister and his mother, like his future bride) as creatures more like angels than human beings — an image wonderfully calculated not only to dissociate love from sex, but to turn love into worship, and worship of purity."46

When Houghton says "calculated," he means it. One author in 1850 expressed the virtue of male premarital chastity as follows: "Where should we find that reverence for the female sex, that tenderness towards the feelings, that deep devotion of the heart to them, which is the beautiful and purifying part of love? Is it not certain that all of [the] delicate and chivalric which still pervades our sentiments towards women, may be traced to repressed, and therefore hallowed and elevated passion? ... And what, in these days, can preserve chastity, save some relic of chivalrous devotion? Are we not all aware that a young man can have no safeguard against sensuality and low intrigue, like an early, virtuous, and passionate attachment?"47

Aside from the word repressed, which probably mischaracterizes the psychodynamics, this passage is plausible enough. It implies that a man's passion can be "hallowed and elevated" if not quenched too readily — that a chaste courtship, in other words, helps move a woman into the "Madonna" part of his mind.

This is not the only reason that a chaste courtship may encourage marriage. Recall how different the ancestral environment was from the modern environment. In particular: there were no condoms, diaphragms, or birth-control pills. So if an adult couple paired up, slept together for a year or two, and produced no baby, the chances were good that one of them wasn't fertile. No way of telling which one, of course; but for both of them there was little to lose and much to gain by dissolving the partnership and finding a new mate. The adaptation expected to arise from this logic is a "mate-ejection module" {124} — a mental mechanism, in both male and female, that would encourage souring on a mate after lots of sex without issue.48

This is a quite speculative theory, but it has some circumstantial evidence on its side. In cultures around the world, barren marriages are among the most likely to break up.49 (Though cases where barrenness is cited as the cause of breakup don't quite get at the crux of this theory: the unconsciously motivated alienation from a mate.) And, as many husbands and wives can attest, the birth of a child often cements a marital bond, if obliquely; the love of spouse is partly diverted to the child and then refracted diffusely onto the family as a whole, mate included. It is a different kind of love for the spouse, but it's sturdy in its own way. In the absence of this roundabout recharge, love of spouse may tend to disappear entirely — by design.

Darwin once worried that contraceptive technology would "spread to unmarried women & would destroy chastity on which the family bond depends; & the weakening of this bond would be the greatest of all possible evils to mankind."50 He surely didn't grasp all the plausible Darwinian reasons that contraception and the attendant premarital sex might indeed discourage marriage. He didn't suspect the deep basis of the Madonna-whore dichotomy or the possible existence of a "mate-ejection module." And even today, we're far from certain about these things. (The established correlations between premarital sex and divorce, and between premarital cohabitation and divorce, are suggestive but ambiguous.)51 Still, it is harder now than it would have been thirty years ago to dismiss Darwin's fear as the rantings of an aging Victorian.

Contraception isn't the only technology that may affect the structure of family life. Women who breast-feed often report a weakened sex drive — and with good Darwinian cause, since they're usually incapable of conception. Husbands, meanwhile, sometimes fail to find a breast-feeding wife sexually exciting, presumably for the same ultimate reason. Thus bottle-feeding may make wives both more lustful and more attractive. Whether this is, on balance, good for family cohesion is hard to say. (Does it more often tempt wives into extramarital affairs or distract husbands from having them?) In any event, this logic may make sense of Dr. Acton's otherwise comical-sounding {125} claim that "the best mothers, wives, and managers of households, know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and domestic duties, are the only passions they feel." In Victorian England, when so many wives spent so many of their fertile years either pregnant or nursing, their passion may indeed have spent much time in abeyance.52

Even if a succession of babies helps keep both partners devoted, the interests of husband and wife may diverge as time goes by. The older the children (the less urgently needful of paternal investment), and the older the wife, the less support a man's devotion gets from his evolutionary heritage. More and more of the harvest has been reaped; the ground is less and less fertile; it may be time to move on.53 Of course, whether the husband feels this impulse strongly may depend on how likely it is to bear fruit. A dashing and wealthy man may get the kinds of glances from women that fuel it; a poor and disfigured man may not. Still, the strength of the impulse will tend to be greater in the husband than in the wife.

Though the shifting balance of attraction between husband and wife is seldom described this explicitly, it is often reflected more obliquely — in novels, in aphorisms, in the folk wisdom offered up as advice to bride and groom. Professor Henslow, a fifteen-year veteran of the blessed state, wrote to Darwin shortly before his marriage: "All the advice, which I need not give you, is, to remember that as you take your wife for better for worse, be careful to value the better & care nothing for the worse." He added: "It is the neglect of this little particular which makes the marriage state of so many men worse than their single blessedness."54 In other words, just remember one simple rule: don't stop loving your wife, as men seem inclined to do.

Emma, meanwhile, was getting advice not about overlooking Charles's flaws, but about concealing any flaws of her own, especially those that make a woman look old and haggard. An aunt (perhaps mindful of Emma's noted lack of fashion consciousness) wrote: "If you do pay a little more, be always dressed in good taste; do not despise those little cares which give everyone more pleasing looks, because you know you have married a man who is above caring for {126} such little things. No man is above caring for them. ... I have seen it even in my half-blind husband."55

The logic of male intolerance typically remains opaque to all concerned. A man souring on a mate doesn't think, "My reproductive potential is best served by getting out of this marriage, so for entirely selfish reasons I'll do so." Awareness of his selfishness would only impede its pursuit. It's much simpler for the feelings that got him into the marriage to simply stage a slow but massive retreat.

The increasingly severe view that a restless husband may take of an aging wife was well illustrated by Charles Dickens, one of the few upper-class Victorians who actually got out of a marriage (by separation, not divorce). Dickens, who was elected to membership in London's Athenaeum Club on the same day in 1838 as Darwin, had then been married for two years to the woman he called his "better half." Two decades later — now much more famous, and thus commanding the attention of many young women — he was having trouble seeing her brighter side. It now seemed to him that she lived in a "fatal atmosphere which slays every one to whom she should be dearest." Dickens wrote to a friend: "I believe that no two people were ever created with such an impossibility of interest, sympathy, confidence, sentiment, tender union of any kind between them, as there is between my wife and me." (If so, mightn't he have discussed this with her before she bore him ten children?) "To his eyes," a chronicler of their marriage has written, his wife "had become unresponsive, grudging, inert, close to inhuman."56

Emma Darwin, like Catherine Dickens, grew old and shapeless. And Charles Darwin, like Charles Dickens, rose markedly in stature after his wedding. But there's no evidence that Darwin ever saw Emma as close to inhuman. What accounts for the difference? {127}