“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”
By Maria Popova
“The day of days!,” wrote 29-year-old Charles Darwin in his journal on November 11, 1838, after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal. But the legendary naturalist wasn’t always this single-minded about the union. Just a few months earlier, he had scribbled on the back of a letter from a friend a carefully considered list of pros (“constant companion,” “charms of music & female chit-chat”) and cons (“means limited,” “no books,” “terrible loss of time”) regarding marriage and its potential impact on his work. The list, found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 2: 1837-1843 (public library) and also available online in the excellent Darwin Correspondence Project, was dated April 7, 1838, and bespeaks the timeless, and arguably artificial, cultural tension between family and career, love and work, heart and head.
If not marry Travel. Europe, yes? America????
If I travel it must be exclusively geological United States, Mexico Depend upon health & vigour & how far I become Zoological
If I dont travel. — Work at transmission of Species — Microscope simplest forms of life — Geology. ?.oldest formations?? Some experiments — physiological observation on lower animals
B Live in London for where else possible in small house, near Regents Park –keep horse –take Summer tours Collect specimens some line of Zoolog: Speculations of Geograph. range, & Geological general works. — Systematiz. — Study affinities.
If marry — means limited, Feel duty to work for money. London life, nothing but Society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books. Cambridge Professorship, either Geolog. or Zoolog. — comply with all above requisites — I could not systematiz zoologically so well. — But better than hybernating in country, & where? Better even than near London country house. — I could not indolently take country house & do nothing — Could I live in London like a prisoner? If I were moderately rich, I would live in London, with pretty big house & do as (B), but could I act thus with children & poor? No — Then where live in country near London; better, but great obstacles to science & poverty. Then Cambridge, better, but fish out of water, not being Professor & poverty. Then Cambridge Professorship, — & make best of it, do duty as such & work at spare times — ¶ My destiny will be Camb. Prof. or poor man; outskirts of London, some small Square &c: — & work as well as I can
I have so much more pleasure in direct observation, that I could not go on as Lyell does, correcting & adding up new information to old train & I do not see what line can be followed by man tied down to London. —
In country, experiment & observations on lower animals, — more space —
Several weeks later, in July of 1838, he revisited the subject, with another meditation on the value of a life-partner (“better than a dog anyhow”):
This is the Question [circled in pencil]
Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — better than a dog anyhow.– Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. — but terrible loss of time. —
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s 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 — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.
Freedom to go where one liked — 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. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —
He then produces his conclusion:
Marry — Mary — Marry Q.E.D.
…and moves on to the next question:
It being proved necessary to Marry
When? Soon or Late
The Governor says soon for otherwise bad if one has children — one’s character is more flexible –one’s feelings more lively & if one does not marry soon, one misses so much good pure happiness. —
But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble & expense in getting & furnishing a house, –fighting about no Society –morning calls –awkwardness –loss of time every day. (without one’s wife was an angel, & made one keep industrious). Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife. — Eheu!! 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 — And then horrid poverty, (without one’s wife was better than an angel & had money) — 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 —
Six months later, the two were married. They had ten children and remained together until Darwin’s death in 1882 — a beautiful antidote to the cultural myth that love and meaningful work can’t coexist. As Maira Kalman wisely put it, “in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?”