Charles Darwin and his wife Emma:

Marry or not? Charles Darwin’s list of pros and cons

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma:

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma.

When faced with an important decision in life, a nifty trick is to get organized. Should you buy a new car? Should you drop out of college and pursue your lifelong dream of building your own business? Lists are helpful to come to a decision in this regard. You can write the pros and cons of such decisions on paper, then strike them off one at a time. Eventually, you might see things more objectively and reach a more rational decision. But can this work for anything? Maybe.

Charles Darwin, the pioneering scientists whom we owe the theory of evolution, used a rational approach in most of his endeavors. He was a true scientist, after all.

Scribbling on the back of a letter from a friend, Darwin listed the pros and cons of marrying his cousin  Emma Wedgwood.  The original manuscripts are in the Darwin Archive in Cambridge University Library; these edited transcripts were originally published in Correspondence vol. 2, Appendix IV.

First note, after 7 April 1838

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[6] 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 —

Second note, July 1838

To marry or not – 2nd Note, MS Dar 210.8:2r, ©Cambridge University Library

To marry or not – 2nd Note, MS Dar 210.8:2r, ©Cambridge University Library

This is the Question

[row][column class=” col-md-6″]


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
. —

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— Compare this
vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

[/column][column class=” col-md-6″]

Not Marry

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—


At long last, Darwin reached a conclusion “Marry—Mary—Marry Q.E.D.” But only to move the next important 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 —

On November 11, 1838, the 29-year-old Darwin wrote in his journal “The day of days!,” after Emma accepted his marriage proposal. The two had 10 children and remained together until Darwin’s death in 1882.

4 thoughts on “Marry or not? Charles Darwin’s list of pros and cons

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  2. Airis Damon

    Funny stuff! Nice to see Darwin thought his cousin was better company than a "dog." But if he marries, there will be this terrible, terrible loss of time and poverty. Why … he just remonstrated that his life would be no better than a black slave, but there are many happy slaves. But if he does not marry, he will be married to his work, and it is certainly not healthy to be engrossed in work all one's life. I am glad Darwin had the candor to write that marriage under a Capitalist system can and often does result in poverty and enslavement. It is better not to marry too early, especially if one is on a fast-track career.

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