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Charles Wasn’t the Only Interesting Darwin

Most people know Charles Darwin was the father of evolution, but few know about the famous English naturalist’s wife, Emma Darwin.

That is all about to change, thanks to James Loy, professor emeritus of anthropology, and his wife, Kent Loy, M.S. ’79, a freelance writer. The result of their 12-year labor of love, Emma Darwin: A Victorian Life, was published by the University Press of Florida this fall.

The bulk of the couple’s research was done in England during a semester-long sabbatical at Cambridge University where the URI anthropologist was a visiting scholar. The Loys read most of Emma’s letters housed at the Cambridge University Library and spent time at Keele University reading portions of the Wedgwood papers. Returning home, they pored over reels of microfilmed letters for the next four years.

The letters and other correspondence reveal a bright, talented, and religious woman who served as Darwin’s editor, nurse, confidante, and companion.

As first cousins, Emma and Charles grew up together, saw each other frequently, and were fond of each other.  

“There is some evidence that she secretly loved him before he worked up the courage to express his love for her. For both of them, their marriage was an exercise in comfortable familiarity,” report the authors, who relocated to North Carolina after Jim retired last spring.

James and Kent Loy

“Charles Darwin wasn’t skeptical about marriage; indeed he wanted very much to get married in the late 1830s, but he did make a famous list of the pros-and-cons of marriage just before he proposed to Emma.

“Emma was no wallflower, although at the time of Darwin’s proposal in 1838, she apparently had no other suitors. She had received two or three proposals just a few years earlier, however, but for reasons that are not clear had not accepted any of them.”

Emma aided Charles in his scientific correspondence, proofread portions of his most important manuscripts, including On the Origin of Species, and gave him her opinion on scientific points. Still, science was most definitely not her thing, and as a Christian, she worried that Darwin’s decreasing religious beliefs might result in the two of them being separated in the afterlife.  

She willingly nursed Charles through many years of episodic illnesses. Darwin, in turn, came to depend on her care. His list of symptoms is long and complicated and the etiology of his ill health is still controversial. The Loys find the theory that he had Chagas Disease to be the most convincing of many possibilities.

A talented pianist, Emma played for Charles and their 10 children (three of whom died at an early age) during the evenings at Down House. Family legend suggests she studied with Chopin, but the Loys did not find any proof of that.

Emma was passionate about the abolition of slavery, animal welfare, Irish nationalism (she would have none of it), and British and international politics.

The Loys were charmed by her dry, quiet sense of humor (she had been described as almost dour), her sometimes unorthodox child-rearing practices (the Darwin children had the run of Down House and Emma favored bribery to get a child to mind), and her maternal devotion to all her children.

For more about Emma, visit upf.com/book.asp?id=LOYXX001.

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