Darwin’s letters, in particular those exchanged with his editors and publisher, reveal a lot about his intended audience. Regardless of whether or not women were deliberately targeted as a readership, the correspondence shows that a broad variety of women had access to, and engaged with, Darwin’s published works.
Associated selected readings.
1. Were Darwin’s publications aimed at women?
2. What motivated women to participate in the world of science?
3. What sort of women read Darwin’s work, and why?
4. What does the correspondence tell us about how women accessed Darwin’s publications?
5. What do these letters tell us about Victorian women’s lived experiences?
Were women a target audience?
Letter 2447 – Darwin to Murray, J., [5 April 1859]
In this letter, Darwin sends a manuscript copy of the first three chapters of Origin of Species to his publisher, John Murray. He hopes that his views are original and will appeal to the public. Darwin asks Murray to forward the manuscript to Georgina Tollet for proofreading and criticisms of style.
Letter 2461 – Darwin to Hooker, J. D., [11 May 1859]
In this letter, Darwin expresses anxiety over Hooker’s suggestion that his writing style might need improvement. He is particularly concerned that Hooker’s wife found the content obscure, even after it had been proofread and edited by “a lady”.
Darwin, E. to Darwin, W. E., (March 1862 – DAR 219.1:49)
In this letter, Emma Darwin updates her eldest son, William, on family news. Henrietta has been correcting the press of Orchids, which Darwin asks her to read to check that she can understand it.
Letter 7312 – Darwin to Darwin, F., [30 August 1867 – 70]
In this letter Darwin asks his son, Francis, to check his Latin translation of a passage of Descent. Evidence suggests that Darwin and his publisher used Latin as a way of veiling indelicate content from all but educated, typically-male readers.
Letter 7124 – Darwin to Darwin, H. E., [8 February 1870]
In this letter, Darwin seeks Henrietta’s editorial help with chapters three and four of Descent of Man. In particular, he seeks her help with tone and style.
Letter 7329 – Murray, J. to Darwin, [28 September 1870]
In this letter, written shortly before the publication of Descent, Murray tells Darwin that he believes the work will be a success and will cause a stir among men. He suggests that certain passages might be “toned down” in order to minimise impeding general perusal.
Letter 7331 – Darwin to Murray, J., [29 September 1870]
In this letter, Darwin asks Murray to specify which element of Descent he found too coarse. In the process, he details one of the strategies he uses to avoid ownership of indelicate content.
Letter 8335 – Reade, W. W. to Darwin, [16 May 1872]
In this letter, Reade tells Darwin of his plans to write a book detailing his travels and exploration. He will use scientific language but structure the work around a personal narrative so as not to lose the interest of women.
Letter 8341 – Reade, W. W. to Darwin, [20 May 1872]
In this letter, Reade shares with Darwin his disappointment over negative reviews of his book. His next work, which will detail his travels, will contain language and specific sorts of information which will make it more appealing to women.
Letter 8611 – Cupples, A. J. to Darwin, E., [8 November 1872]
In this letter, Ann Cupples asks Emma to pass on thanks to Darwin for sending her a copy of Descent. Unfortunately she has not been able to do more than look at the plates as Mr. Cupples got hold of it first.
Darwin’s Female Readership
Letter 5391 – Becker, L. E. to Darwin, [6 February 1867]
In this letter, feminist Lydia Becker thanks Darwin for sending copies of his paper on Lythrum and Climbing Plants. Becker describes how she has dived straight into her herbarium to seek out samples with which to work. She has transcribed parts of Darwin’s papers, including diagrams, to share with members of the Manchester Ladies Literary Society.
Letter 6551 – Becker, L. E. to Darwin, [13 January 1869]
In this letter, Becker tells Darwin that she is reading Variation with pleasure and wonder. She is particularly drawn to the chapter on pangenesis, which is a revelation.
Letter 6976 – Darwin to Blackwell, A. L. B., [8 November, 1869]
In this letter, Darwin writes to feminist Antoinette Brown Blackwell to thank her for sending him a copy of her Darwin-inspired work, Studies in General Science. Known to him only as a scientific author, Darwin assumes that ‘A. B. Blackwell’ is a man.
Letter 7177 – Cupples, G. to Darwin, [29 April 1870]
In this letter, George Cupples tells Darwin about a new “epistolary acquaintance” of his, Sara Hennell. Hennell’s writings show a “devout appreciation” of Darwin’s works and she has recently done him a great service by introducing him to the psychology of Herbert Spencer.
Letter 7624 – Bathoe, M. B. to Darwin, [25 March 1871]
In this letter, Mary Bathoe responds systematically to a close reading of Descent. She offers a range of evidence in order to raise questions about Darwin’s conclusions, in particular his statements on a lack of reasoning in animals.
Letter 7644 – Barnard, A. to Darwin, [30 March 1871]
In this letter J. S. Henslow’s daughter, Anne, responds to Descent by offering observations and a drawing of a girl with donkey-like ears, whom she encountered during a visit to an asylum with her father.
Letter 7651 – Wedgwood, F. J. to Darwin, H. E., [1 April 1871]
In this letter, Frances Wedgwood offers critical comments on Darwin’s work on self-regard. She asks Henrietta act as a “funnel” for her father and to pass on any comments that she feels might be suitable.
Letter 7411 – Pfeiffer, E. J. to Darwin, [before 26 April 1871]
In this letter, feminist and poet Emily Pfeiffer responds critically to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. She has read Descent with absorbing interest but questions the part played by aesthetics and beauty in the process of sexual selection.
Letter 8055 – Hennell, S. S. to Darwin, [7 November 1871]
In this letter, Sarah Hennell writes to Darwin to discuss the implications of his theory of sexual selection for debates over marriage. Since reading Darwin’s work a “flood of questions” have occurred to Hennell but she cannot get herself listened to as such questions “seem almost…out of a woman’s natural thinking”.
Letter 8778 – Forster, L. M. to Darwin, H. E., [20 February 1873]
In this letter Henrietta’s friend, Laura, details recent events and family news. During a recent trip to Cannes she witnessed a fight between boatmen, which reminded her of Darwin’s comments on anger and the showing of teeth in Expression.
Letter 10072 – Pape, C. to Darwin, [16 July 1875]
In this letter, feminist Charlotte Pape responds to Darwin and Galton’s works on heredity. She is investigating whether heredity is limited by sex, particularly when it comes to the transmission of mental qualities, and hopes Darwin will complete her questionnaire.
Letter 10390 – Herrick, S. M. B. to Darwin, [12 February 1876]
In this letter, feminist Sophia Herrick responds to Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants which she has “read with intense interest”. She details similar experiments which she has run and asks a number of questions which she hopes aren’t too silly.
Letter 10415 – Darwin to Herrick, S. M. B., [6 March 1876]
In this letter, Darwin responds to a letter in which Sophia Herrick expressed her enjoyment of his Insectivorous Plants. Darwin responds to Sophia’s questions and is pleased that his work has interested her.
Letter 10508 – Treat, M. to Darwin, [15 May 1876]
In this letter, Mary Treat thanks Darwin for sending her a copy of Insectivorous Plants. She sat up with it nearly all night before she could lay it down.
Letter 13547 – Tanner, M. H. to Darwin, [12 December 1881]
In this letter, Mary Tanner tells Darwin that she has read his Vegetable Mould and Worms “with great pleasure”. She offers information on a peculiar incident involving worms which occurred in her garden.
Letter 13650 Kennard, C. A. to Darwin, [28 January 1882]
In this letter, feminist Caroline Kennard responds critically to Darwin’s theory of sexual difference in Descent. While she agrees that sexual differences have evolved out of differences in experience and environmental, she argues that the “survival of the fittest” can only be ensured by providing wholesome, moral women with “enlightened education”.