Darwin Speaks Out!

We were very pleased recently to welcome Terry Molloy back to the Darwin Correspondence Project for a special recording session. Terry, known for his portrayal of Davros in Dr Who and as the voice of Mike Tucker in The Archers, helped bring to life a number of Darwin’s letters, including a selection of those he wrote to women.


Follow the links below to listen to a selection of the ‘conversations’ Darwin had with some of his women correspondents.


1) Women workers:

As discussed in past posts, Darwin’s workforce was more varied than we might expect. On August 2nd 1863, he penned a letter to Lydia Becker, thanking her for seed samples and plant observations that she had collected and noted in her home town, Manchester.


Darwin recruited the help of family members as often as he could. He relied in particular on his nieces who regularly provided observations, conducted experiments and read articles on his behalf. In September 1866 he wrote to ‘Lieutenant’  Lucy Wedgwood with a typically time-consuming but affectionate request. The following year, as Darwin continued to research what would eventually become The Expression of the Emotions, Lucy was tasked with observing her pet dog and bird. Meanwhile, Lucy’s sister Sophy was asked to use her skills of observation during her (formerly leisurely!) walks on the heath.


Darwin also relied heavily on the help his daughter, Henrietta. Here, in typical affectionate and self-deprecating tone, he asks her to help edit an early manuscript of Descent of Man.


2) Women Naturalists:

Even in the nineteenth century, Naturalists came in many different forms. On January 5th 1872, Darwin wrote to Mary Treat (New Jersey), to celebrate her experiments, encourage her to continue her work and publish the results “in some well-known scientific journal”.




3) Women critics:

Women as much as men were willing to probe Darwin about the meaning and implications of his work. On December 14th 1866, he responded to Mary Boole’s questions about the moral and spiritual implications of his theory of evolution.


In 1882, shortly before his death, Darwin responded to American feminist Caroline Kennard who queried arguments made in Descent about the relative abilities of the sexes.


To what extent did the sex of a correspondent shape the content, tone and language of Darwin’s communication? As a point of comparison, listen to a letter written by Darwin to his friend and colleague, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and one written to perhaps his most vehement critic, George Mivart.


By giving Darwin and his correspondents a voice we hope to bring the correspondence to life and to raise questions about the workings of gender not just in terms of content but also language, tone and expression.


Posted by Philippa Hardman

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