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The Journals of Henrietta Darwin Show She Endured Spiritual Struggles Similar to Her Father’s

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Throughout his life, Charles Darwin endured a religious struggle as he uncovered more and more about evolution in his travels and studies. As he put together his writings on evolution, he brought in his family to help him edit his work, including his daughter Henrietta Darwin (also known as Etty to the family). One of the most famous and controversial pieces of her father’s that she worked on was The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. That was Darwin’s follow-up to The Origin of the Species, and when he doubled down on his theories of evolution as it applied to humans. But Henrietta’s opinions on these matters were never really detailed, and all some people really knew of her was an unflattering portrayal in her niece’s memoir. But now, we’re finding that Henrietta went through similar struggles as her father did, and it’s painting a whole new picture of one of Darwin’s closest confidants.

In those memoirs by Gwen Raverat, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin (daughter of George Howard Darwin), Henrietta was a bit of a neurotic head case, a hypochondriac. However, new writings by Henrietta reveal a very different person — someone who still had a lot going on in her head, though probably not what Raverat remembers. But she was generally seen to be a “negative influence” on her father’s work, maybe even stifling, according to Dr. Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project.

The year 1871 was the year The Descent of Man was published, and it was the same year that Henrietta met and married her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield in a matter of three months. With the Darwin family’s permission, Henrietta’s journals from that year will now be published and available for the public to read. And what’s been found throws all those preconceived notions out the window.

In fact, Henrietta was a free-thinker, who balked at religious evangelicals and wasn’t convinced of a benevolent God. But on the other hand, she wasn’t an atheist, maybe not even an agnostic. One excerpt includes a correspondence with her cousin, Frances Julia Wedgwood, known to the family as Snow:

“How can she (Snow) shake off the bonds of reason – reason tells us plainly that each life is not ordered for its own good…If we cannot know goodness how can we recognise in which part of our nature God is revealed…This view seems to cast what few convictions I have to the winds.”

It seems like Henrietta took a lot of things into consideration while editing her father’s papers. And while she may not have been too convinced of the very religious, she maintained a certain respect or regard for it. It even played a role in her wedding plans to Litchfield when she realized that not having a ceremony in a church didn’t honor the ceremony to her liking:

“I want to think why I should like to be married in a church. I should feel a registry office very incomplete…I should not be content at the supreme moment of my life without some mark of its solemnity – some outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace.”

But when it came to the marriage itself, she approached it very logically:

“Can I vow to love honor & obey – The two last, yes. The first I think so. Is it love to think about him day & night – when I wonder what he thinks on every conceivable subject – when I feel my day made happy & bright by one short letter. I want him to take me in his arms & say I shall never leave him. I long for him to strike the match which is to kindle me. The fire is laid but I can’t set it alight.”

It’s hard to tell if she’s in deep, flowery love, or if she’s considering every element of her relationship step-by-step to make sure she’s really in love. Guys — she’s just like Dr. Temperance Brennan on Bones.

The writings will give us more information on what should be a very important woman in science. But more importantly, it will show us she was the “dear coadjutor & fellow-labourer” her father always considered her to be.

(via Phys Org)

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