Age of the Sage site banner

Emma Darwin's letter of February, 1839

The 'likely to be above our comprehension' passage

Emma Wedgwood and Charles Darwin were married in late January, 1839, they were then much the same age, (twenty-nine to thirty), and full, or first, cousins. There had been several intermarriages between the Darwin and Wedgwood families previously.
During the previous november Charles Darwin had, against his father's advice, informed Emma Wedgwood that he was skeptical about religion and this led to some negotiation between them over matters of faith.

(N.B. Readers should be aware that Darwin seems to have told Emma during their courtship that he was 'her slave' and, given the unregenerate societal realities of those times, Emma subsequently 'affectionately' referred to Charles as her 'Nigger' from time to time.
This is made truly ironic by the fact that both the Darwin family, and the Wedgwood family, were then widely known for their opposition to Slavery).
The state of mind that I wish to preserve with respect to you, is to feel that while you are acting conscientiously & sincerely wishing & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong, but there are some reasons that force themselves upon me & prevent my being always able to give myself this comfort. I dare say you have often thought of them before, but I will write down what has been in my head, knowing that my own dearest will indulge me. Your mind & time are full of the most interesting subjects & thoughts of the most absorbing kind, viz following up yr own discoveries - but which make it very difficult for you to avoid casting out as interruptions other sorts of thoughts which have no relation to what you are pursuing or to make it possible for to be able to give your whole attention to both sides of the question.
There is another reason which would have a great effect on a woman, but I don't know whether it wd so much on a man - I mean E. [Erasmus, Charles's elder brother] whose understanding you have such a very high opinion of & whom you have so much affection for, having gone before you - is it not likely to have made it easier to you & to have taken off some of that dread & fear which the feeling of doubting first gives & which I do not think an unreasonable or superstitious feeling. It seems to me also that the line of your pursuits may have led you to view chiefly the difficulties on one side, & that you have not had time to consider & study the chain of difficulties on the other, but I believe you do not consider your opinion as formed. May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension. I should say also that there is a danger in giving up revelation which does not exist on the other side, that is the fear of ingratitude in casting off what has been done for your benefit as well as for that of all the world & which ought to make you still more careful, perhaps even fearful lest you should not have taken all the pains you could to judge truly. I do I not know whether this is arguing as if one side were true & the other false, which I meant to avoid, but I think not. I do not quite agree with you in what you once said - that luckily there were no doubts as to how one ought to act. I think prayer is an instance to the contrary, in one case it is a positive duty & perhaps not in the other. But I dare say you meant in actions which concern others & then I agree with you almost if not quite. I do not wish for any answer to all this - it is a satisfaction to me to write it & when I talk to you about it I cannot say exactly what I wish to say, & I know you will have patience, with your own dear wife. Don't think that it is not my affair & that it does not much signify to me. Every thing that concerns you concerns me & I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever I am rather afraid my own dear Nigger, (N.B. a word used here an 'affectionate' nickname), will think I have forgotten my promise not to bother him, but I am sure he loves me & I cannot tell him how happy he makes me & how dearly I love him & thank him for all his affection which makes the happiness of my life more & more every day.

Charles Darwin later made a pencil note on the manuscript of his Autobiography referring to this communication as "her beautiful letter to me, safely preserved, shortly after our marriage".

picture of Darwin's postscript
Charles Darwin also added this footnote to Emma's much-appreciated letter.

  When I am dead, know
  that many times, I
  have kissed & cryed
  over this. C. D.