Darwin spent his life surrounded by spirited, enlightened, and supportive women, many of whom were actively involved in scientific enterprises. He relished female company and appreciated the precise observations, assiduous collecting of evidence, and the firm stand on principles of many of his female acquaintance. Yet he distinguished female capacities from those of human males in a deterministic and somewhat demeaning manner in the Descent of Man. The later part of this foreword will address that puzzling paradox and consider some of the pressures that go into it.
First, though, this cornucopia of correspondence demonstrates how throughout his adult life Darwin was in touch with an array of intelligent women. The letters from the Darwin Correspondence are here revealingly augmented with hitherto unpublished family letters in which ‘Charles’ or ‘F.’ (for Father) and his concerns are part of the network of preoccupations shared by very different people. Wherever you turn in this volume there are insights into the workings of the scientific community, often cast in the guise of acquaintance and gossip. The economics of funding research, the pressures of gaining a livelihood and sustaining a career, the innovative exchanges between friends and colleagues, are here understood anew as they become filtered through the experience of women, often acting as unpaid assistants, or translators, and research companions to their husbands, as was the case with Mary Lyell or Ellen Lubbock, for example. Indeed, Emma Darwin translated for Charles from French, German, and Italian and read much of his work as he proceeded. The particular significance of explicit, and implicit, exchanges sometimes emerges gradually through the organisation of the present volume, which is in terms of themes and clusters. These range from ‘Marriage’ to ‘Companion Animals’ and ‘Religion’ by way of ‘Children’, ‘Scientific Wives and Allies’, ‘Travellers’, ‘Servants and Governesses’, to the ‘Ascent of Woman’, with editors, and observing plants and humans, and other important topics on the way.