In late July of 1838, a twenty-nine-year-old Charles Darwin, mulling over his charmed courtship of cousin Emma Wedgwood, split two pages of his journal for a cost-benefit analysis in which he jotted the following:
“This is the Question [whether to marry or not].
Children (if it Please God). Constant companion (& friend in old age) — who will feel interested in one. Object to be beloved & played with — better than a dog anyhow. Home, & someone to take care of house. Charms of music & female chit-chat — these things good for one’s health. But terrible loss of time.
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.
Freedom to go where one liked. Choice of Society & little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs. Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.— To have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling. Loss of time. — cannot read in
the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. (But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much.)
Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —
It being proved necessary to Marry.
Marry when? Soon or Late?
The Governor says soon for otherwise bad if one has children — one’s character is more flexible — one’s feelings more lively & if one does not marry soon, one misses so much good pure happiness.
But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble & expense in getting & furnishing a house… Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife.— Eheu!! I never should know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales — poor slave. — you will be worse than a negro. And then horrid poverty, (without one’s wife was better than an angel & had money). Never mind my boy — Cheer up — One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in one’s face, already beginning to wrinkle. Never mind, trust to chance. Keep a sharp look out — there is many a happy slave.”
Selections from the diaries of Charles Darwin, which you can find neatly summarized in Adam Gopnik’s short book Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age. And so the either-or above seemed to settle it. The Darwins were married on January 29th, 1829.
Gopnik, a fluent, often funny writer and hyper-articulate storyteller, has produced several assessments of Darwin the man, the spouse, and the father. In his essay “Is There a Secret to a Happy Marriage?,” he hinges his theory of marriage on the relationship between Emma and Charles, opening:
Anyone who tells you their rules for a happy marriage doesn’t have one. There’s a truth universally acknowledged, or one that ought to be anyway.
Just as the people who write books about good sex are never people you would want to sleep with, and the academics who write articles about the disappearance of civility always sound ferociously angry, the people who write about the way to sustain a good marriage are usually on their third.
Gopnik goes on, quickly making his way to dissecting Darwin’s marriage:
What made it work? My theory is that happy marriages, from the Darwins on down, are made up of a steady, unchanging formula of lust, laughter and loyalty.
The Darwins had lust, certainly — 10 children in 17 years suggests as much anyway — and they had laughter. Emma loved to tease Charles about his passion, already evident in youth, for obsessive theorizing.
“After our marriage,” she wrote to him early on, “you will be forming theories about me, and if I am cross or out of temper you will only consider: ‘What does that prove?’ which will be a very philosophical way of considering it.”
And loyalty? Well, despite Emma’s Christian faith, she stood by him through all the evolutionary wars, and did for him the one thing only a loyal spouse can do — pretend he wasn’t in when German journalists came calling.
So, marriages are made of lust, laughter and loyalty — but the three have to be kept in constant passage, transitively, back and forth, so that as one subsides for a time, the others rise.