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Emma Wedgwood

When Emma Wedgwood married Charles Darwin she brought to the marriage an intellectual inheritance very complimentary to his own, for she was brought up in a family that valued the importance of a good education. Both Darwin and Emma had many talented ancestors, and it is not surprising that their own children were very gifted. In addition, their families were part of a rising middle class of professionals, inventors, merchants, and scholars that grew in the wake of the burgeoning industrial revolution that had its roots in the Midlands of England.

Darwin’s father, Robert Darwin, and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, were successful physicians. Robert Darwin was sent to study medicine at Edinburgh when he was seventeen, then to Leyden in Holland, where he received his doctor’s degree. He also went to Paris where he met Benjamin Franklin, who had been an old friend of his father, Erasmus. At age twenty, he began his medical practice in the town of Shrewsbury. The practice grew rapidly and in April, 1796 he married Susannah Wedgwood, the eldest daughter of Josiah I. In he purchased the property known as The Mount and built a comfortable home for his family. It was there that Charles Darwin was born.

Emma’s grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood I was the creator of the highly successful Wedgwood Pottery. Her father, Josiah (Jos) Wedgwood II, was educated at Edinburgh University. He then became his father’s assistant at the pottery. Following sales trips to Holland, Berlin and Frankfurt he was recognized as a distinguished “man of business.” Jos inherited the pottery on his father’s death and continued its expansion.

Her mother’s family were the Allens of Cressely in Pembrokeshire. Her grandfather, John Bartlett Allen, was educated at Westminster School in London, then joined the army, served in Germany and fought in the Seven Years War. Following his retirement as a Captain, he married an heiress, Elizabeth Hensleigh, and became established as a country gentleman. The Allen house at Cressely was solid and plain on the outside, but quite elegant inside, with a well stocked library. Emma’s mother, Elizabeth (Bessy) Allen, grew up here. She and her sisters received a good education, probably taught at home; they wrote fluently and were well read. The brothers were sent to Westminster and were later trained as lawyers. In this atmosphere, Bessy grew up and developed into a young woman of exceptional grace and charm.

Emma was born on May 2, 1808 at Maer Hall. She was youngest of the eight children of Josiah (Jos) Wedgwood II and Elizabeth (Bessy) Allen. The Wedgwood home was a happy place, set in the countryside of Staffordshire. Her three older sisters, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Fanny, and her four brothers, Joe (Josiah III), Harry, Frank and Hensleigh, treated her with special kindness, and the Wedgwood and Allen aunts adored her. In this affectionate atmosphere she acquired a stability and tranquility that followed her throughout her life. As were her older sisters, she was educated at home for her father believed in the importance of women’s education. She and her sister Fanny, who was two years older, were close companions and were nicknamed “The Dovelies” or “Miss Pepper and Salt.” Fanny was plain and orderly, Emma, pretty and lively.

When she was five years old, the family moved to the old home and pottery at Etruria Hall, due to financial circumstances. When she was ten, the family was able to move back into Maer Hall, but before the move Jos took Bessy and the four girls on a seven month “educational” trip to Paris and Geneva, where Emma learned to speak fluent idiomatic French. It was an exciting time for a ten year old, for they attended operas, balls and and receptions and met many famous people.

In January 1822, Emma and Fanny were sent to Grenville House, a boarding school outside London, where Emma’s talent for music was recognized and she was presented as a star piano student to perform for Mrs. Fitzherbert, George IV’s wife. However, one year was enough; the girls became homesick, and Emma claimed in later life that she had learned very little there. At the end of the year they returned to Maer, and were taught by Elizabeth, and visiting tutors. The library at Maer was well stocked with books covering all subjects—art, science, politics, literature and history, and Emma was claimed by the family to have read all of Paradise Lost as a little girl. Years later she wrote to Charles, “I remember being more interested in it when I was a child than in almost any book”

As a young woman Emma again traveled to the continent. In February, 1818, the year before the family moved back to Maer Hall, Jos took Bessy and the four girls on the “Grand Tour” -- Paris, Geneva, Florence, Rome, Naples and Milan. The trip was filled with tours of museums and churches, with concerts and operas, and long walks in the countryside. Throughout the trip the young women were inspired by their inner desires to seek out educational opportunities, and it is believed to have been during this tour that Emma took some piano lessons with Chopin. In 1826 Emma and Fanny traveled to Geneva to spend six months with Aunt Jessie Allen, whose husband was the noted Italian historian, Sismondi. Through her friendship with him she gained a deep understanding of the continent’s intellectual and political affairs, which lasted all her life. Again, there were balls and other entertainments, and Emma became fond of dancing, especially the waltz, which was all the rage. When Jos went to Geneva to bring Fanny and Emma home, he invited their cousins, Charles and Caroline Darwin, to go with him. Charles traveled with his uncle to Paris, but then returned to England, as he did not want to miss the opening of hunting season at Maer Hall. This was the only time in his life that Charles traveled to Europe.

On returning to Maer Hall Emma continued to live in an atmosphere of intellectual stimulation for the Wedgwoods were involved in many social and political causes, especially the abolition of slavery. And there were visits from the aunts, uncles and cousins of the three related families, the Wedgwoods, the Allens and the Darwins. One of the uncles, Sir James Mackintosh, husband of Emma’s Aunt Kitty Allen, came to Maer for six months to work on his History of the World and Emma enjoyed all the ongoing conversations. Charles Darwin usually visited Maer Hall for the opening of the hunting season, for he enjoyed the shooting and the free country life of walking and riding, as well as the intellectual conversations and the music. On one occasion he was very impressed with Mackintosh, and was later to learn that the feeling was mutual, as Sir James had commented “There is something in that man that interests me.”

During the years 1830 to 1832 many changes were taking place in the lives of both Emma Wedgwood and Charles Darwin. In December,1831, Darwin left for his famous voyage on the Beagle, and Emma’s family became involved in the battle for the reform of Parliament. Her father Jos, her uncles John Allen and Sir James Mackintosh all stood as Whig candidates in the elections of 1831 and 1832. Emma and her sisters were in London for a good part of this time, and her sister Fanny became quite involved in the anti-slavery campaign. But Emma, although showing much interest in the causes, was not one for sitting through long political speeches. The political debate in London over the Reform bill was intense and Jos Wedgwood and John Allen were staunch supporters of Mackintosh in his efforts to get it passed. On June 4, 1832, the bill was finally passed and the king gave his assent on June 8. Unfortunately, Sir James had died a few day before on May 30, so never saw the success of his tireless campaigning. In the election of 1832, Jos stood successfully for the new seat of Stoke-on Trent and Uncle John became MP for Pembroke.

That same year brought tragedy to the family. Emma’s beloved sister, Fanny, became ill on August 13, 1832, and though lovingly cared for by Elizabeth and Emma, died the following Sunday of what is believed to have been cholera. As result of Fanny’s untimely death, Emma became more serious. Although at the urging of her mother she had been confirmed in the Anglican Church when sixteen years old, she turned to the Unitarian faith with its humanitarian principles which she had learned during her childhood through her father’s example. At this time of intense grief she developed an unshakable faith that brought her comfort throughout her life. During the following years Emma’s time was spent helping her sister, Elizabeth, care for their ailing mother, and in other domestic pursuits. She spent more time with her Allen aunts, Fanny and Emma, and she wrote long letters to Aunt Jessie in Geneva.

In October of 1836 Emma’s father, Jos, received a letter from Charles Darwin. The Beagle had just returned and Charles wrote that he wished to visit Maer as soon as his responsibilities on the Beagle were taken care of. This was a letter that changed Emma’s life.