Posted by: Rob Viens | April 5, 2012

Fanny Owen and the Mail Call Blues

April 5th and Darwin was in Rio.  Yesterday the crew received their first mail from home in over 3 months.  I referred to a couple of Darwin’s correspondence in earlier posts around the time they were written (for example on his Birthday – see Darwin Day II), but it wasn’t until today that he actually read them. Darwin heard from his father and sisters, professor John Henslow, and family friends William and Fanny Owen. The most shocking news was about Fanny Owen.  Before revealing it –  a little back story…

Fanny Owen was the closest thing Darwin had to a girlfriend when he departed England in December.  From his correspondence, she clearly held a special place in his heart.  They had known each other for some years and in 1828 we wrote to his cousin William Fox:

“Fanny, as all the world knows, is the prettiest, plumpest, Charming personage that Shropshire posseses” (Correspondence, to William Fox, December 24, 1828)

Fanny indulged Darwin’s love of beetles, she liked to go riding and shooting, and would sit and ponder the world with him in strawberry fields.  She was a free spirit and Darwin really liked her. Biographer’s suggest that he almost certainly pictured himself marrying and settling down with Fanny.

Fanny Owen (source unknown)

Fanny Owen

The two had little nicknames they used for one another (through several years of correspondence).  One example from was a note from Fanny (Housemaid) where she gave Darwin (Postillion) a purse to take with him on the Beagle:

“Dr. Postillion, I entreat your acceptance of a leetle Purse which I hope you will condescend to use in remembrance of the Housemaid of the Black Forest — I remain Dr. C. yrs truly Fanny O”  (Correspondence, from Fanny Owen, September 22, 1831)

As Darwin’s departure grew nearer, Fanny wrote of the good times they had together and her sadness regarding his long trip:

“I cannot bear to think my dear Charles that we are not to meet again for so long three years you say & I heard at first it was to be two— but that you will enjoy yourself I have not a doubt—& to remind you of the time you are to be absent, is nonsense & selvish— one last farewell—I cannot resist sending you— You say what changes will happen before you come back—“& you hope I shall not have quite forgotten you—” I doubt not you will find me in status quo at the Forest, only grown old & sedate —but wherever I may be whatever changes may have happen’d none there will ever be in my opinion of you —so do not my dear Charles talk of forgetting!! the many happy hours we have had together from the time we were Housemaid & Postillion together, are not to be forgotten—& would that there was not to be an end of them!!” (Correspondence, from Fanny Owen, October 6, 1831)

And her last correspondence continued to gush with her longing for him to not leave on such a long trip:

“If you have time write to me my dear Charles— how I do wish you had not this horrible Beettle taste you might have staid “asy” with us here I cannot bear to part with you for so long— God bless you my dear Charles excuse my dulness but believe me always | Yours most affectly| Fanny Owen” (Correspondence, Dec 2, 1831)

So it made the letter Darwin’s sister wrote on January 8th all the more surprising.  Catherine wrote:

“You will be as much astonished as Caroline was, when Fanny took her out of the room, and told her that she was engaged to Mr Biddulph; he had proposed a few days before and been accepted, in the course of a secret ride, Fanny meeting him at the Queen’s Head.— You may imagine how amazed we were, when Caroline came home, and told us; and I may add how grieved I was” (Correspondence, from Catherine Darwin, January 8, 1832)

Seriously – about 10 days after Darwin left England, his “girlfriend” was engaged to someone else. Did I say 10 days – she couldn’t have waited at least a couple months…. (Almost as bad, it was to a man who had previously been seeing Fanny’s sister.) Worst of all, by the time Darwin read the letter, Fanny was already married.

Catherine continued trying to console young Charlie:

“Fanny’s marriage is to take place in March, I believe…You will find her a motherly old married woman when you come back. I hope it won’t be a great grief to you, dearest Charley, though I am afraid you little thought how true your prophecy of “marrying and giving in marriage” would prove.— You may be perfectly sure that Fanny will always continue as friendly and affectionate to you as ever, and as rejoiced to see you again, though I fear that will be but poor comfort to you, my dear Charles.” (Correspondence, from Catherine Darwin, January 8 – 29, 1832)

Fanny did not get around to writing to tell Darwin till March 1st (though he got all everyone’s letters at the same time on April 4th). Frankly, I think I would have found her letter little comfort – apparently the “let’s be friends letter” goes back a few years.

“Your Sisters tell me they informed you in their last letter of the awful and important event that is going again to take place here— My fate is indeed decided, the die is cast—and my dear Charles I feel quite certain I have not a friend in the world more sincerely in my welfare than you are, or one that will be so truly glad to hear I have every prospect of Happiness before me in the lot I have chosen…I would give a great deal to see you again & have one more merry chat, whilst I am still Fanny Owen—but alas that cannot be, but believe my dear Charles that no change of name or condition can ever alter or diminish the feelings of sincere regard & affection I have for years had for you, and as soon as you return from your wanderings, I shall be much offended if one of your first rides is not to see me at Chirk Castle,—and find out what curious Beetles the place produces (Correspondence, from Fanny Owen, March 1, 1832)

Poor Darwin – after his big day sailing the Beagle he must have been devastated by the news.  He wrote a quick response to his sister on April 5th expressing his thoughts on the issue. It contained more emotion than we often hear from Darwin, with a little bravado thrown in:

“Fanny seems to have done the business in a ride.— Well it may be all very delightful to those concerned, but as I like unmarried woman better than those in the blessed state, I vote it a bore: by the fates, at this pace I have no chance for the parsonage: I direct of course to you as Miss Darwin… as for Woodhouse, if Fanny was not perhaps at this time Mrs Biddulp, I would say poor dear Fanny till I fell to sleep.— I feel much inclined to philosophize but I am at a loss what to think or say; whilst really melting with tenderness I cry my dearest Fanny why I demand, should I distinctly see the sunny flower garden at Maer; on the other hand, but I find that my thought & feelings & sentences are in such a maze, that between crying & laughing I wish you all good night.” (Correspondence, to Caroline Darwin, April 5/6, 1832)

On a more positive note, he also expresses how important his sisters are to him with a simple expression of gratitude:

“It is seldom that one individual has the power giving to another such a sum of pleasure, as you this day have granted me.— I know not whether the conviction of being loved, be more delightful or the corresponding one of loving in return.— I ought for I have experienced them both in excess.” (Correspondence, to Caroline Darwin, April 5/6, 1832)

Though I think Darwin would have a soft spot for Fanny the rest of his life, he seems to move on rather quickly and by the next day he is planning an expedition to the rainforest. (RJV)


  1. Dear John letters are the hardest letters to receive while in the Navy. I was fortunate to never have received one, but I witnessed the effects of what a Dear John letter can do. While on Yankee station in 1972, one shipmate after reading his Dear John letter while at sea, jumped overboard into the China sea. Luckily, we recovered him and he spent the next week or so on watch in sickbay. The hardest thing to happen to a sailor is a Dear John letter. I can only imagine what Darwin was feeling about Fanny.

    Mail call is just the opposite. We look forward to a letter from home (remember, we did not have the internet or cell phones at that time) like kids waiting for the best candy to arrive at the candy store. In October 1973 (the October War between Israel and the neighboring Arab nations), we were pulled off Yankee station and at maximum speed made our way to the Middle East. There we “patrolled” (US Gunboat diplomacy) for 62 days. During this time, no mail. I remember writing my future wife (Lorraine, my one and only wife) a 23 page letter (she still has it) during that “scary” time (we actually armed our nuclear weapons). Our biggest concern was with the Soviet “visitors” we got each day in the form of bombers and ships. But, the biggest joy was the day we got mail call. What a great gift! I received nearly 50 letters just from Lorraine (she would write me every day) alone. I am sure Darwin did like some many sailors, read each one in order of date. They become a “living history” of what is going on at home. Lorraine wrote a month later a letter about my 23 page letter I sent her when the middle east thing finally cooled down to say how much she loved me and worried about my safety during that historical event today called the October War 1973.

    Mail call; you love it AND you hate it.

  2. Wow Al – what a great personal connection. Thanks for sharing!

    Several accounts suggest that Darwin kept Fanny’s letters in his desk drawer for his whole life. Not sure if this is anecdotal or not, but it rings true with what you have said.

  3. […] Fanny Owen, Darwin’s romantic interest (see Fanny Owen and the Mail Call Blues), was jealous of the time he spent on his beetles, writing (when he did not visit her during the […]

  4. […] the gory details of Fanny Owen’s wedding – poor Charlie must have been a bit depressed (see Fanny Owen and the Mail Call Blues.) But what really comes through is a tenderness that always seems to be found between the siblings […]

  5. After Darwin received the bad news about Fanny Owen in Rio he embarked on a journey inland to visit some plantations along with some British adventurers.

    The visit was, in part, to help Darwin overcome his grief at losing Fanny.

    Sitting on a log in a rainforest far from home Darwin had plenty of time to ponder his loss.

    He suddenly felt that his love for Fanny Owen had been displaced by his love for nature. He thought long and hard about “Nature’s God”.

    Was this the start of the long hard journey that ultimately led to the publication of “On the Origin of the Species”?

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