Posted by: Rob Viens | November 6, 2012

Darwin Admires the Ladies

Darwin’s entry for today, November 6th, stars innocently enough as he heads out shopping for supplies:

“Spent the day in shopping & in gaining information relative to the geology of the country.— I trust when the Beagle returns for the winter to the Rio Plata I shall be able to make some long excursions in this unpicturesque but curious country.— Buenos Ayres is an excellent place for making purchases; there are many shops kept by Englishmen full of English goods.— Indeed the whole town has more of an Europæan look than any I have seen in S. America.” (Nov 6)

It is interesting, though not surprising, that what makes Buenos Aires such an “excellent place” to shop is that it is “full of English goods”.  A similar sentiment exists today. American travelers shop at the “USA Store” or seek out known quantities such as McDonalds or KFC. We tend to seek out what makes us comfortable.  Of course, we can cut Darwin a little slack. He enthusiastically threw himself into a situation that was unlike anything else he had ever done in his life.  And he regularly volunteered to head out on overland adventures without a blink of an eye.  An occasional dip into the comfortable seems only fair.

The real fun in Darwin’s entry today comes next:

“One is called back to the true locality, both by the Gauchos riding through the streets with their gay coloured Ponchos & by the dress of the Spanish ladies.— This latter, although not differing much from an English one, is most elegant & simple.— In the hair (which is beautifully arranged) they wear an enormous comb; from this a large silk shawl folds round the upper part of the body. Their walk is most graceful, & although often disappointed, one never saw one of their charming backs without crying out, “how beautiful she must be”.” (Nov 6)

I love this sort of entry that really shines a humanizing light on Darwin.  After all, he is a real person, not just a mythical icon as he is often depicted today. In 1832 he was a 22-year-old young man with all the passions of a 22 yr old (granted, with a large dose of Victorian modesty thrown in). But even Darwin liked to “admire the ladies”.

Spanish Lady from an unknown 19th century French artist (from the Indianapolis Museum of Art)
Spanish Lady

Until the very last line, his diary is still written like a naturalist – describing the “Spanish ladies” as he might describe a beautiful bird in the rainforest.  However, in a letter to his sister describing the day, he opens up even more:

“We [Darwin and Robert Hamond] were generally companions on shore: our chief amusement was riding about & admiring the Spanish Ladies.— After watching one of these angels gliding down the streets; involuntarily we groaned out, “how foolish English women are, they can neither walk nor dress”.— And then how ugly Miss sounds after Signorita; I am sorry for you all; it would do the whole tribe of you a great deal of good to come to Buenos Ayres.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 24 Oct – 24 Nov, 1832)

Darwin, you smooth talker, you… (RJV)

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