Charles Darwin’s First Love: How to Rebound in the Rainforest

Charles Darwin

For two months at the end of 1831, 22-year-old Charles Darwin palpitated in a state of “wearisome anxiety” at the harbor in Plymouth, waiting for the favorable wind that would set the HMS Beagle sailing for South America. The weather was dreary and wet, causing him to remark in his diary that it was easy to see how much more rain fell in western England. He suffered chest pains and refused to tell anyone because he thought they would disqualify him from the journey. Most of all, he dwelled miserably on the thought of leaving friends and family behind for years. Decades later, in his autobiography, he would write that these were the worst two months of his entire life.

At least part of that homesickness had to be wisftful longing for his Shropshire neighbor, Fanny Owen. No one wrote to Darwin more as he waited, and her enthusiastic blend of flirtatious and sentimental appeals to “my dear Charles” must have tested his resolve at leaving her behind.

Small comfort that Fanny pledged never to forget him; nothing, she wrote, would change. “I doubt not that 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.”

For Darwin, those happy hours came with all the excitement and infatuation of first love. Fanny had given them the suggestive nicknames “housemaid” and “postillion” — two downstairs tenants, according to one biographer, most likely to pair up in illicit affairs. They frolicked in the outdoors around her family house, spending one romance-tinged afternoon that neither would forget lounging in the strawberry fields. In a later letter, finding that she’d missed a Darwin visit, Fanny lamented a lost opportunity to “make a beast of myself in the strawberry beds.”

“Fanny,” the 19-year-old Charles wrote in a letter to his cousin William Darwin Fox, “as all the world knows, is the prettiest, plumpest, Charming personage that Shropshire possesses.”

There’s some discussion of Charles Darwin’s successful love life floating around at the moment. But while Charles and Emma had a model marriage, the story of Charles and Fanny was a necessary prelude to that union, a lesser-known Darwin story that’s about the meaning of true love – and how you go about finding it.

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June 13, 2013

Filed under Darwin, Outdoors

Sports. The Worst.

A few weeks ago Deadspin published a piece on this video montage of distraught Toronto fans following the Leafs’ wrenching playoff hockey exit. The loss, both the game and the series, seemed so cruel that Tom Ley captioned it — seemingly perfectly and appropriately — with, “Man, sports are just the fucking worst, aren’t they?” Barry Petchesky, in a separate piece titled “This is How Hockey Hurts You,” opened with the line, “Why would you ever raise your kid to be a Leafs fan?”

As a Sharks fan who just watched my own team lose a heart-palpitating playoff series that they probably didn’t entirely deserve to lose (although the teams were so even I’m not sure they deserved to win, either), I agree, sports can just be terrible.

But there is, of course, a reason we stick around, and it’s not just the vague optimism that next year will be better, although it often feels that way. (“What right have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”) Continue reading

May 30, 2013

Filed under Secret Lives of Sports Fans

Sense and Sensibility and Sports Fans


“I am not wishing him too much good,” said Marianne at last with a sigh, “when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own. He will suffer enough for them.”

“Do you compare your conduct with his?”

“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

This is my favorite line of dialogue between the two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. Marianne, the emotional one, suffers disappointment and heartbreak loudly, weeps following a breakup because she feels it must be so, and ultimately drives herself nearly to death in mourning for her lost romance; Elinor, the sensible one, suffers equal heartbreak but always make the effort to govern her emotions, and Marianne comes to realize her conduct is an inspiration. It also ought, I propose, to be an inspiration to sports fans everywhere.

Jane Austen, to paraphrase Jonah Lehrer, was a neuroscientist. Elinor Dashwood anticipates the discoveries of neuroscience by a good two centuries. Continue reading

April 16, 2013

Filed under Secret Lives of Sports Fans