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.