The Unstoppable Force of Huxley, Darwin, and Frances Power Cobbe

Reading this book on Victorian England’s marriage laws is slow going, because I keep running into fascinating women. Mary Lyndon Shanley quotes a snippet of their work, and then I end up haring off after the source and promptly getting immersed in that instead. I made it to Chapter Two, and I did intend to get all the way to Three, but then I ran into Frances Power Cobbe. And I had to read her article “Criminals, idiots, women and minors” in its entirety. It is so full of good things that I will probably quote from it even more. The woman was a caution. She may have been an anti-vivisectionist, but she completely eviscerates the laws against married women owning their own property. She impales her opponents’ arguments on their own logic before she finishes them off with several master strokes. It’s just amazeballs.

Since we’re just past Darwin Day, I figured I’d share this bit with you. It seems appropriate.

Photograph of Frances Power Cobbe. She is a fierce Irish matron who looks like she's savoring the taste of her opponents' copious man-tears.
Frances Power Cobbe, people. Oh, yeah!

“Woman is physically, mentally, and morally inferior to man.” Therefore it follows—what?—that the law should give to her bodily weakness, her intellectual dulness, her tottering morality, all the support and protection which it is possible to interpose between so poor a creature and the strong being always standing over her? By no means. Quite the contrary, of course. The husband being already physically, mentally, and morally his wife’s superior must in justice receive from the law additional strength by being constituted absolute master of her property. Do we not seem to hear one of the intelligent keepers in the Zoological Gardens explaining to a party of visitors: —“This, ladies and gentlemen, is an inoffensive bird, the Mulier Anglicana. The beak is feeble, and the claws unsuited for grubbing. It seems to be only intelligent in building its nest, and taking care of its young, to whom it is peculiarly devoted, as well as to its mate. Otherwise it is a very simple sort of bird, picking up any crumbs which are thrown to it, and never touching carrion like the vulture, or intoxicating fluids like the maccaw. Therefore, you see, ladies and gentlemen, as it is so helpless, we put that strong chain round its leg, and fasten it to its nest, and make the bars of its cage exceptionally strong. As to its rudimentary wings we always break them early, for greater security; though I have heard Professor Huxley say that he is convinced it could never fly far with them, under any circumstances.”

Image is a photograph of Thomas Henry Huxley. He looks rather arch.
“Oh, snap!”

And later:

Husband and wife, in the eye of the poet, the divine, and—shall we say, the Judge of the Divorce Court? are “not twain, but one flesh.” I know not whether Mr. Darwin will sanction that theory concerning the Origin of Species, which tells us that

Man came from nothing, and by the same plan
Woman was made from the rib of a man;

or whether Dr. Carpenter and Professor Huxley have verified the anatomical doctrine held by our nurses, that in consequence of Adam’s sacrifice of his rib, men have ever since had one rib fewer than women. Still, however learned physiologists may decide this obscure problem we shall all agree that it is a noble oriental metaphor, to describe a wife’s relation to her husband as “bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.” But the union of two human beings may, as preachers say, be considered three ways. Firstly, there is the sort of union between any friends who are greatly attached to one another; a union oftenest seen, perhaps, between two sisters, who each have full liberty to come and go, and dispose of their separate resources, but who yet manage commonly to live in harmony and affection, and not unfrequently to bring up a whole batch of little nephews and nieces in their common abode. Two such we know, who for many years have kept the same account at their banker’s, and say that they find only one serious objection to the plan—they can never make each other a present!

Secondly, there is the union of the celebrated Siamese twins, who are tied together—not by Mother Church but by Mother Nature—so effectually that Sir William Fergusson and Sir William Wilde are equally powerless to release them. Each of them has, however, the satisfaction of dragging about his brother as much as he is dragged himself; and if either have a pocket, the other must needs have every facility of access thereto.

Lastly, for the most absolute type of union of all, we must seek an example in the Tarantula spider. As most persons are aware, when one of these delightful creatures is placed under a glass with a companion of his own species, a little smaller than himself, he forthwith gobbles him up; making him thus, in a very literal manner, “bone of his bone” (supposing tarantulas to have any bones) “and flesh of his flesh.” The operation being completed, the victorious spider visibly acquires double bulk, and thenceforth may be understood to “represent the family” in the most perfect manner conceivable.

Now, of these three types of union, it is singular that the only one which seems to have approved itself, in a pecuniary point of view, to the legislative wisdom of England should be that of the Tarantula.

Photograph of Charles Darwin in his late 40s, looking very severe.
“Ya burnt!”

These women, people. They make me want to jump in the TARDIS and have afternoon tea with them. It’s so much sweeter and richer when Victorian English man-tears are used instead of regular water.

The Unstoppable Force of Huxley, Darwin, and Frances Power Cobbe
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3 thoughts on “The Unstoppable Force of Huxley, Darwin, and Frances Power Cobbe

  1. rq

    I love the tarantula comparison.
    Do quote more from this woman, she is amazing. I’m rather glad that here, beyond the reach of time, I will never be able to piss her off, because she cuts very sharp with those words of hers!
    And she looks like such a granny in her photo. A steel-toed granny.

  2. 2

    Pro-tip when making tea with man-tears: make sure they’re piping hot and use honey and lemon to cut the salt a bit. Don’t boil in a copper kettle unless you don’t mind the kettle getting corroded!

  3. 3

    Never heard of her until today. The article is great, I love the wit she had. Especially this line after the Shelley love poem:

    “Is it possible that one of them, whose eye kindles over such words, seriously believes that his own mother, sister, daughter, is made of such different clay from himself, as that for her, abject dependence is calculated to create and foster love, while for him it would be gall and wormwood, turning his affection into bitterness and revolt?”

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