Darwin’s Preference for Pretty Heroines

From Charles Darwin's autobiography --

"I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily -- against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better."

"This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

To lose a taste for Shakespeare, once acquired, is a misfortune of the same order as losing one's sense of sight or hearing. Could it really be that the carrying out of his vast scientific project caused Darwin's Shakespeare-appreciating faculties to atrophy? It's a puzzling and a frightening concept -- but as a great biologist's own intuition about the biological processes at work within himself, it can't be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps however the change in Darwin's literary appetites was more a function of increasing age than a side-effect of his scientific work?

The preference for novels with physically-and-otherwise-attractive characters and a happy ending is a common one. But tell me -- why should it make a difference how pretty the heroine of a novel is?

1 thought on “Darwin’s Preference for Pretty Heroines”

  1. Darwin liked to lie on the sofa while his wife read Jane Austen to him. And a Jane Austen heroine has to be attractive enough to have a bunch of suitors, or there goes the plot.

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