Book Review 7 – Charles and Emma
The book begins with Charles Darwin deciding whether to get married or not, creating a list to make his decision. Upon deciding to get married, Charles proposes to his cousin Emma. Before getting married, Charles and Emma discuss faith and while Emma is devout after the death of her beloved sister Fanny, Charles is having doubts. Despite their religious differences, the two get married and Charles and Emma grow a strong bond where they have a large family, discuss religion, and he puts forward many books in the field of science that are often edited by her. Emma fears for his eternal safety and wants to spend eternity with him in heaven while Charles, despite beginning as a devoutly religious man as a youth, has completely faded from the faith by the end of his life. Despite this Charles and Emma form a large family of love and strength despite the many hardships that befall them throughout their marriage.
Heiligman, D. (2009). Charles and Emma. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
I loved this biography. Heiligman does a wonderful job of bringing the Darwin’s to life in this biography that is styled more like a story than an academic research paper on the life of Darwin. She wisely begins the book with Charles deciding to get married and skips the entire adventure that Charles has on The Beagle. This kept the focus on Charles and Emma rather than Charles first, then the married couple. If she had begun with his adventures on The Beagle, I fear the book would have felt like a series of Charles Darwin adventures rather than a story about Charles and Emma.
Charles Darwin really was a lovable character. He was devoted to his wife and loved her very much. He also wanted to provide what she wanted, moving his family out of London and into the country despite it forcing him to be away from the scientific hub of the country. He worked from home and constantly seemed to be involved with his children, letting them into his work space and going on walks with them, especially Annie who would constantly play with him while he was working and wait for him to go for a walk. As a reader, you really got to know the family well by the end. I also love how Heiligman used so many primary sources such as letters and diary entries and journals to show how much love Charles felt towards Emma. The two formed a strong marriage that lasted their lives despite all the hardships that fell their way.
This book also made me cry a few times. When their beloved Annie was sick, Emma and Charles were nearly beside themselves. Her sickness got better, then worse, and then suddenly she was gone. Charles was so grief stricken by the loss of his wonderful daughter that he never talked about it for the rest of his life. Heiligman did well writing it in a way that did not sensationalize the story, but gave the details that made you really feel what the Darwin’s must have felt. Her use of the Darwin’s own words really made them come alive.
The setting took place mostly at Down, their cottage in the country where they raised their children and where Charles worked. If this book has a weakness the physical setting was not well defined and I never felt as though I had a good feel for how the land and their home felt. However, the time setting was much better done. Heiligman shows how the culture of 19th century England was so different from today: marriage, social status, class structure, science and religion. She used many primary documents to use the language of the day that showed how people thought and acted in this world that is so different from today.
Heiligman wove the discussion of religion throughout the book frequently, but not so much that it overpowered the story. There was plenty of room to get to know Charles, Emma and their friends and family.
In 1838 Charles Darwin, then almost thirty, drew a line down the middle
of a paper and listed the reasons for marrying on one side and the
reasons for not marrying on the other. After much consideration, he
opted for the former, and from his prospects he wisely chose his cousin,
Emma, who was open-minded but devoutly religious. She supported
her husband, even editing his work, but she feared for his eternal welfare
should he follow his revolutionary theories to their logical end.
Charles, in turn, was equally tortured, wanting to please his wife, wanting
to believe in religion, but not at the expense of science. With great
empathy and humor, Heiligman’s lively narrative examines the life and
legacy of Darwin through the unique lens of his domestic life, an
inspired choice that helps us understand that for all the impact his theory
would have on the world, nowhere did its consequences resonate so
loudly as within the walls of his own home. Here is a timely, relevant
book that works on several levels: as a history of science, as a biography,
and, last but not least, as a romance. A bibliography, an index, and notes
Hunt, J. (2009). Charles and Emma: the Darwin’s leap of faith. Horn Book Magazine 85(1), p. 115.
This is an excellent introductory book to the biography genre. It is a nice bridge between elementary biographies that are short and full of pictures and biographies that are heavily researched and used for academic purposes. This story, while using a lot of primary sources and much research, is told much as an author would tell a story that is compelling and get the attention of a middle school student. The librarian could read a chapter or a passage from the book to get the students hooked into the book as it is a compelling story.