Sunday's Reviews > Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith

Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman
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's review
Jul 15, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: award-winning-nonfiction, national-book-award, printz-award
Read in July, 2010

I enjoyed this book - it wasn't gripping, but it was good enough to hold my interest. Heiligman takes a new look at Charles Darwin via his marriage to Emma Wedgwood (of the Wedgwood pottery family). The author clearly read through hundreds of documents and THOUSANDS of letters to pull this story together. Charles and Emma did not have a long courtship, but were deeply in love from the beginning of their marriage of almost 50 years. The book really highlights the religious contexts of the time and how Darwin didn't reveal his theories about evolution for two decades because he was waiting for society to be ready and he wanted to have a sound theory with scientific evidence to support it. The book takes on the divide their separate beliefs about the after-life caused between Emma and Darwin and yet they were very close despite this - emotionally and physically. Darwin was very respectful of Emma's belief/need for there to be an afterlife where she would be with loved ones again - especially after losing her sister and close companion Fanny (in their 20's) and their daughter Annie (ten years old). In return Emma was respectful of Charles's thinking - reading and editing his books, talking with him about what he was studying, talking about religious doctrines they both read and thinking through how Charles's theories on the origins of species related to these texts. Yet to the end Darwin was clearly agnostic (in his words...maybe even Atheist although he was careful not to write this or admit to anyone) - ultimately sadder when his daughter died because he knew he'd never see her again.

I didn't know how fragile Darwin's health was most of his adult life and when his theory was revealed (before he published "Origin of Species"), he did not leave home to speak on it, but instead let others take on the debates (and informed them as needed). He studied barnacles, orchids, and worms - each for years and years. Once his young son was at a friend's house and asked the friend - "So where does your dad do his barnacles?" as though that was what everyone did.

They had a very progressive family life for that period (seven out of ten children lived to adulthood)...children were seen and heard unlike in many other Victorian families of that period. The children were allowed to share their thinking and take on their father's thinking about evolution. They were not hushed in any way. Despite this, the five boys were sent off to schools and the two girls were educated at home.

I would like to go on a "Darwin" trip to England sometime and visit their home at the Down and see his study and the beautiful grounds. It must be amazing.
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