Archive for the ‘Deborah Heiligman’ Category

I have just finished reading Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by it.  I had expected something extremely juvenile and written in a novel-ish style (as I remember such books being back in my day – when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth, you’ll recall).  But no, here we have a piece of excellent young adult non-fiction, a category of writing I had not truly been aware of until now.  I remember being frustrated when I was younger that the librarians wouldn’t let me check out adult biographies on my children’s card, even though there were no books in the children or young adult sections on John Wayne (I had a strange fascination with him when I was ten or eleven).  I am certain there was nothing about Charles Darwin either.  Now, happily, should librarians still enforce this cruel rule, the young library-going crowd will have an excellent read to satisfy them.

The focus here, as the title would suggest, is on the relationship between Charles Darwin and his wife (and cousin) Emma.  It is most definitely a romance and, being a real-life one, the best possible kind.  The book is littered with snippets from letters between the two or to friends and family members, extolling the other’s virtues and giving thanks for having their spouse by their side.  Charles Darwin, it turns out, wrote some terribly romantic letters to his “own dear Emma” during their engagement.  Young men, take note: “I positively can do nothing, & have done nothing this whole week, but think of you & our future life. – you may then, well imagine how I enjoy seeing your handwriting…It is a very high enjoyment to me, as I cannot talk to you, & feel your presence by having your own dear hand within mine.” (P. 65).

Theirs was a happy marriage, though not always a happy life.  They lost three of their ten children, two in infancy and their eldest daughter Annie when she was only ten (Charles had described her as his favourite child in letters to friends).  Illness was a common theme in the Darwin household; when Emma and Charles married, he was already suffering from the headaches and pains that would plague him all his life.  Their children would share this propensity for sickliness.  But despite the many illnesses, the Darwin household was by all reports a happy one, with loving, indulgent parents who enforced very few rules.

I found this to be a charming little book, which would serve as an enticing introduction both to the life and works of Charles Darwin (such a natural step for young children, most of whom are instinctive naturalists) and to the biography format.  I surely would have loved it, having tried (once I rid myself of the censorious librarian and convinced my nanny to sign my books out on her card) to read The Origin of the Species at a very, very, very young age (I have no clue where I got these ideas from).  It ended badly, of course, but it did show an admirable eagerness to learn, which would have been more happily suited to this book.  I was never much of a scientist anyways and was always far more interested in people’s lives, rather than their discoveries.  There’s not much science here but there is good insight into the social implications of Darwin’s works and the impact it would have on the Victorian world.  And from here what an easy leap into the world of fictional naturalists, such as the delightful Wives and Daughters, written by the Darwin’s friend and distant cousin Elizabeth Gaskell, or, for the more adventurous, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian.

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