Charles and Emma: evolution of a love story

Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman; published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009; 268 pages.

Charles Darwin is known for rocking the scientific community (and the religious community as well) with his theories on evolution.  But what is known of the man?  Heiligman’s biography approaches the question “Who was Charles Darwin?” by exploring his marriage.  Rather late in life, by Victorian standards, Charles married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood (yes, of pottery fame).  Theirs was a marriage of absolute love and adoration.  But they had divergent opinions on science and religion.  For Darwin, his wife’s intelligence was the foil he needed to focus his attention to the details that support his theory, that answer most questions critics posed.  Theirs was a long, happy and fruitful union.

Heiligman does an outstanding job of making the scientific giant into a man.  Her respect for both Charles and Emma are not masked, but then their respect for each other overarched their philosophical differences.  In addition, intimate details of Darwin’s work are included and made me feel as though I was standing in the Darwin home, Down House.  Of course the photos included in the book help with the illusion.  But descriptions of everyday items create more vivid images.  For example, whenever Heiligman describes entries in Darwin’s alphabetically categorized journals, she mentions what was in the margins, what color the lines and ink are, and what the journal covers look like.  These details not only put the reader into Darwin’s study, they also confirm the author’s extensive research and authority on the subject.

Other details help to send me back to Darwin’s time.  Each chapter is decorated with Victorian embellishment: a decorative arch featuring a cross and a beetle in the rosettes.  How clever to incorporate the crux of the “leap of faith” that Charles and Emma took when they married.  In addition, the choice of titular fonts is old fashioned and the body text is also reminiscent of an old text.  Starting each chapter with a brief quote by either Charles or Emma (from books and correspondence) also helps secure our trust in the authority of the author.

My only criticism of the book is that it is randomly patronizing.  For text that uses the word “dilettante” without a definition (other than context clues), I found seemingly random passages that were patronizing and simple.  Perhaps the clearest example is:

“Soon Horace, the youngest boy, would go to school, too, and then it would be just the two girls at home.  The girls did not go to school, but learned at home and, according to Etty, had a spotty education.  But that was how it was done in many upper class Victorian families: the boys went to school, and the girls stayed home.” (p. 203)

Seriously, we get it.  The girls stayed home.  Did we have to have it spelled out twice, even after we assumed they didn’t go to school, as is inferred in the first sentence?  I guess this is a minor complaint, but I can just hear a few of my book club kids pointing this out.

This aside, I think that those same young adults will find this an enjoyable non-fiction account of Victorian life and the pre-modern scientific community.  Heiligman’s explanation of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species is brilliantly developed and subtly dispels many misconceptions about Darwin’s theory of evolution.  As such, it is a must-have book for all libraries, school libraries especially.

Is it any wonder that the book has been honored repeatedly?  School Library Journal gave the book a starred review and included it in their  list of “Best Books 2009;” YALSA awarded it honors for Excellence in Nonfiction, 2010;  and the book was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for 2010.

2P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover Art: The silhouettes of Charles and Emma on aged parchment are old-fashioned and wouldn’t be eye-catching except for the ape walking on two legs behind Charles and Emma’s cross dangling from her hands.  Is that enough to interest teens?  Yeah, it’s kinda funny, but I don’t think most will “get” it nor will it generate interest.  This is going to have to be assigned or recommended.

From Reading List: Too Good to Be True Nonfiction

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Christian
    May 25, 2010 @ 17:05:20

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

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