Charles and Emma.

Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma is probably one my favourite biographies from this year. Heiligman draws from the Darwins’ correspondence, journals, and published documents in order to tell the fascinating story of Charles and Emma’s marriage and working life. Her portrayal of their relationship is insightful and amusing, littered with delightful episodes, such when she reveals that the couple’s beloved daughter Annie used to play with Charles’s hair as he worked, or when she recounts an episode when Charles tried to enforce one of the house rules:

In 1855, when Lenny was about five, Charles walked in to find his son jumping up and down and tumbling all over a new sofa.

“Oh Lenny, Lenny,” Charles said. “You know it is against all rules.”

“Then,” Lenny said to his papa, “I think you’d better go out of the room.”

And so Charles did. (161)

At the outset I had hoped that Emma’s half of the story would be more about her as an individual rather than as she contributed to Charles’s life and research, but perhaps this was wanting something contradictory to Emma’s real life. She seems to have earnestly devoted most her adult life to raising the Darwins’ children and to editing and reading Charles’s work. In many ways Charles and Emma’s marriage typifies nineteenth-century English gender dynamics, with Emma as a dutiful  wife and mother and Charles as the published and respected gentleman scholar. And Heiligman does retell the story of Charles’s infamous marry/not marry list, with its ultimate observation that a wife was an “object to be loved and played with … better than a dog anyhow” (14). I also found disturbing the fact that Charles’s father, upon learning that Charles was questioning his religious beliefs instructed his son “when you find the woman you want to marry, don’t tell her!” (27) (fortunately Charles decided not to follow that advice). Victorian patriarchy is in full operation in these moments.

But Heiligman also beautifully carries out her central task of showing how the couple negotiated the poles of their beliefs, Christianity (Emma) and atheism (Charles). Emma’s personality reveals itself most clearly through her faith: she seems to have been more than capable of holding her own in the thoughtful and lively discussions that were ongoing in the Darwin household (Heiligman attributes her aptitude for argument to the influence of her upbringing by Josiah and Bessy Wedgwood, who insisted that their children learn to explore and articulate different “principles”, 30). Emma, in Heiligman’s portrayal, would read Charles’s empirically-based theories and offer rebuttals or critical interrogations in return. In turn, Charles tried to negotiate his wife’s faith with his own beliefs; additionally he recognised that Emma’s hesitations would be those of the Christian members of his reading audience (123), and thus responded to her arguments seriously, developing his own theories more carefully as a result.

Heiligman certainly convinces her readers that Emma a great deal of influence on Charles’s life and his work, and she does so in a way that is entirely readable to her young adult audience, conveying both the religious and scientific atmosphere of nineteen-century England and the complicated process of negotiating faith and science generally in a lively and engaging manner.

11 December 2013 ~ Hamilton

Works Cited.

Heiligman, Deborah. Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009.


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