By Deborah Heligman
(Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, 2009, $18.95)
Today, people remember Charles Darwin as the author of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. His writings still inspire controversy today. However, the scientist behind evolution was hardly a revolutionary. A thoughtful, mild-mannered man, Darwin agonized about the uproar his hypotheses might cause – and the pain they might give his deeply religious wife.
In Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, Deborah Heligman interweaves Darwin’s intellectual biography with an intimate portrait of his marriage. She describes his experiments with barnacles, worms, and orchids, and discusses his gradual journey from believer to agnostic. Charles Darwin began quietly questioning traditional Christianity in his mid-twenties. When he proposed to Emma Wedgwood, he expressed his doubts to her. Despite their religious differences, their forty-three year marriage was a happy one. Together, they faced the maelstrom his books inspired and the deaths of three of their ten children.
To tell the Darwins’ story, Heligman uses their letters and Charles’ many notebooks. (The meticulous scientist didn’t just take notes about plants and animals; he also recorded and analyzed his own emotions and his children’s facial expressions.) The reader sees Charles weighing marriage and bachelorhood, empathizes with Emma as she agonizes over her husband’s soul, and weeps with the Darwins when they lose their children. Through this personal approach, Heligman both introduces readers to Victorian England and dissolves the boundaries between generations.
Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Charles and Emma works equally well as a love story and an intellectual history. With this book, Heligman proves that biographers don’t have to choose between emotions and ideas: the two are inseparable as the most loving partners.