See more book reviews from this week’s Nonfiction Monday roundup at Geo Librarian.
In 1838, when Charles Darwin was 29, his father told him to lie to his future wife. The problem was a religious one: Charles Darwin had begun working on his theory of evolution and although he wasn’t an atheist, he no longer believed that a divine being had created life. And that was pretty radical in Victorian England.
Luckily for Darwin, and the future of science, he ignored his father’s advice. Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, a deeply religious woman who was dismayed—but respectful—of Charles’ religious doubts. Emma became Charles’ greatest critic: she pointed out flaws in his scientific research and edited his (long, sometimes confusing) prose. Nor was it a one-sided relationship: Emma had Charles read certain Bible passages that she hoped would reawaken religious belief. He read them carefully, and later, in his old age, he wrote that it was possible to be both a theist and evolutionist.
Over 150 years later, when we still see controversy over the teaching of evolution in high school science, it’s astounding to think that the Darwins handled their struggles with such mutual respect. When I started the book, I was merely curious about Darwin’s scientific work. By the end, I was completely won over by the charming Charles-and-Emma duo. They never let their religious differences get between them, and their life reads like a noisy Jane Austen novel—imagine Elizabeth and Darcy with kids, pets and crates of exotic animal specimens. Heiligman makes the most mundane details come to life: I was as interested in their gardening exploits as I was in Charles’ scientific work (and he spent years studying barnacles, so I mean it when I say Heiligman has a gift for narrative). Even their dreary house-hunting trips read like adventures. The Darwins’ household simply sounds like a fun place to grow up. Unlike many Victorian homes where children were seen and not heard, Charles and Emma encouraged their kids to speak up. The family talked constantly about everything—science, religion, economics, social reform. Charles’ study was often invaded by noisy kids with grubby hands. Later, one of their kids would say it was an honor to get sick in the Darwin family, because that meant the lucky kid got to spend the morning lying on the couch in Charles’ study, watching him work and getting fussed over by Emma.
My one complaint—if you can call it that—is that the narrative sometimes felt hectic. One moment I’d be reading about Charles’ latest research for On the Origin of Species, and the next paragraph would describe a long walk he’d taken with Emma, or their overwhelming grief at losing a child (Charles and Emma had ten children—two died in infancy and a third at age 10). But that’s how science gets done, and the book echoes that disconcerting mix of work and real life. Darwin probably had it easier than most, since his wife doubled as his sounding board and editor. As Heiligman makes pretty clear, there would be no Charles Darwin as we know him today without both Charles and Emma.