Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith (by Deborah Heiligman)

14 11 2012

2009 marked the 150-year anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s momentous work On the Origin of Species as well as the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth .  In that year a slew of works were published not just to commemorate the theory and the man himself, but also to show how controversial Darwin’s theory of evolution still is today in a lot of (religious) midst. Indeed, religious groups often get into all sorts of knots to dismiss the man’s work as that of a heretic, and despite an almost absolute scientific consensus about Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the idea that life wasn’t created by a divine being was/is a step too far for many a religious person.  Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith, Deborah Heiligman’s YA-publication about the great scientist, shows that it’s just too easy to dismiss Darwin’s work as a that of a vehement non-believer.

Deborah Heiligman was the first to talk about Darwin’s theory in relation to the most important person in his life, that of his cousin and wife Emma Wedgwood. Contrary to Charles Darwin – who did not, by the way, describe himself as an atheist, but rather an agnostic towards the end of his life – she firmly believed that leading a good Christian life would be rewarded by a place in heaven. Throughout the book Darwin is consciously aware of the impact his theories will have on not just the scientific but also the religious Victorian community. That is one of the reasons why he worked on it for over 20 years. He wanted to have as much evidence-based proof as possible, he didn’t want there to be any loopholes – e.g. the evolution of the eye, for instance, into this complicated structure – which is why he also had all of his work read by his most careful and most critical reader, Emma, which she then edited “for clarity and diction”, even for his “atrocious use of commas”. Even though Darwin never compromised on the essence of his theory because of her, it seems obvious from the research, the many letters etc. that part of the reason why it took Darwin so long to publish On the Origin of Species was due to the thoroughness he wanted his work to have – a thoroughness almost imposed on him by living with Emma. It’s clear that both didn’t just love each other very much, but respected each other’s views of the world greatly.

Heiligman doesn’t want to show us the Giant of Science that Darwin came to be. She wants to show us Darwin as the man with doubts of his own. It starts off with the now almost famous list Darwin made “to marry or not to marry”… Once the decision “to marry” is made, Darwin is one of the most devoted (Victorian) fathers and husbands imaginable. In that way, Heiligman’s book is clearly a good alternative to the many other biographies about Darwin out there. She also repeatedly mentions Darwin’s doubts and fears, but maybe she doesn’t really let Emma speak often enough. The 3rd person narrative voice still favors seeing things through the Charles Darwin-lens, rather than the Emma Wedgwood-lens, hence still making this into a “Charles Darwin” book, rather than a “Charles and Emma” book.

The book is chronological and very anecdotal, following the “biography”-format fairly standard. But by focusing on a lesser known aspect of Charles Darwin’s life, it will still provide many (doubting) high school students with a good literary counterpart to Darwin’s scientific theories.

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