“Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith” by Deborah Heiligman provides an interesting contrast to the average biography for adolescents. Her subjects are not the latest pop or athletic stars, nor are they the people regularly assigned as projects in literature classes. Instead, Heiligman looks at the way that Charles and Emma Darwin, as a couple, negotiated their senses of religion and evolution.
Heiligman’s book begins with Charles Darwin’s list, in which he evaluates whether or not he should marry. Immediately we gain a clear insight into the mind of Charles, who believes that issues should be analyzed, categorized, and studied before deciding how to proceed. Yet he chooses, in this instance, to ignore the fact that the “Not Marry” side of the list is longer—he opts to propose to his cousin Emma Wedgewood.
His fears, as Heiligman outlines, are completely justified. Emma is thoughtful and analytical, but she also believes strongly in Christianity and the importance of faith. She worries that Charles may not go to heaven if he rejects religion completely. Yet his honesty about his uncertainty allays her doubts and she accepts his proposal.
The bulk of the book catalogues this unique and interesting relationship. Heiligman provides a great deal of primary material, from letters and notebooks, to show how these two people worked out their relationship and how they struggled with where their philosophies and beliefs differed. They chose to live in the country, away from the centers of science and learning, yet found the quiet of country life a better atmosphere for thoughtful consideration of scientific studies. They suffered through the deaths of 3 of their 10 children, yet they optimistically reared their children to be willing to stand up as individuals for what they believed. Throughout it all, their deep and abiding love shines through their words and their actions.
While I enjoyed this book a great deal and found it immensely illuminating, I find it difficult to imagine most adolescents choosing to pick it up. It would make an interesting assignment for classes that studying evolution, if only so that students could see how much Darwin thought about the controversies for which his work is still criticized. Heiligman does such a wonderful job of tracing how Darwin worked meticulously at his research, that this biography would serve as a reminder to students how careful and precise science needs to be.
I would recommend this biography wholeheartedly, but I would carefully choose which readers I would recommend it to. It isn’t difficult to read, but it very much reflects the era and the culture of its subjects.
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