Saturday, April 2, 2011

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman

In junior high I went through a phase of reading biographies. It feels like I read every biography on the shelf in my junior high school library. I have a visceral recollection of the study hall and library in the Ames Junior High School (Iowa). Dark wood, huge windows, creaking floors, and a raised platform for the study hall teacher. This was in the middle of the baby-boom so there were lots of students. I remember being very uneasy, even afraid, of the hour in study hall. Thus, I volunteered as a library aide to avoid the crowd. The building has been razed so when I return for reunions I cannot walk the halls. It is a ghost in my life.

I have read few biographies since that period. This was well worth a return to the genre. Heiligman's scholarship is quite remarkable. This, combined with a very well written story of the married life of Charles and Emma Darwin makes it a stunning biography. It is a love story, the story of Darwin's professional career after his return from his sea years and the story of a family. As a writer, it gave me great comfort to learn that it took Darwin 23 years to finish The Origin of the Species. Reading about his agonies in deciding to publish the book helped me appreciate the complexity of Charles Darwin's position. He loved his wife deeply and did not want to offend her religious beliefs. He had this same level of sensitivity to other friends and colleagues. He was very much aware of the controversy that his theory would incite and worried deeply about it.

Heiligman's book is not limited to a focus on Darwin's theory of evolution. Instead, although Origin occupies a large space in background, most of the book tells of daily life in the Darwin household and how this life sustained and distracted Darwin. Some things I came to appreciate about Darwin include: he was plagued with ill-health most of his life, he had a large family that he loved deeply, he was a respectful colleague who avoided the limelight and spotlight, he was a passionate scientist throughout his life, he and Emma both came from wealthy families (they had a houseful of servants and nannies). Some individual details, gleaned from letters, journals, and Darwin's autobiography make the rich complexity of daily life of this great man something that I will carry with me through the coming years. There are equally engaging details about Emma's life. Living with a "great man" required great support from his wife. It makes me contemplate how we have perhaps lost the space in our lives in which marriages can be great partnerships and individuals have time and quiet to carefully follow their scholarly pursuits. Emma was, in her own right, a thoughtful and supportive editor. She was Darwin's partner in every sense of the word throughout most of his professional career. I was cheered to learn that she also was a great reader of novels.

The stories of Darwin's careful scientific studies are particularly inspiring, yet subtly developed. For example, during the early 1850's Darwin decided to elaborate on his theory by an extensive study and classification of barnacles. He felt this was important to add substance and weight to his theory of evolution. The Down House (the family home) was filled with specimens and Darwin spent years detailing each separate species. Heiligman uses an anecdote from the family to show the passion with which this scientist worked instead of laborious accounts of Darwin's scientific methods. It is done simply--"He had worked so long on them (the barnacles) that once when one of the boys, Probably Lenny, went over to Sir John Lubbock's house to play with his son, he asked the Lubbock boy, where does your father do his barnacles?" What a wonderful detail that shows the passion and dedication of Charles Darwin. The book is filled with other such samples of great writing. I will use this book whenever I want to demonstrate "show don't tell" to developing writers.

At the end of the book I wept. Emma's loss of her husband fourteen years before her own death left me feeling bereft. It is a testimony to the strength of Heiligman's writing that she was able to produce such strong reaction. The book richly deserves all the awards and recognition it has garnered including: A Michale Prinz honor book, National Book Award Finalist, and YALSA-ALA award of excellence in young-adult nonfiction.

No comments: