As finals rolled around this year, I turned to a tradition I have developed throughout high school: distracting myself from the approaching tests with a book. The benefits are obvious. I get to procrastinate, but avoid the sense of wasted time that comes with watching Netflix or surfing the Internet.
Instead of dooming myself to a study-free weekend by trying to finish “The Count of Monte Cristo” (200 pages down, 800 to go), I dug out a short book I had read a few years ago. “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith” is a quick and easy read by Deborah Heiligman.
It’s the story of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, and although it’s nonfiction, it feels more like a novel. As it turns out, the man who wrote “On the Origin of Species” and developed the theory of evolution had a surprisingly compelling love life.
Heiligman has a knack for picking out telling details. Charles’s personality is firmly established in the first chapter when she describes his list of the pros and cons of marriage. On the pros side, he wrote, “object to be beloved and played with. better than a dog anyhow.”
Obviously, he decided in favor of marriage.
But marriage was especially daunting because he knew that his ideas about species evolving over millions of years would be offensive to the vast majority of people who believed God created everything in perfection 6000 years ago.
So when he decided that his cousin, the deeply religious Emma Wedgwood, was an acceptable match, he told her about natural selection immediately before proposing. She was concerned, but she said yes.
When they were newly married, she wrote him a letter about their religious differences, begging him not to abandon faith as he pursued his scientific work. She asked him not to answer her, but only to think about what she said. Sometime later, he wrote in the margins, “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cryed (sic) over this.” Emma worried that Charles would go to hell, and Charles felt guilty about undermining the beliefs of not only his wife, but the entire world.
Despite the gulf that science and religion created between them, their relationship was astoundingly steady and loving. In fact, Emma wrote in her diary that in their whole marriage they had only one fight; she was distraught because the gardener pulled up her favorite plants, and he laughed at her distress.
They handled their more important problems gracefully. He read the Bible and discussed it with her. She read and edited (often leaving snarky comments in the margins) all of his scientific works.
Religion never stopped being an issue in their marriage, but it didn’t cause any anger or resentment. Charles and Emma Darwin obviously loved and accepted one another, and their relationship is far more interesting than any in the romance novels I’ve read.
The story was fascinating, but I wasn’t as fond of the writing style. Heiligman tries hard to make clever connections where they don’t necessarily exist. For instance, she suggests that Charles was inspired by his marriage when he wrote, in “On the Origin of Species,” that organisms were “[s]o different from each other, and dependent on one another.” The fact that she’s writing for a young audience is painfully obvious. She uses short sentences, tries a little too hard to be cute in her descriptions, and awkwardly dances around the topic of sex, dropping subtle hints without ever saying the word.
However, the slightly clumsy writing does not detract from the impact of the story. Most people hold their opinions so dearly that they see any dissent as a personal attack. So it’s inspiring that two people, especially in a less open-minded age, could accept their disagreement and be happy together.