Deborah Heiligman's new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.
Charles and Emma is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Better Than a Dog
Why, the shape of his head is quite altered.
—DR. ROBERT DARWIN, IN 1836, AFTER CHARLES’S FIVE-YEAR VOYAGE
In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper. He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world. He was in his late twenties. It was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side, he wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question. It was easy for Charles to think of things to write under Not Marry.
“Freedom to go where one liked,” he began. Charles loved to travel. His voyage had lasted almost five years; he had been the naturalist on the HMS Beagle, a British surveying ship. He was horribly seasick while on board, but he spent as much time as he could on land, exploring on horseback and onfoot, and collecting thousands of specimens, from corals in the Cocos-Keeling Islands of the Indian Ocean to beetles in Australia to a fox in Chiloé Island, Chile. He now lived in London with his servant from the Beagle, Syms Covington, “Fiddler and Boy to the Poop Cabin.” Charles had taught Syms to shoot and skin birds and to help him list and catalogue the specimens. Now Charles and Syms were surrounded by neatly stacked wooden crates, casks, and barrels filled with many of their treasures from Patagonia, Brazil, Chile, and Tierra del Fuego: fossil bones, skins, shells, fish preserved in spirits of wine, mammalia in spirits of wine, insects, reptiles and birds in spirits of wine, plants, rocks, carcasses of dead animals, and beetles. What if Charles wanted to go on another adventure and collect more specimens? How could he do that if he got married?
Next, under Not Marry he wrote: “—choice of Society & little of it.—Conversation of clever men at clubs—” On Great Marlborough Street, Charles lived just a few doors away from his older brother, Erasmus, and he was spending much of his time with Eras and his circle of intellectual friends, which included the historian and writer Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane; the writer Harriet Martineau; and the Darwins’ first cousin, Hensleigh Wedgwood. They discussed the huge changes in England brought on by industrialization. When Charles had left for his voyage, there were a few trains; now the railroad zigzagged all over the country, reaching places only horse-drawn carriages had gone before. The growing number of mills and factories changed the landscape as well; towns and cities were expanding, as was the division between rich and poor. The rich benefited from the new industry and from Great Britain’s burgeoning empire.
The poor suffered in the squalor that Charles Dickens was capturing so well in his serialized novels. Erasmus and his circle debated the Poor Laws, which were shunting the destitute into workhouses; they discussed the need for social reform.
There were divisions in religion in nineteenth-century England, too. Religious zealots and religious dissenters were making noise while members of the Church of England and Unitarians like the Darwins also quietly questioned their faith. Freethinking liberals, Eras and his circle were respected members of the British upper classes, and Charles found it easy—and stimulating—to be with them. Because they were open-minded and liberal, Charles knew he could broach with them some of the radical scientific thoughts he was beginning to have. This was what mattered to him. Not going to dinner parties, teas, and other torturous social occasions where people inundated him with seemingly endless questions about his travels.
Not that all of his social occasions were torturous. Charles was spending time with—and being courted by—three sisters in one family. The Horner girls were clever young women, well-read and educated, with promising intellectual futures. They even shared his interest in natural history, geology, and zoology. Their oldest sister, Mary, was already married to a new friend of his, Charles Lyell, a prominent geologist. Mr. Horner approved of Charles Darwin as a son-inlaw and hoped for a match. “I have not seen anyone for a long time with a greater store of accurate knowledge,” he wrote to Mary. Erasmus teased Charles, calling Mrs. Horner “Motherin-law.” So the marriage question was not hypothetical. And Charles Darwin was a good catch. He was a tall man, about six feet, thickset—big but not fat. He was athletic and fit from his adventures on the voyage. He dressed conservatively in the styles of the day: tailcoat, fine linen shirt with standing collar, and tall hat. He had gray eyes, a ruddy complexion, and a pleasant face, though he did not like his nose, which he felt was too big and bulbous. He was from an upstanding, wealthy family; he had much to talk about, and he had a promising future. His reputation had, as they say, preceded him. While he was traveling, Charles had sent back thousands of his specimens to his old Cambridge professor, John Stevens Henslow. Some of these specimens had begun to make him famous in the natural history world before he had even returned to England, including a rare fossil head of a giant ground sloth he had found in Argentina “in horizontal position in the cemented gravel; the upper jaw & molars exposed,” as Charles had written in his first geological specimen notebook. The remarkable fossil sloth head had been presented at a meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science in Cambridge.
But if he were to marry one of the Horner girls, or anyone else, he could see the obligations ahead, whereas if he remained single, he would be freer to pursue his science. He added to the Not Marry side of his list, “Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.” He liked his brother, his sisters, his cousins the Wedgwoods. But what if he didn’t like his wife’s relatives? There was so much compromising you had to do if you were married. He could see it in his friends, many of whom had gotten married while he was away.
Walking down the street one day not long after he had gotten back, he had seen his cousin Hensleigh carrying a child in one hand and a round box in the other. Hensleigh had married a cousin from the other side of his family in 1832, the year Charles left on the voyage. (First cousins often married at this time, especially in the upper classes.) Now Hensleigh had two children, and Charles shuddered at the thought of all the juggling a young father had to do. Did he want the responsibility? His reaction to this scene was so strong that it made the rounds of the family gossip: Emma Wedgwood, Hensleigh’s sister, wrote to her sister-in-law with amusement how struck Charles was by Hensleigh’s juggling. Not surprising, therefore, that Charles continued his Not Marry list with”—to have the expense & anxiety of children— perhaps quarrelling.” It wasn’t just the time and distraction that worried him; although he was frugal, he doubted he would ever make enough money by collecting beetles and writing about coral. Lack of money always led to fights, that he knew. And could he stand the anxiety and worry of having children? Cholera, a deadly disease, had just reached England for the first time, and there were epidemics of typhus, typhoid fever, and scarlet fever. Children got sick, children died. So there would be worry about health along with worry about money. And it all would take so much time. That was the crux of the issue. He wrote and underlined twice “Loss of time.”
Charles needed as many hours a day as he could have to do his work. First of all, he had to solicit more experienced naturalists to help him analyze his specimens. Charles had so many kinds of specimens; he was not an expert on every bird, bone, and bug. He had already given out his rare Megatherium bones and his finches and mockingbirds from the Galapagos Islands. But he had more of his collections to distribute to experts, and he had to urge them, coax them, to tell him what they thought. What did he have? Had he found new species? What significance did his finds have, if any?
As a single man with no family responsibilities, he could meet with these experts, go to scientific meetings, and visit museums and libraries whenever he wanted to. He didn’t have to worry about a wife or her relatives dictating how his time should be spent.
Charles felt strongly that he had no time to waste. Near the end of his voyage, he had heard from one of his sisters that Henslow and another old professor of his, Adam Sedgwick, were both very interested in the bones he had sent back. Sedgwick declared his collection “above all praise” and said that Charles would have “a great name among the Naturalists of Europe.” Charles found this terribly gratifying and knew that with those endorsements he would continue to work hard on natural history. He wrote, “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
Before the voyage, Charles had been a typical natural history collector. In nineteenth-century England, everyone from country parsons to teenage girls collected butterflies, flowers, even stuffed birds and fossil bones. Looking at God’s wondrous handiwork was a worthwhile avocation, and in some cases, vocation. Collectors tried to amass and describe as many of God’s species as possible and hoped to find new crabs, moths, finches, or ferns. And if you were lucky, the new species you discovered would be named after you—Charles had a few named after him, including a South American ostrichlike bird, the Rhea darwinii, and a frog that lived in Chile and Argentina, Rhinoderma darwinii.
Although he was pleased to have such an extensive collection, Charles was thinking about something bigger when he looked at his fossils. He was thinking about the origins of life. While on the voyage, reading Charles Lyell’s rinciples of Geology and looking at desert islands, rugged cliffs, and volcanoes, Charles knew that Lyell was right: Earth was not formed in 4004 B.C. as Archbishop James Ussher had calculated in 1658. This date had been incorporated into an authorized Bible in 1701, and many people still believed it was a fact. But Charles was certain that the earth was formed much longer ago than that and was still being formed. Once he realized that the earth was changing, that the story of creation in the Bible was not literally true, Charles’s mind was opened to the possibility of a different kind of creation in the animal and plant kingdoms. Looking at the specimens he had collected, Charles realized that species were forming and changing all the time, too. The idea of evolution, or transmutation, as it was then called, had been debated and refuted for years. But toward the end of his voyage, and now back in England, as he looked at bird specimens from the Galapagos Islands, Charles had the beginnings of a new theory to explain transmutation. He felt sure that if he could work it through, he would change the way the world thought about creation. He desperately wanted and needed to work it through. He had started the great project already, and he was consumed by it, giving it hours and hours every day. He was making copious notes in small leather notebooks filled with high-quality paper made from linen rags. Each notebook was labeled with a letter.
He had opened the first one, a brown leather notebook with a metal clasp, in July 1837. On the cream-colored pages, he had begun to jot down his secret and revolutionary thoughts about the origin of new species. Examining specimens he had collected, Charles was finding evidence that went against the prevailing concept of creation, which was that God had created all the species of birds, bees, and beetles at once and that there were no new ones since the first creation. Some people argued that fossils existed because God, displeased with his creations, had engineered a few worldwide catastrophes that had destroyed all the existent species and then had started creation all over again. But Charles had a very different idea, and he was accumulating pages and pages of observations, thoughts, ideas, and questions, filling up more and more notebooks, each with a different focus and marked with a different letter. He had many questions, from the everyday: “Owls. transport mice alive?” to the pointed: “How easily does Wolf & Dog cross?” How could he answer all of them if he succumbed to the mundane responsibilities of married life? He would have to spend his time hurrying down the street with a box in one arm and a baby in the other. There was so much to write on the Not Marry side of the page!
He continued, “Cannot read in the Evenings—fatness & idleness—Anxiety & responsibility—less money for books &c if many children forced to gain one’s bread.” And yet, even on this side of the paper, he conceded “(But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much).” Back to the negatives. “Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.”
Charles wasn’t completely sure he liked London himself. The city was noisy and dirty, the weather murky, the air often polluted with a yellow smog from the new factories and from all the fireplaces burning dirty coal. He often longed for the countryside near Wales where he grew up. But he thought that living in the country might make him lazy, which would be terrible for his work. He absolutely did not want to be either idle or a fool. On the other hand, you could stay in London and still be idle. Erasmus was; he was no fool, but he had neither a wife nor a career. Charles looked at him and knew that was not what he wanted.
So. That’s where he ended his list of reasons not to marry Under Marry, Charles began: “Children—(if it please God).” He did enjoy other people’s children. He played with them, and he observed them. He wrote in one of his secret notebooks “Children have an uncommon pleasure in hiding themselves & skulking about in shrubbery. When other people are about: this is analogous to young pigs hiding themselves.” Looking at his friends’ and cousins’ children he thought not only of pigs but also of “savages,” as the English called native people. During his voyage around the world, his encounters with natives had been startling and enlightening.
On the Beagle there were three people from Tierra del Fuego who had lived for a while in England. They had been “civilized” in that they now wore British clothes and had adopted British manners. But when Charles and his shipmates first arrived in Tierra del Fuego, a group of natives perched on an overhang above the sea “sprang up, and waving their tattered cloaks sent forth a loud and sonorous shout.” They wore little clothing. Some of them, even full-grown women, were completely naked. Their hair was tangled, but many of the people had dramatically painted faces, with a bright red bar from ear to ear, white-chalked eyelids, streaks of black charcoal. As different as they looked, they were able to communicate with the English travelers and could imitate anything.
One native man had learned new dance steps, which impressed Charles. Spending time with these people had made Charles think of ways that pigs, children, primitive peoples, Englishmen all were related. This was a clue to his secret theory.
But now, thinking about children, he was thinking also as a man and a potential father. It would be nice to have his own little piggies skulking about in the bushes.
Charles definitely liked to be surrounded by people. He had good friends and was close to his sisters and his brother. Having a wife would be really nice. He continued on the Marry side, “constant companion (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one—”
He hoped his wife would live a long time, unlike his mother, who had died painfully, probably of an infection, when Charles was only eight. His father, an experienced and extremely successful doctor, had not been able to save her. Her death devastated Dr. Darwin, though Charles himself hardly remembered her. He hoped he would find someone who would be interested in him, definitely, but he also wanted someone he could love. He wrote “object to be beloved & played with.”
And then: “better than a dog anyhow.”
Sometimes Charles thought dogs were easier than people. He had loved dogs since he was a boy, and they loved him. When Charles had just gotten back from the voyage, he found it difficult at first to resume where he had left off with his sisters and his father. He had changed, and they didn’t seem to be able to adjust to that. But when he went out into the yard and whistled, his dog (who was surly to everyone else but adored him) rushed out to walk with him, as if their last walk had been the day before, not five years earlier. Why couldn’t people be more like dogs? he wondered—and wished. But a dog can’t do everything, and so a wife would be better than a dog anyhow.
He listed more positives: “Home, & someone to take care of house—Charms of music & female chit-chat.—These things good for one’s health.—but—”
There it was again—”terrible loss of time.” Too much music, too much chitchat. Not enough time to do his work. Again he looked at his brother, Erasmus. Even though he was a bachelor, Eras spent much of his time with women—mostly other men’s wives—taking them on errands in his carriage, going to dinners. But then he returned them to their husbands. Harriet Martineau wasn’t married, and there was gossip about Harriet and Erasmus. But Eras seemed determined to remain single. His father and sisters wanted to fix him up with their cousin Emma Wedgwood, mostly to stop the gossip, but so far nothing had happened there. Erasmus was in control of his own life, as Charles could be if he stayed a bachelor, too. Yet—
“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.—No, no won’t do.—Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.”
Alone in his smoky, dirty London house, Charles thought about love and romance and what went with it. He read poems by the romantics William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—”Where true Love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame. . . .” He filled his notebooks with the scientific aspects of love, with questions about breeding and heredity. So far most of his questions were about animals, but in his notebook marked “B,” Charles wrote in brown ink on pages with faint green rules, “In Man it has been said, there is instinct for opposites to like each other.” Perhaps he and his wife would be opposites, but close.
“Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps—”
And heading off to bed later.
He ended his list under Marry, “Compare this version with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.”—his life on Great Marlborough Street, where he went to bed alone.
The lists on the left and right side of the page looked about the same length. But Charles felt that he had found more reasons to marry than not. He wrote on the left side, squeezed at the bottom, the answer to his question: “Marry—
QED: quod erat demonstrandum, Latin for “which was to be demonstrated or proved.” He had proven to himself that he should get married. On paper at least. But he had one other fear, a fear that he could not bring himself to write down. The issue was too big. He would have to talk to his father.
Excerpted from Charles and Emaa by Deborah Heiligman.
Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Heiligman.
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does it say about Charles's character that he made a pro/con list to decide whether he should get married or not?
2. What effect do you think that fact Dr. Darwin allowed his children freedom of thought regarding religion had on Charles's professional life?
3. Do you agree with Dr. Darwin's marital advice to his son?
4. Explain the quote on page 46 "education and environment produce only a small effect on the mind of anyone … most of our qualities are innate." Does this sound like any popular scientific theory you know of?
5. What does Charles mean when he uses the term "materialism"? (Chapter 7)
6. Why did the author include the information about slavery and Charles's position and thoughts upon the subject? (see page 72)
7. Could Charles's theory of evolution have upset the church in ways other than upsetting the belief in creationism? (see pages 74 ff.)
8. At the bottom of page 120 Charles believes that revealing his theory on the mutability of species will be like murdering God. Is there a way to reconcile believing in God and accepting a theory such as evolution?
9. Why did Emma help to edit Charles's sketch of his species theory? (see page 123)
10. What do you think of Emma's morality story on page 165?
11. Why do you think that the first book on the ability of species to change (Vestiges of Natural History of Creation) received more attention than Charles's book?
12. Why do you think Charles chose to put God into the second edition of his book? What effect did it have on the work? (Chapter 27)
13. How do you feel about Charles being buried in a church? Do you agree with Emma that he would have accepted the offer to be buried in Westminster Abbey?
14. In the Epilogue Gwen, Charles's granddaughter states "Of course we always felt embarrassed if our grandfather were mentioned, just as we did if God were spoken of." She describes Charles's study as "faintly holy and sinister, like a church." She goes further on to say "At Down, there are more things to worship than anywhere else in the world." How are these statements ironic?