Monday, June 7, 2010

charles and emma: the darwins' leap of faith.

Last night I finished up Deborah Heiligman's non-fiction account of the love story between Charles Darwin and his wife. It was fantastic.

I originally started reading this book as research for a non-fiction unit that I wanted my students to do, thinking that I'd have them all read this one, as long as I could bang it out real quick before they got to it, but I just got so caught up with the end of school and other various personal matters that I couldn't finish it in time to honestly assign it for them to read. However, every time that I did have a bit of time for leisure reading, I was able to knock out a significant portion of this book - the pages turn a lot quicker than I ever would have thought a non-fiction book could manage. I'll be honest when I say that non-fiction isn't my cup of tea and I can't think of many (any?) other books in the genre I've read. However, after thoroughly enjoying this one, I can see myself devouring a few more.

The book basically tells the story of Charles and Emma, who marry despite some serious reservations on Charles' part - not about her, but about marriage in general as well as their conflicting religious beliefs. Charles, of course, will go on to write the Origin of the Species, which didn't fly very well with the religious nature of society at that time. Emma, on the other hand, had turned fiercely toward God when one of her sisters died, clinging to the belief that, if God was real, she could at least be reunited with her sister in the afterlife. This was not a trivial matter, not in the eyes of society at the time, and not between two intelligent people, like Charles and Emma were. The novel, though, details the ways in which their relationship overcame this huge barrier, and the ways in which they constantly tested one another, Emma trying to get Charles to pray, and Charles leaving a manuscript with Emma that he asked her to publish in case of his death, even though he knew that she was strongly against the conclusions it would lead people toward.

The book has tons of quotations which definitely struck the correct chord with me, as it's supposed to be an honest representation of the subject matter and not too much of an interpretation. The author, however, does inject her voice at times, but I didn't find it distracting ever. It's clear throughout the book that Heiligman loved her subjects and that becomes even more evident at the end in her acknowledgments. I can only hope that the next non-fiction book I read will have an author so devoted to the subject(s) that I can find myself immersed.

One key, as a kind of post-script, that I think was integral: Despite knowing who Darwin was, and plenty about evolution in general, I didn't really know anything about Charles, and certainly nothing about Emma. I think this was a boon in dealing with my first bout of non-fiction and I'll be looking for something similar that can sneak up on me when I explore the genre further.

If you're at all interested in the conflict between religion and science and how Darwin handled the societal pressure versus his instinct to publish and, most of all, how two people with such disparate views can have a successful relationship, I'd highly suggest this book.

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