Saturday, April 10, 2010

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

I've been interested in reading this book for awhile and hearing about it in the Battle of the Books and on Melissa Wiley's blog propelled me to the library. And I am so glad. This was such a well written and fascinating book. I kept stopping and reading out passages to my family all afternoon. This is definitely a book I want to own and plan to reread.

I really didn't know much of anything about Darwin's personal life and I knew nothing about his wife, Emma. Their relationship was so tender and I loved the many quotes from their letters to each other.

I love this quote from Charles about children:

"Children have an uncommon pleasure in hiding themselves and skulking about in shrubbery. When other people are about: this is analogous to young pigs hiding themselves." (p.13)

And this from Emma writing about her recently deceased sister made me cry:

"Oh Lord, help me to become more like her, and grant that I may join with Thee never to part again. I trust that my Fanny's sweet image will never pass from my mind. Let me always keep it in my mind as a motive for holiness. What exquisite happiness it will be to be with her again, to tell her how I loved her who has joined with me in almost every enjoyment of my life." (p.45)

Here is Charles anticipating his wedding day:

"Remember life is short, and two months is the sixth part of the year, and that year, the first, from which for my part, things shall hereafter date." (p.64)

That reminded me so much of one of my favorite Christina Rossetti poems:

"Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me."

Mom and I happened to be talking about interfaith marriage this past week and how staggeringly hard that would be for a true believer of any faith. Emma's feelings are quite painful to read:

"Emma could not bear the thought of spending eternity without Charles, of Charles burning in hell." (p.71)

"I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever. Emma to Charles, 1839" (p.96)

"Charles read the letter and cried. He was as in love with her as he could be; he wanted so much to make her happy. Alone in his study, he was committed to his theory of natural selection, the theory that would leave God out of creation. But he was committed to Emma, too, and so as he examined lily hybrids and dog breeds, as he worked out a new theory about how coral islands had evolved, he also agonized over the religion question and over the effects his work was having, and would have, on her. He felt-literally- sick to his stomach.

Yet even with the emotional pain it caused him, Charles thought Emma's letter was beautiful. "Every thing that concerns you concerns me" went both ways. He kept the letter safely preserved always. Sometime later he wrote at the edge of it:

When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cryed over this. C.D." (p.100)
Some of my favorite parts in this book were the chapter describing Charles and Emma settling into married life and all the descriptions of them as doting parents. I loved that Emma's family nicknamed her "Miss Slip-Slop" due to her messy habits and that she is described as having a "calm disregard for such details" in reference to keeping things neat. She and I have that in common.

This description of their early married life reminded me of Lori Gottlieb's description of the daily trivia of marriage that bonds a couple to each other:

"So the dance of a married couple had begun. She played the piano for him, and though he had a tin ear, he listened with enjoyment and love. He put up with her sloppiness; she understood his need for long hours at work. She agreed to go to fewer parties and dinners since he did not like them. He went to the theater with her, and to church." (p.94)

There is so much more that I marked up as I was reading but I am done with typing for this evening. I'll have to revisit this book again soon.

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