Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
By Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt and Co., 272 pages, $18.95
Children’s book author Deborah Heiligman has been interested in religion since she was a teenager, majoring in religious studies in college. “When you look at a people and its religion, you’re looking at sociology, psychology, history, anthropology,” she said. “You really are studying every aspect of their society.” Meanwhile, her husband, science writer Jonathan Weiner, has always been fascinated by science. His 1994 book, “The Beak of the Finch,” about the ongoing process of evolution on the Galapagos Islands, won the Pulitzer Prize. Heiligman and Weiner’s marriage is, you could say, one of science and religion. Now, Heiligman has a new book about one of science and religion’s most formidable pairings; it was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
In “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith,” readers are introduced to Charles Darwin not as a man whose very name has become a stand-in for replacing religion with science, but as the husband of Emma Darwin, a woman of deep faith who spent her adult life worrying that her husband was going to burn in hell for eternity. The book begins with a young Darwin making a list on a scrap of paper. “Marry,” he wrote in one column. “Not Marry,” he wrote in the other. Under “Not Marry,” he included things like, “Freedom to go where one liked,” and, “Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.” Under “Marry” was the entry “Children — (if it please God).”
Darwin was not a God hater; in fact, as a young man he had planned a career as a country parson and had studied theology Christ’s College at Cambridge University. So when he fell in love with his cousin Emma Wedgwood — a vivacious, tough, smart woman — he understood where she was coming from. And he understood on a deeply personal level what the theory he was slowly developing would mean. “Charles still struggled with religious questions, and with how Emma and other religious people would react to his going against the biblical story of creation. But he felt certain that his theory was right,” Heiligman writes in the book. Emma, for her part, worried about what would happen to Charles after his death, and occasionally wrote him long letters in which she voiced her concerns (“When I am dead,” he wrote on one of these letters, “know that many times, I have kissed and cryed over this.”) But Emma rarely pushed. In fact, she read drafts of his manuscripts and helped make them stronger.
The book, aimed at grades eight through 12, relies almost exclusively on primary sources like journals, manuscripts and letters, and so Charles and Emma — their voices, concerns and idiosyncrasies — come alive. The book never talks down to readers and doesn’t shy away from tough subjects like sex or death. “Whenever I write a book, I write it for the ‘me’ at the age that I would have wanted to read that book,” Heiligman said. “When I write my little rhyming picture books about dogs, I write for the 5- or 6-year-old in me. When I was a young adult, up through college, that’s when I wanted to read the books that addressed the big questions: science, life, death, meaning. Also very much the connections between people who love each other. I really wrote ‘Charles and Emma’ for that person in me.”
Heiligman describes her upbringing as “observant Reform Jewish,” and says that her long marriage to Weiner, and the couple’s many conversations about science and religion, have taught her that “you can have both. Charles’s worldview was definitely altered by being married to Emma. Hers was, too. But they definitely held on to what they believed in. They agreed to disagree, really. The take-home message of Charles and Emma’s marriage is, if you talk about it, and you respect the other person’s point of view, there’s no reason you can’t coexist.”
Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn and a frequent contributor to the Forward.