Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

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I am falling in love with biographies for young adults. I love how in less than 300 pages, I get a (partial) picture of some historical figures I’ve always wanted to study, but that I’ve never studied because of lack of time to delve in a full-length biography for adults.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt, 2009) is not a typical, full-life biography because it focuses on specific aspects of the Darwins’ married life, of course in the context of Charles Darwin’s scientific studies. As a former religious studies student, the author Deborarh Heiligman married a scientist. When she discovered that scientist Charles Darwin likewise married a religious woman, she was intrigued to know how Emma reconciled her faith with science, thus beginning her study to understand the Darwins’ relationship.

I loved how Ms Heiligman brought the relationship alive. After reading the book, I feel somewhat close to Charles and Emma, because their personalities were so carefully developed. Further, Charles’ struggle to have faith and Emma’s struggle to come to terms with Charles’ scientific understandings were so poignant to me. Given the strict literal religious understandings of the era and the novelty of Charles’ scientific findings, I could really relate to the couple’s struggle.

Further, I loved the emotion with which Ms Heiligman discussed Charles’ developing scientific understanding in the context of his own family. My favorite part of the book was the discussion about his daughter who passed away at a young age. I found myself in tears as I considered this small family’s pain at their loss, especially given the family’s struggles to accept religion. Further, Annie’s death brought the implications of Charles’ scientific theories (especially the concept of “survival of the fittest”) into context.

Emma’s struggle with acceptance of Charles’ lack of faith was likewise emotional to read about. She frequently sent him inspiration-filled letters asking him to accept God, and she worried throughout their life that he would go to “hell” because of his lack of faith. Although Charles found he ultimately could not accept God (as an agnostic, he believed there was no way to know one way or another), he still treasured Emma’s faithful encouragement. I loved the tenderness with which the two corresponded throughout life about both science and religion.

As I mentioned, Charles and Emma does not feel like a complete picture of the scientist Charles Darwin. Nevertheless, it does provide a context for Charles Darwin’s life and scientific findings, and the author brings the reader in the Darwin’s family life and their personal struggles between science and religion with sensitivity and understanding.

As a religious person with a faith in God, I personally do not struggle as I embrace scientific fact as well as religious faith, but I can understand how one might. Charles and Emma’s story does not answer any questions but it does paint a clear picture of how such questions have always arisen for the faithful. I found it marvelously executed.

Reviewed on November 17, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Great write-up! I read this about two months ago and really liked it. I liked that the author focussed her book on their life together and what their differences meant in terms of their relationship to each other, and to their individual beliefs.

  • This sounds so interesting! I have never read a YA biography, I don’t think, but I can see how they’d be a perfect short introduction to a person or topic.

  • I’m quite curious about this! I’m not sure I’ve ever read any nonfiction explicitly aimed at young adults, but I imagine it would be fun. 🙂

  • YA nonfiction is almost entirely off my radar, and I’m not sure why. I just never think of reading it. But I do remember being interested in this book awhile ago, I’m not sure why I never read it because it sounds great. I think the discussion of faith and science around this time was fascinating.

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