Charles and Emma The Darwins' Leap of Faith

Deborah Heiligman

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)




272 Pages


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A National Book Award Finalist
Winner of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction
A Michael L. Printz Honor Book
An American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults Nominee

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

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.


Praise for Charles and Emma

"The conflicts between science and religion are daunting subjects, but Deborah Heiligman’s beautiful book Charles and Emma unravels all the complexity through the lives of two remarkable people. At its heart, Charles and Emma is a love story—but it is amazing how much you learn by the time you finish. I enjoyed every page."—Professor Ari L. Goldman, Columbia University, author of The Search for God at Harvard

"I am a veteran biologist and a great fan of all the literature on Charles Darwin, including not only his own writings, but many splendid (and some not so splendid) biographies, including, of course, the two definitive volumes by Janet Browne.  I can say without hesitation that the Heiligman book . . . is not only among the very best, but it provides something new, which is quite an achievement in such a crowded field.  Her portrayal of their family life and their religious tensions is a genuine contribution . . . This is a book all biologists will want to know about."—John Bonner, Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University

"An outstanding book! Charles and Emma is a wonderfully and clearly written narrative. I liked everything about it, especially the science. Its accuracy is astounding . . . the reader feel[s] like they are there in the 19th century feeling all the joys and sorrows of this 'genius and giant of science' and his family. As a person who has studied and read extensively about Charles Darwin and his theories, I feel [this book] should be read by readers of all ages."—Richard O'Grady, Science Education Consultant

"In 1838 Charles Darwin, then almost thirty, drew a line down the middle of a paper and listed the reasons for marrying on one side and the reasons for not marrying on the other. After much consideration, he opted for the former, and from his prospects he wisely chose his cousin, Emma, who was open-minded but devoutly religious. She supported her husband, even editing his work, but she feared for his eternal welfare should he follow his revolutionary theories to their logical end. Charles, in turn, was equally tortured, wanting to please his wife, wanting to believe in religion, but not at the expense of science. With great empathy and humor, Heiligman’s lively narrative examines the life and legacy of Darwin through the unique lens of his domestic life, an inspired choice that helps us understand that for all the impact his theory would have on the world, nowhere did its consequences resonate so loudly as within the walls of his own home. Here is a timely, relevant book that works on several levels: as a history of science, as a biography, and, last but not least, as a romance. A bibliography, an index, and notes are appended."—The Horn Book

"In this courtship and marriage biography, the author examines an unlikely but powerful bond between cousins, the Origins of the Species scientist and the religious devotee love of his life. Beginning with Darwin's 'to marry or not to marry' pro/con lists through Emma editing Charles' autobiography so that it would be less 'offensive,' the couple provided for each other sounding board, respected opposition, and beloved soulmate. Naturalist, voyager, and revolutionary thinker, Charles proved wrong his father's early concern: 'You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.' Instead of being footnoted, the primary source quotations that abound are documented as end-of-book, source-notes. The author includes family trees and a selected bibliography . . . The volume provides a unique blend of romance, scientific observations, explanations of medical practices prevalent in the early-nineteenth century, and opportunities to examine scientific discoveries and religious beliefs in detail. The book might be of particular use in interdisciplinary course work."—Patti Sylvester Spencer, VOYA

"This rich, insightful portrait of Charles and Emma Darwin's marriage explores a dimension of the naturalist's life that has heretofore been largely ignored. Emma was devoutly religious while Charles's agnosticism increased as he delved deeper into his studies of natural history, but they did not let this difference come between them. While unable to agree with Charles's theory that essentially eliminated God from the process of creation, Emma remained open-minded and supportive, even reading drafts of The Origin of Species and suggesting improvements. Using excerpts from correspondence, diaries and journals, Heiligman portrays a relationship grounded in mutual respect. The narrative conveys a vivid sense of what life was like in Victorian England, particularly the high infant mortality rate that marred the Darwins' happiness and the challenges Charles faced in deciding to publish his controversial theory. While this book does not serve as an introduction to Darwin's life and ideas, readers wanting to know more will discover two brilliant thinkers whose marital dialectic will provide rich fodder for discussions of science and faith."—Kirkus Reviews

"When the book opens, Charles Darwin is trying to make a decision, and he is doing so in time-honored fashion: drawing a line down a piece of paper and putting the pros of marriage on one side and the cons on the other. As much as Darwin is interested in wedded life, he is afraid that family life will take him away from the revolutionary work he is doing on the evolution of species. However, the pluses triumph, and he finds the perfect mate in his first-cousin Emma, who becomes his comforter, editor, mother of his 10 children—and sparring partner. Although highly congenial, Charles and Emma were on opposite sides when it came to the role of God in creation. Heiligman uses the Darwin family letters and papers to craft a full-bodied look at the personal influences that shaped Charles’ life as he worked mightily to shape his theories. This intersection between religion and science is where the book shines, but it is also an excellent portrait of what life was like during the Victorian era, a time when illness and death were ever present, and, in a way, a real-time example of the survival of the fittest. Occasionally hard to follow, in part because of the many characters (the family tree helps), this is well sourced and mostly fascinating, and may attract a wider audience than those interested in science. Austen fans will find a romance to like here, too."—Ilene Cooper, Booklist

"Beginning with Darwin's notorious chart listing reasons to wed and not to wed, Heiligman has created a unique, flowing, and meticulously researched picture of the controversial scientist and the effect of his marriage on his life and work. Using the couple's letters, diaries, and notebooks as well as documents and memoirs of their relatives, friends, and critics, the author lets her subjects speak for themselves while rounding out the story of their relationship with information about their time and place. She shows how Darwin's love for his intelligent, steadfast, and deeply religious cousin was an important factor in his scientific work—pushing him to document his theory of natural selection for decades before publishing it with great trepidation. Just as the pair embodied a marriage of science and religion, this book weaves together the chronicle of the development of a major scientific theory with a story of true love."—Ellen Heath, Easton Area Public Library, Easton, Pennsylvania, School Library Journal

"This rewarding biography of Charles Darwin investigates his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Heiligman has good reason for this unusual approach: as deeply as they loved each other, Emma believed in God, and Charles believed in reason. Embracing the paradoxes in her subjects' personalities, the author unfolds a sympathetic and illuminating account, bolstered by quotations from their personal writings as well as significant research into the historical context. We meet Charles as he weighs the pros and cons of wedded life—but then seeks his father's advice (Darwin père urges him to conceal his religious doubts); Emma becomes a more fervent believer after the death of her favorite (and more religious) sister . . . Her book allows readers not only to understand Darwin's ideas, but to appreciate how Emma's responses tempered them."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Better Than a Dog

Why, the shape of his head is quite altered.



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 Qu

Read the full excerpt



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  • Deborah Heiligman

  • Deborah Heiligman has written more than twenty books for children, most of them nonfiction, including three other biographies. She is married to Jonathan Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for The Beak of the Finch.
  • Deborah Heiligman
    Deborah Heiligman