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Excerpt: 'Charles and Emma'

by Deborah Heiligman
Dec 8, 2009

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'Charles and Emma'

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Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife?

— CHARLES DARWIN, 1838, CONTEMPLATING WHETHER TO MARRY

In 1859, when Charles finished the manuscript for his book, he gave it to Emma. He also sent it to some of his scientific friends, but he was in many ways most interested in Emma's reaction. She was a representative of the religious world he was up against — he was sleeping with the enemy! And she told things as she saw them.

He respected Emma's mind and trusted her implicitly. She was brilliant, had been an avid reader her whole life, and she was a terrific literary critic, editor, and proofreader. Emma helped him with all his papers and books, and this one was the most important. Charles wanted The Origin of Species to be simple enough for a nonscientist to read and understand, as well as accurate and cogently argued enough to convince a scientist. His scientific friends would speak to the latter question. But Emma was his first and most important nonscientific reader.

In fact, Emma was not all that interested in science. She was only interested in Charles's science because it was his. Once, as they sat together listening to a lecture at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he turned to her and said, "I am afraid this is very wearisome to you."

"No more than all the rest," she answered him quietly.

Charles often told this story; he thought it was funny. He had never wanted a scientific partner. He wanted a constant companion, which he got. He also got a devoted nurse who would not leave him alone for a night because it made him anxious. He got a woman who was, according to an aunt of Emma's, "an exception to every wife" in her devotion.

But he also got a good — and tough — reader. [...]

Emma and most of Charles's religious friends and family did not ascribe to the miracle-creating, vengeance-meting, wrathful-king God of the Hebrew scriptures. They believed in the prevailing concept of God: God as benevolent Father who created every single species as it existed now, unchanged. This God created a world that ran like clockwork, with every plant, animal, and creature a cog in the great machine. This God created a world with people at the top, near the angels, and all the other animals down below, unrelated to human beings. This God had revealed himself through his son, with a promise of everlasting life.

In The Origin, Charles wasn't trying to murder Emma's God; he was trying to show how he believed creation really occurred.

He knew he was right; he just had to make his argument clear enough so as to be, as much as was possible, irrefutable. And he wanted to be polite about it. Charles wrote the way he spoke, as an English gentleman. At Down [House], when he wanted a servant to do something, he did not order him in an imperious way. Instead he said, "Would you be so good" as to light the fire, empty the chamber pot, fix my dinner? There was no doubt that Charles was the master, but he was kind and respectful. Now in his book he was saying, Would you be so good as to listen to what I have to say — and agree with me?

In what was to become one of the most famous passages in the book, he wrote: "It may metaphorically be said, that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, through the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life."

"It may metaphorically be said" was a bit of British reserve, but it was clear what Charles was arguing. It may be said that new species are forming all the time. It may be said that God did not create all the species at once, as you have been told to believe. Old species die out; new species are created. It may be said that this is actually beautiful. For Charles this process was beautiful. For Emma death was bearable because there was an afterlife. In Charles's view of the world, death looked very different, but he found meaning and grandeur in that view.

As Emma read the pages, there were parts that made her cringe; passages that she worried would move people farther away from God. But she only criticized the argument to help Charles spell it out more clearly. Emma rewrote awkward sentences, and if she didn't understand what he was trying to say, they talked it through so that he could write it in a more lucid fashion. She also helped him with his grammar and his atrocious spelling. She teased him about his misuse of commas — and fixed them for him. [...]

[Charles's] life at Down informed his work in many ways. Back when he was thinking about getting married, he worried that taking walks with his wife would infringe on his work time. But in the last paragraph of The Origin, Charles wrote about a spot near Down House where he and Emma often walked together. He wrote, "It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us ... "

So different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner. He could have been writing about his marriage.

From Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman. Copyright 2009 by Deborah Heiligman. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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