The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 19, 2010

Cari Boatright Rerat: Biography captures couple’s relationship amidst controversy

Normally, I don’t read nonfiction. I want action. I want characters I can like or dislike; heroes and villains.

I want to escape into a good story. I don’t want to feel like I have to trudge through a book because “it’s good for me.”

As a librarian (and perhaps a well-educated person), I feel like I should read nonfiction. But as a story lover, I’m only going to read nonfiction that doesn’t feel like it’s “good for me.”

“Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith,” by Deborah Heiligman, is a biography that fit the bill nicely.

This book is the true love story of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgewood. It begins with Darwin’s pro-and-con list over whether to find someone to marry.

Under “not marry” is the fear that having a wife will take too much time away from his scientific work, while under “marry” is the fear of living his whole life alone with only his work. Darwin spends a lot of time and thought on this list, but ultimately, “Marry” wins over and he decides to find a wife.

Before he can begin his search, he has one more fear to deal with: his doubts about God and creation. While looser interpretations of the Bible are beginning to be accepted, he is afraid that his religious doubts will drive a wedge between him and any possible bride.

Darwin isn’t the kind of man to keep such an important issue to himself, though his father strongly urges him to do just that. When he decides that Wedgewood could be his bride and “constant companion,” he tells her everything.

Wedgewood believes devoutly in God, creation and heaven, so telling her of his doubts is a big risk — he could lose the love of his life.

Luckily, Wedgewood accepts him and they begin their long life together. It’s a life that is full of the kind of love and honesty that help them respect their differing beliefs and think long and hard about how they can be reconciled.

The story of Charles and Emma Darwin is worth checking out. Heiligman does a wonderful job of making “Charles and Emma” readable. She uses quotes from letters written to, and by, the two that feel like dialogue.

In fact, Heiligman is able to describe the events and the motivations of the Darwins so well that the whole book is as easy to read as a fiction novel.

Victorian England was not an easy place or time period in which to live, so the story of the Darwins is not all love and happiness. The drama and the trauma that they face, while sad, make this book all the more interesting.

I learned a great deal about how Darwin’s theory of natural selection came to be and about what life was like during that time period, but I never felt like I was reading something that was “good for me.” I never had to talk myself into finishing because I always wanted to know what happened next.

The audio version of this book is read by Rosalyn Landor in a nice British accent that is well worth listening to. Landor does what all good audiobook narrators do and changes her voice depending on who’s speaking. This not only makes the book much easier to follow, it enhances Heiligman’s storytelling and makes it feel even less like nonfiction.