Module 12 — Biography

Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman

Module 12 — Biography


Heiligman, D.  (2009).  Charles and Emma.  New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.


Charles Darwin spent many long years preparing his theories of natural selection and evolution of species before presenting them to the public.  During these years of research, contemplation, and writing and editing, Darwin struggled with fears about possible public reaction to his ideas.  He also attempted to convince his wife that his theories, rather than the biblical account of creation, presented a demonstrable account of the continual evolution of species in adapting to environments through the process of natural selection.  His beloved wife, Emma, never gave up hope that Charles would share her religious faith.  Although she disagreed with his revolutionary ideas, Emma helped Charles with his writing and was profoundly influential to him not only in his personal life but also in the presentation of his bold theories.

My Impressions

I had known that Darwin spent many years preparing his ideas for prime time and that he was concerned about the potential reaction of people of religious faith.  I did not know, however, that Darwin and his wife had such a profound disagreement, and this fascinating book takes us behind the scenes in the Darwin household and reveals the conflicts that both Charles and Emma dealt with in the years of preceding and following publication of The Origin of Species.  This is a moving account of a marriage that was built on love and mutual respect that stayed strong in the face of controversy and public pressure.  It’s a gripping narrative, and Heiligman strikes a good balance between explanation of the science (and religion) and the personal story of this special couple.


Heath, E. (2009, Jan. 1). [Review of the book Charles and Emma]. School Library Journal, 55, 126.

/* Starred Review */ Gr 8 Up— 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. Published for young adults, this title will be equally interesting to adults drawn to revisit Darwin on his 200th birthday.

[Review of Charles and Emma]. (2008, Dec. 15). Publshers Weekly, 255, 53.

/* Starred Review */ This rewarding biography of Charles Darwin investigates his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Heiligman (the Holidays Around the World series) 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. Heiligman writes for motivated readers, and her style can be discursive (mention of a letter can introduce a few sentences on the British postal system). Her book allows readers not only to understand Darwin’s ideas, but to appreciate how Emma’s responses tempered them. Eight pages of photos, not seen by PW. Ages 12–up.

Using in the Library

Charles Darwin was a scientist who changed history in many profound ways.  Have students use library resources to research the life of a prominent scientist of today or of the past.  How can science influence our daily lives and the way we see our world?  If this scientist were to create a Facebook profile, what’s some of the information that would be included in the profile?  What are some things that might be written on the wall?  Have students write a sample Facebook page for their chosen scientist.


About Boyd Waltman

Boyd Waltman is a film editor in Houston, Texas.
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