Monday, July 13, 2009

“Charles and Emma”

Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgewood Darwin built a close and happy 43-year-long marriage despite serious religious differences. Deborah Heiligman discusses their marriage and family life in her new (2009) Young Adult book, “Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith.” In Heiligman’s telling, Emma was very traditional, if not fundamentalistic, in her Christian beliefs, believing literally in heaven and hell. Her belief was particularly strong because her sister Fanny, with whom she was very close, died early in Emma’s adult life leaving her bereft. Believing that she would be with Fanny again in heaven, gave Emma great comfort, and, conversely and anxiety producing, she also believed that if a person did not believe in eternal life, that person was doomed to hell forever.
Although Charles was baptized in the Church of England, the Darwin family had long been part of the church’s free-thinking, nonconformist, Unitarian wing. However, when Darwin went up to Cambridge in 1827, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible and was planning to become an Anglican clergyman. He received his BA in April, 1831, and in December of that year, he sailed as the naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. Although at the beginning of the voyage, his religious views were quite orthodox and literal, during the voyage, he began to develop his ideas on biological evolution and started to think that species could change, thus undermining his literal belief that all life was created at one time in the form of fixed species.
When in 1836, he returned from the voyage, he began to think about marriage, and in true Darwinian logical fashion, wrote two columns on a paper: Marry? And Not Marry? He decided on marriage, and soon he was courting Emma, his first cousin, whom he had known all his life. In 1839, he and Emma married, but not before his discussing with her his now unorthodox religious views. In this, he went against his father’s advice, who had counseled concealment of his views from Emma for the sake martial concord. These open discussions between them were, however, important in making their marriage strong and happy in spite of the many trials and miseries they encountered.
Perhaps chief among their personal sorrows was the death, in 1851, of their beloved child Annie who among their children was particularly close to both of them. Her death was particularly cruel for Charles and dealt the final blow for him of a traditional conception of Christianity, which at the time of Annie’s death was being shaped by his reading of Francis Newman’s book, “Phases of Faith or Passages from the History of My Creed.” Throughout his life Charles read widely in religion, and although Newman, like Darwin, did not believe in the literal truth of the Bible, he did believe in heaven and for him the way to heaven was by accepting the teachings of Jesus. Newman wrote that Christianity taught that people deserve punishment for offending God, and he concluded that in Christian belief, “the fretfulness of a child is an infinite evil!” Newman continued, “I was aghast that I could have believed it.” Charles in reading this thought of his brave Annie, pleasant during the day and crying herself to sleep at night. How could he adhere to a religion that saw a child’s fretfulness as evil? It was Annie’s illness and death that more than anything else turned Charles away from the orthodox Christianity of his day and, not incidentally, the religion of his wife. However, or perhaps because of their religious differences, their marriage bond grew stronger as they coped with this tragedy and the deaths of their other children, all of whom they loved dearly and indulged in a very un-Victorian way. Throughout their lives, particularly during times of tragedy, Charles and Emma continued to discuss their differing views. Furthermore, Emma was always Charles first editor, even though, because of her conservative religious views, she had serious reservations about natural selection, which Charles put forth as the basis for the evolution of life into many ever-changing species. This idea is the basis of “The Origin of Species,” Charles’s landmark book, and during the course of its development, Emma worked closely with him to improve his arguments.
Throughout her life, the hope of heaven remained the principal way that she coped with life’s disappointments, primarily the early and seemingly inopportune deaths of those she loved most dearly, including her sister Fanny and her children who died in her lifetime. Charles came to take a more stoic, agonistic view of life’s blows. Interestingly after Charles died and Emma grew old, her anxieties about the afterlife seemed to fade. Perhaps she found at least a portion of “The Peace that Passes Understanding.”


Deborah Heiligman said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful retelling of my book, CHARLES AND EMMA: THE DARWINS' LEAP OF FAITH. The reaction to this book among adults has been gratifying. I wrote it for teens, but I really wrote it for myself, and adults are finding their way to it, thank goodness. I got a fan letter the other day from an 87-year-old woman. It came in the "real" mail, via my publisher, and I will treasure it always. She writes that the book resonated with her because she and her husband had similar religious differences. "Their religious dilemma was one that my husband and I faced also and like the Darwins our love prevailed." I believe love can prevail, and can also be the greatest influence in our lives. I know my love is.
Thanks again for understanding!

Pete M said...

Thanks for your comment. I also know the kind of relationship that Charles and Emma had. My partner, who I've been with for more than nine years, is secular and nonreligious. I credit the conversations we've had on religion as helping me understand and deepen my own religious stance.

Naomi Littlewood-Snyder said...

Dear Ms. Heiligman and Pete M.,

In a world can often feels so polarized, your comments are refreshing to say the least! I'm looking forward to reading this book very much!

On a somewhat related topic, an associate of mine and myself have recently been discussing co-publishing a zine or blog on social reform topics that tend to become sensitive when being debated between non-theistic and faith motivated individuals. We are of differing philosophies, and yet often find ourselves on the same page where societal issues are concerned. Our interest is in getting past the prejudiced rhetoric that both sides can be guilty of, and foster calm, reasoned debate and perhaps even a better bond between activists to muster more force to affect change in our conservative province. I googled the term, "Charles and Emma" this morning to see if anyone had used the title before. It came to me this week while I was brainstorming, and I think it's a great way to speak to the idea of opposing views being able to not only co-exist, but flourish in productivity and foster each sides growth via mutual respect.

I would love to hear any thoughts you have, including reservations you have about the title due to copyright issue. This is an embryonic project, so any site/book references that come to the top of your mind would also be greatly appreciated!


Pete M said...

Ms. Littlewood-Snyder,
Thank you for your comment on “Charles and Emma.” I agree that the Darwins are good role models for people living together with differing beliefs. The Darwins were able to have a good marriage, while discussing their differences. Of course, it’s significant that Charles did not follow his father’s advice, but talked with Emma about religion. I think that if he had kept quiet, their marriage would not have been so close.
As far as fostering discussion and understanding across differences, I think that Non-Realism offers a way of bridging gaps. This theological perspective, associated particularly with Don Cupitt (, points out that humans can not stand outside of themselves and therefore we can not “know” anything absolutely. Furthermore, I think that our beliefs depend on our experiences shaped by our feelings. For example, Emma’s feelings of grief when her sister died were palpable, and these strong feelings shaped her religion. Charles seemed well aware of the connection in Emma between her grief and her religion. Each of us reacts differently to life experience. Her belief in the afterlife when she would be with her loved ones again gave her comfort, whereas Charles seemed more stoic and resigned when tragedy came. If people are willing to grant that they may see things differently, they can have helpful discussions on religious topics. Unyielding dogmatism and the determination to persuade are usually the divisive factors, not the beliefs themselves.
As far as using the title, “Emma and Charles,” in a blog or a ‘zine devoted to discussing religious differences, you might want to contact Ms. Heiligman directly about that. Her email address is:
Thanks again for your comment.

Franklyn said...

When two people hold different views on an imporant issue the key element in growing through this difference is the wish to understand rather than to change the view of the other person. No one will change when being attacked. This is so obvious that it commonsensical yet is often not acted upoon.

Pete M said...

Commonsense is in very short supply.