Most people think of Charles Darwin the scientist, the natural historian, the public man. I think of Charles as a husband and father first, a personage second. As I researched and wrote my book Charles and Emma, I spent so much time at home with them in Down House, I felt like they were my friends. In fact, I became so attached to my Darwins that when I wrote about Charles dying, I cried. I don’t mean, my eyes pooled up, a little tear delicately trailing down my cheek. I mean, I sobbed. And it didn’t get easier with each draft. To the contrary. By the last draft, I was crying so loudly, my son, packing for college in the next room, came running into my office.
“Don’t worry,” he said, patting my shaking back. “I’ll be back home often.”
What was he talking about? He was going only half a mile away, and I knew from his older brother that they always came back, even if they go halfway across the country!
“It’s not YOU!” I blurted. “It’s Charles! He’s dying!” I think by now, eight years later, my son has forgiven me. I’m not sure.
When I was asked to write about Charles and Emma for this birthday issue of This View of Life, I went back to one of my old haunts, the website Darwin Online. I particularly wanted to see if Emma made any notations on February 12 in her day diaries. I couldn’t find anything, but paging through, I got caught up once again reading her terse notations about the weather, noticing whom she wrote to, whom she visited, what her symptoms were during pregnancy. I was struck again by her entries for important events, such as a mere “12:00” on the day Annie died.
Perusing that site, revisiting other research materials I hadn’t looked at for years, and looking at passages I cut from my own manuscript, I found myself right back at Down House with them. So when I noticed something I had not seen before, I welled up again. For right there in front of me was The Last Will and Testament of Charles Robert Darwin. Charles died. There it was in black and white.
I printed out the will, but I could not read it for days. I put it on my coffee table, and I avoided it. I piled newspapers and books on top of it so that when I finally got the courage to read it, I had to search for it as one would have had to search for something in Emma’s domain, slob that she was. (The children, whenever they needed something, ran into their father’s study, for Charles was meticulously neat and knew exactly where to find the scissors or the ruler or the glue.)
I finally was able to read the will without crying—being that it was a will and written in legalese. (In fact I asked a lawyer friend to help me understand some of it). I was happy to see Emma was well-provided for (of course!) Also, interestingly, Charles left the real property and house to his two oldest sons, not just the oldest. He left his scientific library to Frank, which made sense, and made sure all his children were taken care of. He gave Sir Joseph Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley each 1,000 pounds “as a slight memorial of my life long affection and respect for them.” Good guy, I thought for the umpteenth time, my Charles.
People who don’t know Charles don’t necessarily realize that he was one of the true good guys in history. While I was writing the book, an acquaintance told me she thought Charles must be a mean man. I was shocked. Why? “Survival of the fittest, and all that,” she said. She confused the man with the science.
Charles was beloved by his wife, his children, the other children in the neighborhood. He was nice to his servants.
He was so kind and indulgent as a father, that the one time when he wouldn’t indulge a child became a family story. Lenny, the son who famously asked a neighborhood friend where his father did his barnacles, liked to push the limit of his father’s indulgence. He wanted to jump on the couch, even though his father told him it was against the rules. You better leave the room, then, Lenny said. Charles did. Soon after that, Charles gave Lenny a shilling as a present. A few days later, the boy barged into Charles’s study during work hours. This, too, was against the rules, though Charles only asked them kindly to leave after they had gotten what they needed. But Lenny wasn’t there to retrieve a scissors or a ruler, he was there to bribe his father: “If you will come and stop with me on the lawn, whilst I burn the touchwood, I will give you sixpence,” he said.
Charles would not be moved. The family told the story because it was such an aberration. It would have been just like Charles to leave his work to watch his son light a fire.
Many of the readers who have gotten in touch with me have had an emotional connection to Charles and Emma, too. From the second-grade girl (Second grade! This book is for ages 12 and up) who was desperate to know where Charles and Emma went on their honeymoon (they went straight home, where Charles had arranged for the fire to be lit prior to their arrival) to the many readers who wrote to ask me what was wrong with Charles. Everyone has a hypothesis: Crohn’s, Chagas, lactose intolerance, IBS, anxiety. I tell them I have no one favorite diagnosis, but I am willing to go back in time with someone from the Mayo clinic to find out.
Just the other day, a teacher wrote to me about an eighth-grade honor student’s reaction to the book. The teacher had asked her class to think about the overarching theme of legacy as they read various books. A student who read Charles and Emma reported to the class that Emma was her heroine because of her love for her sister Fanny. The student cried as she declared her vow to have a better relationship with her own sisters. “Seeing a student connect with a text and a historical figure in such in a powerful way reminds me of why I read and why I teach,” the teacher wrote.
This teacher herself had connected with Charles and Emma emotionally, too, back when she read the book during a semester abroad.
“We toured the Darwin home shortly after finishing the text. I wanted to know where Emma was buried, since we had visited Charles’ grave in Westminster Abbey.” When she learned that Emma was buried in a graveyard not far from Down House, she felt “extremely sad” that Emma would be separated from Charles in death. Emma had been so worried they would be separated for all eternity.
I know how this teacher felt. I know how Emma felt. I too would be sad to be separated from Charles for all eternity.