Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Reviews: The True Adventures of Charley Darwin [&] Charles and Emma

Reviewed by
Anne H Weaver


Title: The True Adventures of Charley Darwin
Author: Carolyn Meyer
Orlando (FL): Harcourt. 2009. 272 pages

Title: Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
Author: Deborah Heiligman
New York: Henry Holt. 2009. 320 pages

Purchase The True Adventures of Charley Darwin online

Purchase Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith online

The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, by Carolyn Meyer, and Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith are two excellent new additions to Darwiniana for young people. Meyer gives us an engaging account of Darwin’s youth up until his marriage. Heiligman offers a poignant account of Darwin in maturity through the story of his family life and collegial relationships.

Despite some inevitable overlaps, the books are remarkably complementary. Both authors recount classic anecdotes; both authors describe Darwin’s youthful, ill-fated flirtation with Fanny Owen; and both document Darwin’s infamous 1838 list, jotted on the back of a letter, outlining the pros and cons of marriage (Darwin 1838). In fact, that list represents the pivot point between Meyer’s lively historical romance for adolescents and Heiligman’s well-crafted story of an older Darwin for a slightly older audience.


Carolyn Meyer has a devoted following of adolescent readers who love her fictionalized, first-person historical biographies (of Mozart’s sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Queen Anne, and others). In this vein, Meyer’s The True Adventures of Charley Darwin introduces the reader to the schoolboy who preferred to catch beetles and hunt for newts in the old quarry rather than study Latin and Greek; the young man who was more comfortable on horseback galloping across the pampas of Argentina than he was sipping tea in an English drawing room” (p 320).

Meyer is a novelist, exercising a novelist’s prerogative in introducing occasional minor anachronisms, arranging fictional encounters to move the action forward, and putting words into the mouths of her characters. On the other hand, she is also a meticulous researcher, who keeps her artistic license well within the bounds of credibility. She makes good use of the little information available about Darwin’s early childhood, relying on his Autobiography (1958) and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) to create an account of school days alive with friendships, pranks, and rivalries, all in the grim context of institutional thin blankets, unwashed sheets, and stale bread.

The dramatic arc is significantly interrupted by a long chronological account of Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle. But Meyer deftly keeps the narrative flow intact by referring to the letters Darwin received from family and friends at intervals during the voyage; and, true to the genre of historical romance, her narrative ends with Darwin’s ambivalent courtship and marriage to Emma Wedgwood.

Meyer gives us the young Darwin as an adored younger brother, a discontented schoolboy, an adolescent romantic; an intrepid explorer, a passionate hunter, a desirable catch, a preoccupied young scientist, and a hesitant suitor. And she offers her readers a rich and lively picture of upper-class English country life in the 19th century.


Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith springs to life at the point where Meyer’s draws to a close. Heiligman’s research is grounded in the available sources, especially the correspondence and diaries of Emma Wedgwood Darwin, Charles’s notebooks, and correspondence among Darwin’s colleagues and friends. From this rich trove, the author has drawn a nuanced and engaging portrait of the Darwins’ lifelong devotion to each other despite divergent religious beliefs.

From the late 18th century onward, scientific explanations for natural phenomena challenged the conventional Anglican world view of supernatural intervention and biblical literalism. A growing movement of freethinkers and Unitarians believed that human affairs should be governed based on reason and empirical evidence. The Darwins’ divergent spiritual perspectives embodied the contemporary tension between religious orthodoxy and science.

Heiligman reconstructs Emma’s perspective from letters, memories recorded by the Darwin children, short moral tales she created to teach her children to read, and from notes in the margins of her Bible. Heiligman depicts Emma as a complex woman: thoughtful, intelligent, honest, highly principled, and devout.

Growing up in a freethinking, Unitarian household, Emma took to heart the Unitarian commitment to rational and independent thought. And yet Emma had a deeply devotional side, which is revealed in her letters.

Heiligman places much weight on three letters in particular. The first, written shortly after the death of Emma’s sister Fanny: “Such a separation as this seems to make the next world feel such a reality — it seems to bring it so much nearer to one’s mind and gives one such a desire to be found worthy of being with her” (Wedgwood 1832).

In a second letter, written by Emma to Charles after their engagement in 1839, she worried that “our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain” (Wedgwood 1838). In a later letter she says, “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension” (Wedgwood 1839). At the bottom of this letter, discovered among Darwin’s papers after his death, is a short note: “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C.D.”

Like Emma, Darwin grew up among freethinkers and Unitarians. Darwin’s father had little patience for religion, but his sisters made sure he knew his Bible, which he interpreted literally in his youth. Heiligman provides a succinct summary of natural selection theory and a detailed description of the decades of inquiry that convinced Darwin that species have their origins in natural processes, leading him to describe himself as a materialist and an agnostic.

Despite Emma’s concern about the state of Charles’s soul and her fear that he was jeopardizing their chances of being together through all time, the Darwins’ marriage was strong and fruitful in many dimensions. Heiligman writes about their love, their family life, and their very human struggles to be true to themselves and to each other.

Charles and Emma is a poignant and intimately researched portrayal of the deep bond between two mature people with a commitment to each other, to their family, and to the truth. It is a worthy departure from the format of Heiligman’s earlier brightly illustrated children’s books.


Each of these fine books — The True Adventures of Charley Darwin and Charles and Emma — is unique in tone and emphasis. Each portrays a different and fascinating phase of Darwin’s long and productive life. Together, they offer the young reader (or the devoted Darwin fan) a lively and rich depiction of Charles Darwin and his intimate world.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.