Module 12: Charles and Emma: the Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma: the Darwins’ Leap of Faith is a biography by Deborah Heiligman. It details the life of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, who was deeply religious, and how they managed to live together peacefully in spite of their different scientific and religious doctrines.


The biography begins with Charles compiling a list of reasons to Marry or Not to Marry in 1838; he was in his late twenties and had just returned from a five year voyage on the HMS Beagle. Among the reasons to not marry are to have more time to travel and pursue his studies; reasons to marry are to have children and that a wife is better company than a dog.

He decides to marry and he and his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, become engaged and marry, despite some fundamental differences in their religious backgrounds: when Emma’s beloved sister, Fanny, died, she became even more religious and believed in an afterlife, while Darwin was doubting the Gospels based upon his research and discoveries in the realm of natural science, specifically that there was proof of evolution in different animal and plant species.

They married and were very much in love — Charles and Emma had ten children, eight of which survived to adulthood. They hated to be parted from each other and indeed spent very little time apart.

The book uses letters and journal entries to detail the everyday thoughts and feelings of the Darwins, who’s lives are chronicled from their courtship through their deaths. Despite their religious and scientific differences, they lived happy lives together.


This book was very thoroughly researched, which in part made it very boring. The attempts to make it personable are what bogs the narrative down. I don’t feel like it’s necessary to include every minute detail of their lives — for example, when Charles and Emma bought their first home after marrying, the author includes all of the details of its appearance, including the fact that “there was a dead dog decomposing in the garden.” WHY?!


When the book opens, Charles Darwin is trying to make a decision, and he is doing so in time-honored fashion: drawing a line down a piece of paper and putting the pros of marriage on one side and the cons on the other. As much as Darwin is interested in wedded life, he is afraid that family life will take him away from the revolutionary work he is doing on the evolution of species. However, the pluses triumph, and he finds the perfect mate in his first-cousin Emma, who becomes his comforter, editor, mother of his 10 children—and sparring partner. Although highly congenial, Charles and Emma were on opposite sides when it came to the role of God in creation. Heiligman uses the Darwin family letters and papers to craft a full-bodied look at the personal influences that shaped Charles’ life as he worked mightily to shape his theories. This intersection between religion and science is where the book shines, but it is also an excellent portrait of what life was like during the Victorian era, a time when illness and death were ever present, and, in a way, a real-time example of the survival of the fittest. Occasionally hard to follow, in part because of the many characters (the family tree helps), this is well sourced and mostly fascinating, and may attract a wider audience than those interested in science. Austen fans will find a romance to like here, too.

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.
School Library Journal


This could be an unconventional addition to a Valentine’s Day display or used as a booktalk for high school students. In a school library setting, excerpts could be used to highlight the ways Darwin struggled with religion; coming from a conservative small Texas town, there are many parents who oppose their children learning Darwinism and evolution, so this could be a balm for them.


Cooper, I. (2009, January 1). Charles and emma: The darwins’ leap of faith. Booklist, 105(9), 68. Retrieved from

Heiligman, D. (2009). Charles and emma: The darwins’ leap of faith. New York, NY: Holt.

Hunt, E. (2009, March 1). Celebrate the darwin bicentennial. Retrieved from School Library Journal website:

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