Emma Darwin

Edna Healey

Why I looked at this book

The first part of the 19th century was a time of science changing from a largely amateur activity to a professional career. Emma Darwin was born into the world of the industrial revolution, when spectacle was a significant part of science, whilst her sons played an important part in the academic life of Cambridge university. I feel that reading a biography of Emma, (who presumably would experience what was happening indirectly) might help to understand this change. Also I've recently read a biography of Gwen Raverat, so I thought it might be interesting to look back a couple of generations.

First impressions

The sample only gets as far as Emma's grandparents, which makes it hard to judge it as a biography.You really need to be able to refer to the family trees to keep track of what is going on - these are present in the book, but not in the sample.

Main review

This book didn't help me to understand the change from science as spectacle to science as profession, but that isn't really a fault of the book, since presumably Emma wasn't that interested in science (although her contemporaries would certainly attend scientific lectures). But later in the book I would have hoped to have heard more about her children's interests as they were growing up, since some were to become prominent scientists - all we hear of is their illnesses. In the last chapter, after Emma's death, we hear more of the children, but I'm not sure why this should be out of sequence.

The book tells of Emma's extensive continental travels and I felt that it deals well with the cultures that Emma experienced and her opinions of them. It also highlights the links between the Wedgwood, Allen and Darwin families. We hear of how it was thought Charles Darwin was more suited to Emma's sister Fanny, but following her tragic death, became closer to Emma. It is also interesting to find out about Charles' deliberations on whether to marry or not - "Better than a dog". After that, though, I felt that the book wasn't so interesting.

In Period Piece Gwen Raverat talks of how her Aunt Bessy talked of "'a little secret păth' (as she called it in her inherited Wedgwood tongue)" This is repeated in this book, but without the diacritical mark. A small error - one that I wouldn't normally comment on (although it does mean most of the meaning is lost). The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt that this was a sign of how this book missed out on the 'big picture'. Early on in the book Healey tells of how the Wedgwood's tried to become part of the Establishment - gentlemen rather than 'trade'. I feel that she could have done more to see how this succeeded in subsequent generations. Gwen tells of her Aunt Etty's eccentricities, but Etty seems very much Mrs Establishment to me. Bessy, talks with a short 'A' not the long 'A' of the Establishment. Gwen reacted a bit against the previous generation's middle class values, but still sees Aunt Bessy as somewhat out of place. I felt that this is the sort of thing this book could have picked up on

Overall I think the book concentrated to much on previous generations. Of course a biographer has to deal with the material available, but I still feel that the book is unbalanced. When you were a child, you probably sometimes visited relatives, and sat around while everyone talked about boring 'grownup' things. I felt that this book was a bit like that.
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