Thursday, May 28, 2009

Made in heaven

I was looking forward to Deborah Heiligman's biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith. I enjoy a Victorian love story, and this one seemed promising. I didn't know that Charles had made a scientist's list of pros and cons about marrying. I didn't know that he and Emma were first cousins. And I certainly didn't know that Emma had such a profound Christian faith that she feared eternal separation from Charles upon death. She would be waiting in Heaven, while the skeptic who developed the world-shattering theory that God did not create a static universe would be burning in Hell. As Heiligman asks, how could they possibly be a happy couple?

Yet, they evidently were, living what sounds like a somewhat contemporary life at their country home, Down House -- Dad working from home, Mom with a light domestic touch, the barely controlled chaos of a small army of children, and all that stuff that Darwin collected. They survived three of their ten children, and were most particularly affected by the loss of their daughter, Annie, who died at the age of 10. Charles was extremely conscientious about how and when he would publish his theory of natural selection, knowing the effect it might have, yet -- despite Emma's objections (and perhaps horror) -- he asked her to read and comment on his manuscript.

I had questions when I'd finished: Am I the only person who found it completely ironic that the agnostic Darwin is buried -- no doubt with great Christian pomp and circumstance -- at Westminster Abbey? Emma, wisely, took no part in that day's shenanigans. And whatever was physically wrong with Charles? It sounded to me like he had an extremely nervous tummy, but Heiligman doesn't provide any 20th century interpretations of his condition, or the cause of Annie's death or that of Emma's beloved sister, Fanny. I like to know that stuff.

Beyond these quibbles, though, I'm just not that crazy about the book. The premise is fascinating, but the day-to-day details just got to be a bit dull. (Hey, just like life!) Emma is pregnant, Charles is studying his barnacles, he tinkers with his theory, he discusses it with Emma or with his cadre of fellow skeptics. Then, tragedy strikes, everyone is sad for awhile, and then life goes on. I don't mean to be flippant about the death of a child, but I did get this feeling from listening to this book.

With her intense, yet quiet delivery, Rosalyn Landor reads the book with that English sang-froid that indicates tragedy with just a bit more of a quiver in the voice than an ordinary day. And I don't mean that as a criticism: Landor is English and so were Charles and Emma. Profound emotions are to be kept to oneself. I'm glad that Heiligman's scholarship gives us a chance to peek into their personal thoughts, but that doesn't make them any less English. Landor actually gives what felt like an accurate, subtle portrayal. It's not her fault that it all began to blend together.

What I most definitely do not like, though, is the technique I also heard in the Lincoln biography I recently listened to. Biographers are completely correct to incorporate their subject's actual words into their narrative. But audiobook narrators feel they have to distinguish these quotations with a [pause] change of speaking voice [pause] that is most awkward and distracting to listen to. I agree that the source of the words should be known, but I don't think this is the answer. Like many a cranky blogger, I offer no alternatives, but this method simply feels artificial.

It's good to see more nonfiction available in audio (although I think I've complained more often than praised), offering young scholars (or even just the mildly interested) the chance to research in an alternative media. There are actually two more nonfiction titles coming up on my listening list, and since I've read them both, I'm thinking they might be better suited to audio than Mr. Lincoln and Mr. and Mrs. Darwin: We Are the Ship and Your Own, Sylvia [Plath].

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