Darwin’s agony: Randal Keynes – Annie’s Box

A popular science biography which gives a superb entree to Darwin and his world and is easier to digest than, say Janet Browne’s (equally superb, but doorstopping) biography. I’ve met Randal Keynes – splendid chap – quite a few times since writing this, and got involved with the Charles Darwin Trust for a while. All of which gives me further reason to like the book.

Charles Darwin’s life embraced two great projects. There was the theory which held that we are risen apes, not fallen angels. And there was the almost equally impressive enterprise of a Victorian gentleman’s family. Randal Keynes’ poignant book shows how the two were bound together.

Its focus is Charles and Emma Darwin’s first daughter, Annie, and her death in 1851, when she was just ten. Annie’s box is the writing box in which Emma stowed a few childish relics and kept for the rest of her life,  and which Keynes, her great-great-grandson, unearthed by chance.

But Keynes builds out from Annie’s life, and death, to a rich portrait of Darwin’s domestic life, and how his thought was shaped by his deep interest in human beings. He is careful not to claim too much. Although Annie’s death affected Darwin deeply, his theory had its roots years earlier, in the landscapes and living things he puzzled over during his four-year voyage round the globe on HMS Beagle. It was already well developed before she fell ill. And while her death, halfway to adulthood, seemed particularly senseless, it was no surprise for parents of ten children to lose a few.

In fact, the Darwins seem to have been lucky. In the midst of his theorising, Charles seems to be forever writing to friends or relations offering condolences on the death of sons, daughters, spouses, or siblings. Childbed fever killed wives, while a raft of infectious diseases weeded out the children. Before Annie died, Charles would write that time would ease the pain. Afterwards, he knew better.

The suffering was worse, if anything, because he had been so fascinated by the infant Darwins. Although Charles and Emma’s household employed the usual retinue of servants to do all the actual work, he was, by Victorian standards, an involved father. He had, as he said himself, “a fine degree of paternal fervour”. More than that, ever the keenest of observers of the natural world, he fixed his scientific eye on these most interesting of creatures, his children. Many of the features of human development which found their way into his books he noted when playing in the nursery.

All of this is conveyed by Keynes with great skill, as he interleaves details of life with the Darwins at Down house in Kent from family papers with apt comments on the household reading from Wordsworth or Hume, and from childcare manuals to story books. The drama of the lengthy gestation of Darwin’s theory in its mature form is played out against the background of the incessant round of pregnancy, birth and education of the Darwin children, punctuated by visits from small crowds of cousins.

The Darwin of these pages is an almost saintly figure, patient, reasonable, freethinking, and only angered by cruelty. His boundless intellectual curiosity was, though, combined with a relentless honesty. He insisted on sharing his scepticism about salvation with the devoted but devout Emma Wedgewood. As his father had predicted, this made her fearful about his prospects in the afterlife, and the gulf between them only deepened as they grew older together. It was never deeper than when they lost the girl Darwin described in a brief but intensely moving memoir as “the joy of the household”.

The Darwin industry produces biographies regularly, but this one has a rare combination of emotional power and historical authority. The impact of Annie’s death seems to have been, not to strengthen Darwin’s convictions about the importance of natural selection, but to reinforce his doubts about religious consolation. He knew full well that human suffering was an ancient theological problem. But as the author of a theory which relieved God of any responsibility for creating new species, it was harder to credit that he intervened in human life. And for this particular grieving parent, it was impossible to see this kind of death as part of any divine plan. It might have an explanation, even a cause, but no reason. Keynes’ Darwin, in other words, is a thinker facing up to the realities of the secular world most of us now live in. (2002)

(Randal Keynes – Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, his daughter and human evolution. Fourth Estate)

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