My Research for Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

My Research for Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Charles and Emma Darwin

Portraits of Charles and Emma Darwin by George Richmond (1840). © English Heritage Photo Library/by kind permission of Darwin Heirloom Trust.

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809-April 19, 1882) is one of the most famous people in the history of the world. Many people also think he was the most important scientist (though of course others argue it was Albert Einstein). In any case, his theory of evolution by natural selection changed the way we think about life forever. Although it does cause controversy in some religious communities, the basics of his theory are accepted as truth in the scientific world. Scientists are constantly adding to his ideas, developing them further, but there is no doubt that the young naturalist from England had it right.

On this site you will find links that will help you explore in much the same way as I did to find the true Charles Darwin. It is not instead of the book, which, of course, you should buy (Indiebound, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble) or take out of your library. But these pages and links will lead you down some interesting paths, I promise.

Start with my publisher’s web page about the book, Macmillan: Charles and Emma. There you will find a description of the book and a Teacher’s Guide with some thought-provoking questions. (I didn’t make up the Guide; but I think I know the answers…)

Down House today

Down House (today) © English Heritage Photo Library


How I did my research. I have been to England and visited Down House. I loved to be able to walk in the rooms where Charles and Emma sat and worked. Walking into Charles’s study was amazing and walking on the Sand Walk with my husband and children was a true experience. But when it came time to write the book, I did most of my research right at my desk—with forays to the library for books and more books. I also did a lot of research online because fortunately there are many great Darwin sources on the Web. Both with books and on the internet, I relied most heavily on primary sources.

My “bibles” were:

  • a two-volume set of letters collected by Charles and Emma’s daughter, Henrietta Litchfield. It’s called EMMA DARWIN: A CENTURY OF FAMILY LETTERS. I was lucky enough to be able to take it out of the library at Columbia University, where my husband is a professor. You can go to the public library, perhaps, and find it and browse on your own. Or you can go to Google Books and, because it is so old, find it there. Here is volume 1 of Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters and here is volume 2. How cool is that?
  • The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (in various editions). Including this one.
  • Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, which you can find here. Take a look at this entry. Scroll down, or search for the word “saliva.” You’ll recognize it from the book.

Title page, first edition, The Origin of Species

Title page, first edition, The Origin of Species. © English Heritage Photo Library

Which brings me to the two web sites I used the most. The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, which is where the notebooks are, and where you can find-well, pretty much anything Charles Darwin ever wrote (except for his letters, so below). You can also find on these pages pictures of Emma’s diary. I spent a lot of time looking at her diary, looking at the letters each wrote, and piecing together what their daily lives were actually like. I also looked at her diary to see entries for specific days, like the day Annie died, or the day Charles died. You can do that, too, by finding the diary for that year, and paging through to that date. Maybe you want to see what Emma wrote–if anything–on the day one of Charles’s books was published, or the day that one of her children was born. You can also just browse and see notes about school holidays, letters she wrote, and lists of symptoms-hers, Etty’s, Charles’s. Of course I also used this site to look in Charles’s many books and manuscripts. You can find here his early draft on the origin of species by natural selection written that summer at Maer. And also his questionnaire about expression.

This page will lead you to great photographs, a timeline, as well as obituaries and memories of Darwin. Have fun! For my own idiosyncratic time line, click here.

Many of Charles’s letters, and the ones he received, you can find here at the Darwin Correspondence Project. The good people who run the project, and have for many years, are in the process of getting as many of Charles’s 12,000 (about) written or received letters in print and on line. These people there are my heroes. Charles had about 2,000 correspondents in his lifetime and his letters are a treasure trove. I used this site constantly while researching my book and found treasures such as this one: a collection they put together about Darwin’s thoughts about religion.

Here is the letter he wrote to Emma asking her to take care of the publication of his species draft “in case of my sudden death.”

There are many, many wonderful resources on the web about Darwin. In addition to the two above, you should check out these:

Have fun! And remember, as always, to double check any facts you want to use in a paper.