Thursday, December 4, 2008

Book Review: Annie's Box

Keynes, Randal. Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution. London: Fourth Estate, 2001 (Published in the North America in 2002 under the title Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution: New York: Riverhead Books, 2002)

If you’re curious about Charles Darwin, the man, look no further than Randal Keynes’ touching biography of his great-great-uncle. It’s all here: from the Darwins’ marriage and first home in London to the details of life at Downe House, Emma’s widowhood, and Annie’s Box, a writing-case which symbolizes the heartbreaking death of Darwin's ten-year-old daughter. The account spans from the time Darwin decided to “Marry – Marry – Marry. Q.E.D.” in 1938, dipping into some history at Cambridge and aboard the Beagle, until Emma’s death in 1896, and includes a deeply personal look at life along the way.

Keynes pays particular attention to Darwin as husband and father. Darwin, who adored his family, exhibited “a fine degree of paternal fervour” with his ten children, playing on his hands and knees with them, never silencing their "howls and screams,” and even allowing them into his study while he worked. Of all the children, Darwin doted most on Annie, his cherished, eldest daughter, who was the apple of her devoted father's eye.

On April 23, 1851, just two days after Easter, Annie died, possibly from tuberculosis. Paradoxically, Darwin’s religiosity suffered its final blow at this holiest time of year for Christians. Separated from his wife during Annie’s demise, Darwin could not draw on Emma’s religious fortitude to comfort him or to interpret Annie’s death, and he could not find the consolation he needed from the Church. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution was already well developed by the time Annie died, Keynes juxtaposes Darwin’s darkening sense of nature (and his efforts to understand suffering and death) with his continued work on the Origin of Species.

Keynes’ ultimate thesis is that Darwin’s private "life and his science were all of a piece," which he aptly portrays. The narrative left me with a greater appreciation of an iconic, and often misunderstood, man, someone who was both a brilliant scientist and a loving human being who made time in life for the things that matter most: family and friends.

Roxanne Enman

(Posted as The Heart of Charles Darwin’s “Insufferable Grief” on at

1 comment:

Mark Pallen said...

Please don't believe all this stuff about Darwin losing his faith over Annie's death. There is no direct documentary evidence for it. It is mere supposition!