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Friday, March 02, 2007

Happy Birthday, Annie: Darwin, His Daughter, and Evolution

Had she lived, Anne Elizabeth Darwin would have been 166 today.Ok, had she lived past childhood and then found her some sweet steam punk technology she would have been 166 today.

A couple years ago, my friend J was kind enough to buy me a copy of Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (sold in the UK under the title Annie's Box, and pointedly not sold under this title in the US for obvious reasons) as a thank you for guest lecturing in his class. For whatever reason, I had not picked it up before, but now I'm devouring it in chunks.

The author, Randal Keynes is Darwin's great-great grandson, and despite the title change for us maturity-challenged Merkins (heh heh, I said "Merkin!"), Annie's writing case (i.e., the box) is really the centerpiece of his story. The text is largely drawn from early 19th century writings, primarily those of the denizens of Down House, but radiating outward to create a rich social, economic, political, and philosophical context against which the extraordinary story of a very ordinary family is set.

As an avid consumer of Victorian literature, I've had more than my share of chuckles at the Heroine with the Mysterious Illness. (I mean, seriously what, exactly, is wrong with Laura in The Woman in White, other than the fact that she's not the highly superior Marion?) It's less funny when said heroine is the 9-year-old daughter, not just of the man that you personally regard as a hero, but of a doting, affectionate, playful father. Annie was simply "not well" for months. Except that sometimes, within the course of those months, she seemed well enough, as children do, when her cousins were visiting, when her brother was home from school, when there were adventures to be had.

Charles, of course, had his own chronic and mysterious illness, which eventually led him to take Dr. Gully's famous "water cure" at Malvern. Although Charles had experienced great relief from the treatments, probably because they involved the cessation of all the "legitimate" remedies—most chock full of heavy metal goodness—that he'd been taking, his turnoffs included mesmerism and clairvoyance, which Gully used routinely for diagnosis and treatment. They'd even sought out "bathing" treatments, the practical details of which were mind-bogglingly complex in the era of Vicorian sensibilities. However, when Annie's general absence of health devolved into a "bark," possibly indicating tuberculosis, Charles and Emma turned to hydropathy.

At first these were administered at Down where Charles used a qualitative scale to note Annie's general health and responses to the treatment. After a complicating bout of 'flu, Charles decided to take her to Malvern and Dr. Gully. Charles made the initial trip with, Annie, her sister Etty, the children's nurse, and the governess, then headed back Down-ward once the womenfolk were settled.

I'm not yet finished with the book, but I reached the chapter that culminates in Annie's death two nights ago (DUDE 5p01!3rz!). I wept copiously. Yes, I am ridiculous and, apparently, whether it's nonfiction or fiction I've read a zillion times before, I still hope that those crazy kids will somehow work it out. In stringing together some of the other events in the book, Keynes has little to go on: He infers a letter, a visit, a conversation from an abbreviated note in a personal diary, or he sifts through mundane materials that coincide with major goings-on and explores the incidental, everyday side of monumental events. But that brutal fact of it is, he has a lot to work with.

During what turned out to be Annie's final weeks, Emma was nearing the end of her confinement, as was the genteel phrase, with her seventh child. Given the social atmosphere, the medicalization of pregnancy, and have I mentioned it was her seventh child?, Charles traveled to Malvern alone when Annie's health took a turn for the worse. By the time he arrived, most of the Annie they had known had been gobbled up, physically and mentally, by fever and delirium. But Charles and Emma wrote to one another by every post. Each put off sealing letters until the last possible moment, eager to give and take the latest possible news. These are filled with hope for, despair of, and resignation to their daughter's fate as well as with affection, longing, and concern for one another. They are, 156 years on, a jagged distillation of a brutally intimate 24-hour news cycle. Keynes ends the chapter simply with a photo of Emma's diary page for April 23, which simply reads: 12 o'clock.

In the end, being able to do nothing for Annie, Charles and Emma did for one another and for their surviving children. Emma's sister-in-law, Fanny Wedgwood, had traveled to Malvern both to look after Charles on Emma's behalf and to reassure her sister-in-law, mother to mother, about Annie's condition. After Annie's death, Fanny urged Charles to leave the funeral arrangements to her and join Emma immediately. (I'm well on the "detached" end of the spectrum when it comes to rituals of death, but it still kills me to think of Charles choosing between attending his daughter's funeral and being with his wife and surviving children.)

This book is so much more than Annie's story or even the story of her relationship with Charles and Charles's relationship with her death. It's a book about what kind of men and women they were, these Darwins, as thinkers, writers, scientists, Christians, spouses, and parents. It's about the natural basis for moral behavior and ethical choices at a time when cruelty and injustice were propped up by supernatural rationalizations. It's about a world that is ripe for change, that must change, that is changing. (I don't want to digress or belabor here, but this is something that is very much on my mind at the moment, and I blabbed about it in the comments to this Pharyngula thread.)

Keynes has a light touch when it comes to personal relationships, letting surviving text speak for itself when possible and minimizing speculation. On the larger scale of interaction, he gives succinct, thorough introductions to the freethinkers, the dissenters, the writers, the scientists, and the clergy, both in the thick and at the fringes of the Darwins' lives. In broader perspective still, when the topic demands it, Keynes gives the reader a firm grounding in thought contemporary with the story.

When I cover the history of evolution in my classes, I always begin with my frank admiration for Darwin and his accomplishments. That said, I acknowledge that it was, in some sense, "time" for evolutionary theory in the mid-19th century and that Darwin, as insightful and methodical and brilliant as he was, could not have written The Origin of the Species without roughly 400 years worth of work by others. It's important not only to acknowledge the contributions that came before and to stress how much science is influenced by the social and cultural context in which it is practiced, but to underscore that Darwin is not the prophet of evolution. He's not the Messiah. He's not even the Great Man without whom we wouldn't have evolutionary theory. You can't make a (frankly very weird movie) about someone uncovering proof that Darwin never existed and expect much more than to rouse the fan!boy!girl!person in a metric assload of scientists to raise a collective "Dude! He was the man." (And you'd better believe that those bitches are going to be buying my steam punk novel, Darwin in America by the palletful.)

So every word I say in my typically digressive, caveat-laden lead up to evolutionary theory is perfectly true. But I always feel a right shit after I give that lecture. I always want to buy Charles a beer afterward and assure him that, you know, I really love and admire him, man. Keynes' book is that beer. It's a wonderful look at a great thinker and scientist living in volatile, dynamic times, who happens also to have been a very good man. And the movie based on it is officially on notice: Don't you go fucking it up.

Happy birthday, Annie.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello there
Thank you for an interesting, intelligent blog which I enjoyed reading. It is generally thought that Annie died from tuberculosis following a bout of scarlet fever the previous year - which two of her sisters and one brother also had suffered from, the brother dying from the disease. A small spelling mistake you may want to correct, Wedgwood (paragraph 9) has no middle 'e'.
Thanks again - I also like the change of title for the US market, very amusing.
kind regards
Miriam in Cornwall, UK

2:26 PM  

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