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Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter and Human Evolution [Hardcover]

Randal Keynes
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 May 2001

The story of the personal tragedy that lay behind Darwin’s revolutionary understanding of man’s place in nature.

Darwin’s eldest daughter Annie died when she was only ten years old. In the writing case are keepsakes of her life that cast precious light on Darwin’s work and on his love for his wife and children. Taking Annie’s story as his starting point Randal Keynes brings together science and humanity in a ground-breaking book that makes a major contribution to our understanding of Charles Darwin.

Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great-grandson and the current guardian of Annie’s box, conjures up a world in which great thinkers – including Carlyle, Babbage and George Eliot – were struggling with ideas that were to shake mankind to its core. At the forefront was Darwin himself, whose thinking about evolution and human nature was profoundly influenced by his life with his family, vividly pictured in this intimate portrait of the man and his private world.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; First Edition edition (7 May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841150606
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841150604
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 275,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Annie's Box contains the brief life and premature death of Annie, Charles Darwin's eldest daughter, and opens up to present a humane, warm portrait of the most revolutionary of evolutionary thinkers. The key here is perhaps "premature": Annie was only 10 years old when she died, probably of tuberculosis, yet her death made Charles even more acutely conscious of the elimination of the weakest as he formulated his "big species book", The Origin of Species. Darkly he even pondered, along Lamarck's lines, whether he had contributed to her death by passing on characteristics he'd acquired during his lifetime, for he was a generally sickly man. The other question raised was one of divine influence, and Annie's death caused him to ask hard questions about his faith. Another daughter, Etty, remembered him mentioning her only twice again for the rest of his life, yet 35 years on from her death, in 1851, he intimately recalled for an article her first smile at eight weeks old.

The box in question was a writing case, into which were put Annie's "childish things" when she died, such as her writing equipment, her embroidery, some letters and some notes. And, of course, the family's grief. Great-great-grandson Randal Keynes' handling of his material is exemplary, drawing on the memoirs of Darwin's children, family papers, letters and a host of scholarship. The evocative picture described is unique to the Darwin family, but it's also very much a picture of its time. Infant mortality was commonplace in the mid-19th century, yet Keynes draws out the intense, prolonged mourning felt by Darwin and wife Emma for Annie, despite having many subsequent children. With a supporting cast including Charles Dickens, Joseph Hooker, Alfred Wallace Russel, TH Huxley, and George Eliot, Keynes presents a poignant yet unsentimental account, laying out Darwin's thinking with commendable and precise acumen, yet suggesting most persuasively how his personal circumstance rippled the deep water of his theories. --David Vincent


The box itself is a writing case covered in red morocco leather that belonged to Charles Darwin's eldest daughter, Annie, who died of tuberculosis in 1851, when she was only 10. Within are compartments containing a yellow ribbon decorated with glass beads, feather writing quills stained at their tips with ink, sealing wax, a lock of fine brown hair and a map of a churchyard inscribed, "Annie Darwin's Grave at Malvern". Randal Keynes, Charles Darwin's great-great grandson, has also discovered in the box a new way of telling the origins of Darwin's evolutionary theory, and how "Darwin disproved the Bible". This is family history in a social context, portraying Darwin not just against the background of the Victorian age (which has been done before, many times), but as a son, husband, father and, indeed, great-great grandfather. It is a profoundly moving book for a parent to read. Keynes does not say that Darwin's grief at Annie's death caused the theory of evolution, but that there was consolation in theory, as there is in philosophy: death is a natural process. "Charles' life and his science were all of a piece," Keynes announces at the outset. It is the achievement of this brilliant, accomplished history - itself a work of genius - to make one wonder how so many accounts of scientific genius manage to write families out of the story entirely. (On a novelty note, this is one of the few books to have its own website: www.anniesbox.co.uk)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This book is an unusual biography of Charles Darwin written by his great-great grandson. In 1838, at the age of 29 years, two years after returning from his voyage on the Beagle, Charles decided, after carefuly weighing up the pros and cons, that he should marry. He chose for a wife his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood 11 and granddaughter of the founder of the firm of Wedgwood in Staffordshire who was also Charles's grandfather.
In true Victorian tradition Emma Darwin bore nine children, the third of whom died in infancy, in the first twelve years of marriage. Annie was their second child and first daughter who died when she was ten years old. This book deals mainly with family relationships and concentrates chiefly on the ten years that span Annie's lifetime.
The box in question which was found by Randal Keynes when sorting through family documents was, in fact, a writing case containing all the materials necessary for a Victorian young lady to carry on her correspondence and to which other memorabilia, including an appreciation of his daughter by Charles, was added for preservation as a memorial after Annie's death.
Charles and Emma were devoted and indulgent parents. Theirs were not the 'seen but not heard' children typical of the age. They were allowed full freedom of expression and encouraged to learn by enquiry.
One point of disagreement between Charles and his wife was on the subject of religion. Emma was sincerely religious. She attended church regularly and took the Sacrament. She read the bible with her children and taught them the Unitarian creed although they were baptised and confirmed in the Church of England.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An informative and fasinating book! 22 Jun 2005
"Annie's Box" reveales in simple yet stunningly beautiful detail the other side of this famous English scientist. Keynes shows us the side of Darwin so often overlooked - the family man. Written in such a way that one almost feels Mr. Keynes literally wrote this book standing looking in through a window at Darwin. The descriptions remain strong and memorable - and Annie's story is heartbreaking and human - an all too frequent reminder of the tragedy of Victorian times.
Well worth a place on anyone's book shelf!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creation Revisited 24 Feb 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book gives a fascinating background to what is possibly the most important book ever written -namely Darwin's "Origin of Species". The world was never the same again after "Species" and Darwin knew that would be the case. This was the reason he delayed publication for 20 years- fearing amongst other things that his deeply religious wife would never forgive him.

If you have not seen the film "Creation" you should. As the film of this book, it is also excellent.
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