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)