This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: A writer's journey through my family Hardcover – 12 Feb 2019
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'A masterclass in how writers have to learn to fail and fail again before they have a hope of producing something like this book' Kathryn Hughes, The Mail on Sunday; 'Wise, witty, and informative' The Literary Review; 'Charming' The Spectator; 'Refreshingly frank, witty, eloquent memoir-cum-biography-cum-rumination.' Saga Magazine; `Here is the humility, naked courage and fiercely intelligent understanding of what writing a novel takes, and costs, no matter what happens to the finished product. The prize is the dangerous, painful, unwanted knowledge that Emma won at the end of the journey.' Jenn Ashworth, author of The Friday Gospels, Fell, etc, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster.
About the Author
Emma was born in London, and grew up partly in Manhattan and Brussels. After studying Drama at university she had various jobs, including driving a sandwich van and selling musical instruments, before her first novel The Mathematics of Love (Headline Review/William Morrow) was published. It is possibly the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and the RNA Novel of the Year, and it was followed by her Sunday Times bestselling second novel, A Secret Alchemy. Her long-established blog This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, (John Murray Learning) and she also teaches and mentors writers. She is the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgwood, and she lives in London.
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As well as the many attempts to enter the fray with one or other of the lesser-known family members,¬ and the accompanying reluctance to pry or be seem to be over-prurient or boastful, there were lessons in problem solving, in the flexible used of research and, above all, in the particular highs of writing fiction, of creating wholly rounded, interacting characters of one’s own. From the excerpts of what was achieved, I hope that a novel will emerge, even without Darwins and their kin, because it seems one is long overdue.
The reader tracks Emma Darwin as she tracks Darwins who ever since the 18th century branched out from medicine, into other fields of science and into economics and music. Looking at Darwins of successive generations and the different set of challenges they faced, Emma Darwin confronts the ensuing challenges of bringing them back to life in fiction, and as she assays her raw input - historical facts - that she would turn into output - historical fiction - the reader is on a tour through a gallery of personable and prolific characters. Should there be such a thing as a Darwin gene for experimentation and exploration, then Emma Darwin, it seems, has taken this knack into belles-lettres.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Emma Darwin is an English novelist and teacher of creative writing. She also happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, along with 150 other great-great-grandchildren. This book—a blend of memoir, biography, and essay on the art of creative writing, plus excerpts from her fiction, including the failed work—has its roots in the Darwin Bicentennial (2009) when her agent began pushing her to take advantage of her name and connections, and write about the Darwin clan. She hadn’t wanted to capitalise on those connections, but since every review of her work included the connection to ‘The Ancestor’, it seemed a sensible thing to do. Why not?
Despite her own instincts which told her not to, over the next several years she explored her family’s histories, starting with Erasmus Darwin, the 18th-century natural philosopher and grandfather of Charles, and working her way down. She was looking for what she calls the white spaces, the gaps between the well-documented events in these famous people’s lives where a novelist could find room for invention. After much scrambling around in the family tree and some false starts, she made a serious attempt to write a story involving her grandparent’s generation (Charles Darwin’s grandchildren) spanning the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War.
She describes the multiple iterations she made on the expanding story, and the reasoning behind each rewrite, as her agent tells her that each new version still isn’t working. She eventually had to admit that a serious lack of tension in her novel was due to the tensions she was living with as a writer: Her dread of showing off or offending her dozens of cousins. The constraints put on her imagination by the fact that the lives of the more notable members had already been thoroughly covered, often by multiple biographers, and by her own desire to stick to the essential core of the lives of these real people. And perhaps most important, her attempt to write what someone else wanted her to write rather than the stories she wanted to tell—stories that kept leading her away from the Darwins. How does one write a compelling story about people who generally led productive lives without a lot of drama?
She does eventually come to terms with failure, after recovering from her heart attack, and gives us this detailed example of one creative endeavour’s multiple metamorphoses. As another novelist who has ripped apart and rewritten one of my babies, I can sympathise, and appreciate the glimpse into someone else’s mind.
Personally, I’ll be looking forward to her next novel even if it has nothing to do with the Darwins. I didn’t read this book because I have a great interest in Charles Darwin. (I knew who he was, of course, but not much about his life outside of his contributions to science.) I read this book because I discovered Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing, some time ago, and it was more helpful to me as a fledgling novelist than any other source of writing advice I have found.
Besides the story about her story, the tour of her family tree was fascinating, and I’m more interested now in digging further in, particularly regarding a few standouts: Gwen Raverat, artist and memoirist; Julia Wedgewood, novelist who appears to have fallen in love with Robert Browning after the death of his wife Elizabeth Barrett; and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (The man who wrote the gorgeous hymn tune Sine Nomine—a.k.a For All the Saints—was an atheist? I had no idea. I hadn’t connected him with the Darwins, either.)
There were a few other minor gems in this work. In one place, she says:
Women’s first names are the linguistic equivalent of mitochondrial DNA: transmitted through the mother, as surnames may be transmitted, like other DNA, through the father.
Yes, my family has passed down women’s names, too. In another spot she describes pain “on a scale from one to childbirth”. (Yes! Love that!)
To sum up, as another writer, I found this book very interesting, but it isn’t only for other writers. There’s enough meat here about creative thinking in general that it’s worthy of a wider audience.