Opening Up a Box of Family Wonders; Annie's Box - Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution. by Randal Keynes (Fourth Estate, Pounds 16.99). Reviewed by Monica Foot

Article excerpt

Byline: Monica Foot

The box of the title of this book is the writing case and place-to-keep-precious-things of Annie Darwin, who was the first daughter of evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin and his devoutly Christian wife Emma. She was their third child and the first daughter and she died, probably of consumption, at the age of ten.

This fascinating publication, drawing on masses of previously unseen material, is the first effort of a great-great-grandson of Darwin and he has clearly found it difficult to find a pivot for so much that is so extraordinary and so revealing.

I do not wish to be discouraging but the choice of a child's writing box as a title is not a success. As well as sounding faintly odd, it illuminates nothing about the content and various themes of this startling work, although it may be that the real thing has some resonance.

There is a reproduction of a Daguerrotype picture of Annie among the illustrations and she looks like a tough little bruiser. But her death in 1851 in Malvern, where she had gone for the cure, hit the Darwins hard. Charles was confirmed in his burgeoning agnosticism and Emma clung more firmly to her creed.

It has long been asserted on the left that Darwin dawdled his way to the publication of the revolutionary Origin of Species, which propounded evolution and confounded the Old Testament, because he was afraid of the Establishment, and his own position. This book asserts a more human rationale: Darwin's wife was a devout and literal believer and was caused considerable pain at the thought that she would not meet her husband again in Heaven after death. So Darwin refined his researches and went over and over again his scientific proofs.

They were to lead him to a set of ideas that have changed and shaped the modern world and not least among the factors in his research were his observations of his own children, of whom he had nine in 13 years, at one point accusing his wife, momentarily not pregnant, of being ''neglectful'. Victorian husbands could be ruthless.

Charles' father, Robert was a wealthy and successful physician in Shrewsbury. One of the extraordinary aspects of this informative work is the realisation that while men were building great feats of engineering, in the canals and the railways, or analysing the origins of being, medical information was mostly primitive and ignorant. …