Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution
By Randal Keynes
Fourth Estate Publishers, London
Published in May 2001 (American edition January 2002)
16.99, about 350 pages

The newest addition to the ever increasing volume of Darwin literature comes to us from Randal Keynes, a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. His book: "Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution" is unlike any other Darwin biography - the majority of which try to encompass the entire spectrum of Darwin's life. Annie's Box is different in that it focuses on the private life of Charles Darwin.

Keynes weaves an intricate tapestry as he unfolds the home life of Charles Darwin, meticulously retelling the tale of Darwin's struggles with his thoughts on evolution, the anguish resulting from the loss of his daughter, and how her death affected his thoughts on human evolution. I will leave it up to the reader to find out how Annie's death affected Darwin, but be assured that Keynes gives this very sensitive and emotional treatment.

Annie's Box can be read from several perspectives. One can enjoy it as a glimpse into everyday Victorian life in rural England, as a view into Darwin's personal family life, or as an examination into how his daughter's death influenced his thinking. From whatever angle one chooses to examine this book, the reader will find it most refreshing in that it puts a human face on a man who has been so mis-understood for the past 150 years.

What really makes this book stand out from others on Darwin's life is that nearly all the content is previously unpublished material. Five of Darwin's children wrote accounts of their life at Down House, and Keynes makes extensive use of these. He also makes use of census records, interviews with descendents of those who were close to the Darwin family, and other personal narratives that have been passed down through the generations. The book also includes many photographs of people in the Darwin household, most of which have never been published.

Quite a large portion of the book is devoted to Darwin's struggle with understanding human nature. For Darwin, the route to this understanding lay in an investigation of the natural history of mankind. If it was true, as he suspected, that species did evolve from previous species, then an examination of man's ancestors was a necessary first step to understanding human nature. However, in Darwin's day, mankind was seen as the end product of a vast "chain of being". Man was the pinnacle of god's creation and was distinct from other animals in that he possessed morals, ethics, and a superior intellect. As the noted historian, Professor William Whewell noted, man's most remarkable features are his mental and moral capabilities, and it was these that distinguished man from the apes.

Darwin, however, slowly came to see things differently. He noted, for example, that the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego were indeed human, and yet they appeared to be more akin to brute animals. Three native Fuegians were brought back to England on the first Beagle voyage and within a year they had "crossed the great chasm" from the primitive to the civilized. How was this possible if they were, as many claimed, mere savages? At the London Zoo, too, Darwin noticed that an imported Orangutan (named Jenny) exhibited emotions and a moral character very much like that of human babies. Again, how was this possible if there was a great chasm between man and the apes? He wrote:

"The keeper showed her [Jenny the Orang] an apple, but would not give it [to] her, whereupon she threw herself on her back, kicked and cried, precisely like a naughty child. She then looked very sulky and after two or three fits of passion, the keeper said: 'Jenny if you will stop bawling and be a good girl, I will give you the apple'. She certainly understood every word of this, and though, like a child, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded, and then got the apple, with which she jumped into an arm chair and began eating it, with the most contented countenance imaginable." (page 40)

It was his experiences with the South American natives and Jenny, along with his observations of his own children, that led Darwin to conclude that mankind and the apes, slave and slave owner, the savage and the civilized, were all cut from the same cloth. If this were indeed the case, what did this say about the origin of morals, emotions, and instincts? Did human morality evolve from a more primitive survival instinct in some distant ancestor? Did emotions play a role in the survival of a species? Is human aggression a carry over from our remote past? Darwin's painstaking struggle with these questions and others is thoughtfully brought out by Keynes, and he ties this portion of the book into the rest with great skill.

Upon the death of Annie, Charles and Emma (Darwin's wife) decided to remember Annie in different ways. Emma gathered together a few personal items and placed them in the writing box Annie used (the "Box" in the book title) for correspondence with friends and family. It contained Annie's sewing tools, embroidery samples, envelopes, notepaper, penknife, goose quills, steel pen-nibs, four of her letters, colored seals, red and green sealing wax sticks, and Darwin's notes on Annie's illness. It was Keynes's rediscovery of this writing box that inspired him to write this book.

Darwin dealt with Annie's death by writing a memorial to her. A few extracts from this memorial follow:


Annie
"From whatever point I look back at her, the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness, tempered by two other characteristics, namely her sensitiveness, which might easily have been overlooked by a stranger, and her strong affection. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance and rendered every movement elastic and full of life and vigor. It was delightful and cheerful to behold her."

"But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, and her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling and all the other acts of affection.

"We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how much we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her." (April 30, 1851)

Aside from a vivid and heart wrenching telling of how the death of his daughter shattered Darwin's life, Keynes treats the reader to charming glimpses into the private life of the Darwin household. For example, Darwin's relation to the servants was unique for an upper-class Victorian home:
"he always spoke to them with politeness, using the expression "Would you be so good" in asking for anything." "Francis [Darwin's son] remembered being reproved by him [Charles] for using more spoons than he needed to, because it meant more work in cleaning [by the servants]." "According to a family story, once when it was time for supper, Charles went into the kitchen and played the cook's hand at whist [a card game] for her, so that she could get on with preparing the meal."
Darwin's relation to his children was particularly charming:
"However hard my father was at work, we certainly never restrained ourselves in our romps about the house, and I should certainly have thought that the howls and screams must have been a great annoyance; but we were never stopped." "Charles and Emma's approach with their children was undemanding and liberal; they saw little value in discipline and learning by rote, but wanted to encourage their children to think for themselves." "Our father and mother would not even wish to know what we were doing or thinking unless we wished to tell." But if one of the children did want to tell, Charles would make them feel that their opinions and thoughts were valuable to him. "He cared for all our pursuits and interests, and lived our lives with us in a way that very few fathers do ... He always put his whole mind into answering any of our questions."
The reader is also treated to such arcane items as Darwin's views on cruelty to animals:
"When he saw cruelty, Charles could not restrain his anger ... Charles was prepared to take the neighbors to law. One, a gentleman farmer, was said by some villagers to have allowed some of his sheep to die of starvation. Legal actions against gentry were rare, but when Charles heard about the matter, he went round the whole parish, collected all the evidence himself, had the case brought before the magistrates, and secured a conviction."
I have two criticisms of this book, but neither of them amount to much of anything. The first is that it is assumed the reader has at least a passing knowledge of Darwin's life and times. Keep in mind however, that the focus of this book is on Darwin's private home life, and not on the multitude of fellow naturalists who shaped his thinking (you can learn about the most important of these (Joseph Hooker, Charles Lyell, John Henslow, and Thomas Huxley) in the "People" section of this website). The second is that the book starts off with Darwin's return from the HMS Beagle voyage, and includes only a brief background into the influences of the first twenty-nine years of his life. It would have been nice to have a bit more background information. Then again, had this been so, the reader would have to read through a lot more before getting to the story of Annie, which is the primary focus of the book. These are, however, trivial concerns, as the book is so crammed full with previously unpublished material, that any admirer of Darwin will overlook these minor faults and devour this book with eager enthusiasm.

There are two versions of Annie's Box. The UK edition is by Fourth Estate: "Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution", published in May 2001 which sells for 16.99, and there is the USA edition published by Riverhead Books under the title: "Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution" and will come out in January 2002 for $26.95. Both are about 350 pages.

CHAPTER DESCRIPTIONS

[1] Macaw Cottage - The marriage of Charles and Emma, setting up their home in London, and Darwin's early transmutation work. Willy and Annie's births.

[2] Pterodactyl Pie - A short background on Darwin childhood while at Shrewsbury, to just before getting married. The influence of the philosopher David Hume, the poets William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the novelist George Eliot.

[3] Natural History of Babies - Darwin examines the origin of morals, instincts, and how memory works. Study of animal and human emotional expressions, the observations of his children.

[4] Young Crocodiles - The move to Down House, descriptions of daily life, the servants, etc. Meets and works with Joseph Hooker.

[5] The Galloping Tune - More daily life, Darwin's thoughts of living in Ohio, important matters of reading, theories on child rearing, education of children.

[6] Faith, Cricket and Barnacles - Helping the villagers in need, animal rights, Emma and religion for the children, Darwin's work on barnacles.

[7] Worlds away from Home - About Leith Hill, the workings of the Wedgwood factory, first trip to Malvern Spa for Darwin's illness.

[8] The Fretfulness of a Child - The start of Annie's illness, trip to Ramsgate for sea bathing, home water cures for Annie.

[9] The Last Weeks in Malvern - Trip to Malvern Spa for treatment, the death of Annie.

[10] Loss and Remembering - Annie's funeral, affects of her death on the family, Darwin's memorial to Annie.

[11] The Destroying Angel - Analysis of the cause of Annie's death

[12] The Origin of Species - Darwin's loss of faith, publication of "Origin of Species", public reactions to the Origin.

[13] Going the Whole Orang - The public reactions to "Origin of Species". How the mind works.

[14] God's Sharp Knife - Views on religious matters, the idea of nature working according to natural laws.

[15] The Descent of Man - The sources of morals, ethics, love, sympathy, etc.

[16] Touching Humble Things - Darwin's life work is completed - is now idle. The death of Charles Darwin.

Book cover image used by permission of Fourth Estate Publishers, London, England.

For more information on this book, visit the official "Annie's Box" website (inactive?).