Readers of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage will remember that its author set out to write a life of D.H. Lawrence and somehow it never got written. In the course of the story, however, we travel to many of the scenes where Lawrence lived and wrote, and a hilarious journey it is. Emma Darwin, namesake and descendant of Charles Darwin’s wife, alludes to Dyer’s book at the end of this charming ramble round her family.
It begins with a conversation with her agent. Inevitably, the agent wants her to play safe and to write a straight biographical account of the marriage of the famous Victorian biologist. This author, the present-day Emma Darwin, is resistant to the idea, and believes that there is room for a fictional account. There certainly would be room for many a play or novel on this theme, I should have thought, whether you concentrated on Charles’s psychosomatic illness or on the deep religious differences between the devoted pair. But Emma decides against such an idea, and soldiers on in time. The rest of the book takes you through many of the branches and twigs of her family tree.
Should she write a novel about Charles Darwin’s grandfather, the doctor, poet and inventor Erasmus Darwin, who was a key figure among the Lunar Men, that brilliant circle of (largely nonconformist) scientists, technological pioneers and businessmen, such as Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt and Matthew Boulton?
Or what about Tom Wedgwood, Charles and Emma Darwin’s uncle, the pioneer of photography and friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge? A wonderful story, there. Poor Tom, he picked up the opium habit from Coleridge and bang went any chance of his learning how to fix photographic images on to paper.
So what should Emma Darwin write? As all these questions form themselves in her mind, we are reminded once again of what an extraordinary intellectual dynasty they were. As she moves forward in time, she considers writing about Snow (one of the many women in the family called Julia Wedgwood) and Robert Browning, and she has some fascinating reflections on the use made of this friendship in A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Or what about Ralph Vaughan Williams, his failed marriage to Adeline Fisher, his ménage à trois with Ursula Wood, 40 years his junior and his eventual marriage to Ursula, his muse and biographer?
A warning: this is a book written by an obsessive for other obsessives. Some flavour of the author’s geneaological mania can be inferred from this cluster of sentences:
Remember Charles’s sister Caroline Darwin marrying Emma’s brother Josiah Wedgwood III? Ralph is a grandchild of that marriage. That makes him a double-second-cousin to my grandfather.
At this point, I was reminded of an episode of Fawlty Towers when Basil and Sybil put on a gourmet evening, at which, after a series of catastrophes, they only have one thing on the menu — duck. ‘And what happens,’ bellows a military guest, ‘if you don’t like duck, Fawlty?’ To which his wife tactfully adds: ‘Fortunately, I love it.’
Fortunately, I love thinking about Wedgwoods, Darwins and their friends and relations. The best of such books is Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, and Emma Darwin recalls two delightful volumes: Richard Curle’s Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship and C.V. Wedgwood’s marvellous The Last of the Radicals, about the first Lord Wedgwood. He was Josiah Wedgwood IV, almost the only Labour MP to provide vociferous support for Churchill during the 1930s.
There are some repetitions in the book. We are told twice about Leonard Darwin’s marriage to his second cousin once removed, Mildred Massingberd. And there is one major howler. Wedgwood and Co is not the name of the celebrated pottery, Wedgwood and Sons. ‘And Co’ was a rogue firm, long since defunct, which produced largely rubbish and tried to cash in on its famous surname.