|Charles and Emma
by Deborah Heiligman
|The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly
Judged by M.T. Anderson
DARWIN VS. TATE: MANO A MANO (with opposable thumbs)
In last year’s Battle of the Books, judges fretted about comparing apples to oranges. That’s not my problem. I’m forced to compare apples to apples: two books about scientific investigation, Darwinism, and large families, both with yellow foolscap covers ornamented with Victorian silhouettes. One book is fiction (Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate) and one is non-fiction (Charles and Emma: Darwin’s Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman). So here they are – if not the same species, then at least, er, a case of convergent evolution resulting in paired traits appearing in separate clades. So let’s hit it, kiddies: Darwin vs. Tate! ** Survival of the fittest! ** Mano a mano with opposable thumbs!
How do we make a comparison and choose a “winner”? A judge from last year told me that the purpose of this exercise is to show people what authors talk about when we talk about books. (??? Because, you know, we have that obtruse way of talking about books, as we stroll together in our vast estates, murmuring, surrounded by topiary clipped into the forms of our characters … I, myself, sit in a gazebo under a box-tree that’s in the shape of Octavian Nothing.)
So when authors talk about Literature, what are our probing literary questions, typically? Well, they go something like this: (1) How large was the author’s advance? (2) Really? Good lord, who’s the author’s agent? (3) Etc. Etc. My approach is typically less than edifying, so instead I’ll discuss the books in terms of craft and what thrilled me or taught me something about technique as I read each one.
Turning first to Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate, I should say that it is a pleasure to welcome to the field someone who is such a fine writer – Kelly clearly cares a great deal about language itself in all its idiosyncratic glory, and this alone makes this book a pleasure to read. She uses period phrases and slang with a certain sly joy, but without any clumsiness or ostentation. Let’s look at one example out of many. At one point, the narrator’s little brother gets moony over a girl. Calpurnia T. writes: “I sighed. Do you think it’s any fun listening to a ten-year-old pitching woo?” The sarcasm is nicely pointed through the use of the idiom (“pitching woo”). The idiom adds a little linguistic spice, not simply in the interests of “period authenticity” (whatever that is), but also because it’s a lovely, odd little phrase on its own. Placing it next to “ten-year-old” presses on its absurdity, too, as does placing it at the sockdolager end of the sentence.
I was also impressed with the way that Kelly effortlessly infuses Callie’s narration with terminology and imagery clearly taken from the girl’s absorbing studies with her grandfather. For example, she writes about a catfish’s “huge, frowning mouth … framed with lashing barbels as thick around as pencils,” or about how her own sensibilities “had been annealed in the furnace of the Scientific Method.” Her avid interest in what her grandfather has to teach her is therefore expressed through the very language with which she perceives and describes her world.
And at the level of character development, this scientific enthusiasm clearly yields fruit. We can feel precisely where Callie’s love of science stems from … Partially from her hard-headed application, partially from her fiercely logical mind, but also partially from a kind of child-like whimsy, which is as good a place as any other for questioning to begin. Just one example of this out of many: On New Year’s Eve, 1899, she eats one half an orange before midnight, one half an orange after midnight. “I saved the other half to eat in a different century. Would an 1899 orange taste different in 1900?” Her experimental impulse has wonderful kid-like quality to it, a fresh way of viewing the world that is at once enthusiastically scientific and poetic. Usually, we think of the whimsical as being at the other end of the spectrum from rigorous deductive thought, and yet, for this early scientific pioneer, clearly they’re closely related. Both are ways of thinking “outside the box.” The playful experiment with the orange not only conveys her clever and unconventional way of seeing the world, but also sets us up for the moving transition from one century to another, which, given all the talk of progress in the book, really does feel momentous, despite the fact that, as Callie tells her brother, “Time is man-made and comes from England.”
(Isn’t that a great way of phrasing it?)
I’d also mention that the other characters are pretty delightful, that the comic timing is extremely well-done throughout, and that **** SPOILER **** I sure as hell am glad grandpa made it, because about half way through I wouldn’t have put a nickel on the sucker. He’s a beautifully limned character, too. **** OKAY YOU CAN START READING AGAIN ALREADY ****
But enough, for the moment, about Calpurnia Tate. Let’s turn our attention to Charles and Emma. While the book isn’t trying to be remarkable on a sentence-by-sentence level in the same way that Calpurnia is, there still is immediate proof of Deborah Heiligman’s ingenious narrative gifts. She is not, like novelist Kelly, trying to produce a robustly individual narrator, but rather trying to narrate events as clearly as possible while keeping us emotionally and intellectually engaged.
I was really struck immediately by the clever structure of the first chapter, which showed immediately that I was in the hands of someone who’d thought hard about the task ahead of her. So here’s her brief for the first chapter: She has to introduce us to Darwin. She has to introduce us to, and get us involved in, his emotional struggles. And she has to introduce us to the scientific mise en scène of the nineteenth century. So what does she do? She ushers us into Darwin’s London flat in the summer of 1838, where the great man himself is bent over a sheet of paper, writing down the pro’s and con’s of marriage, trying to decide whether he will wed. Now that’s a great device, because it confronts the reader immediately with a struggle, a choice … and it’s a struggle that’s going to drive to the heart of what the book is about (how two very different people can be not only mutually loving, but mutually useful). Laying the question before us to begin with, challenging both us and her biographical “protagonist,” she assures that we’re instantly engaged. People say that the first chapter of a novel should ask a question that the next (or the book as a whole) should answer … Well, here Heiligman explicitly builds the first chapter around a question, propelling us into the story.
But that’s not all. She takes each of Darwin’s pro and con bullet-points, and uses them as points of departure to introduce pertinent facts about his own life or about the world of the time. So, for example, he writes that bachelorhood offers “Freedom to go where one liked.” She uses this as a prompt to discuss his voyage on the Beagle. He writes that living alone allows him “choice of Society & little of it.” That’s Heiligman’s cue to talk about his social and familial circles. And here’s where we come to some sly moves. She mentions that Darwin’s talks with his brother’s circle often revolved around social issues … This allows her to slip into a discussion of industrialization and the demographic affects it had … And it allows her to talk about religious dissention in the period … And then it allows her to mention Darwin’s early flirtations … Which leads her to discuss Darwin himself as a “catch.” … Which gives her an opportunity to describe him physically, as she might a character in a novel. And then, having done this, Heiligman moves on to the next bullet point on Darwin’s list, and begins to find ways to make it too yield information about his world.
This is just a great way to begin the book. It’s a really clear structure, it’s a structure that ties directly and dramatically into the central theme, it’s a structure that emphasizes a quandary (so we’re caught up in the pro’s and con’s), and it’s a structure that allows the author considerable latitude, especially given her finesse, to fill us in on any number of bits and pieces we’ll need if we’re going to make sense of the story. It’s compelling, it’s lucid, it’s strict, and yet it’s flexible.
Throughout the book, Heiligman uses similar devices ingeniously to tie the most diverse details into the central struggles of the book. For example, family deaths are reported not merely because they happened, but because, clearly, they had a bearing on the difficult negotiations between Emma Darwin’s faith in the afterlife and Charles Darwin’s more mechanistic agnosticism. The deaths of delicate children, not merely a device of 19th century sob-fiction turned into unsteady flesh, taught Darwin painful lessons about the survival of the fittest – and provoked worry in his wife about the future of his godless soul.
There are, it has to be said, moments when I felt that the sheer wealth of domestic detail overwhelmed a sense of purpose. It doesn’t help that the Darwins appear to have tried to influence the history of human evolution mainly through their sheer proliferation. After eight pregnancies, I lost track, and started to develop a wearying sense that no sooner did Emma D. stumble out of the borning-room, a new babe delivered into its swaddling clothes, than her husband was lurking in the corridor, crooking a come-hither finger and whispering about the origin of the species.
Despite these slower passages, however – a little too much detail about house renovations, or one too many water-cures – Heiligman really does tie in events to her central set of issues. By the end of the book, when *** SPOILER *** Charles Darwin died *** END SPOILER AND BOY ARE YOU SORRY YOU MISSED IT *** I have to admit I got teary-eyed – especially because of the touching final scenes with the adoring Emma. Given Heiligman’s beautiful delineation of this gentle and loving marriage, those who believe in Hell will surely end the book hoping Darwin received some special dispensation (perhaps on account of his Mosaic beard); and mechanistic atheists will shed a tear that such capital fellows and grand ladies should someday have to go the way of all flesh.
So – Tate or Darwin – how to decide? Pinafored Texan or bearded old barnacle-fancier? Both authors have considerable strength as writers. Both have compelling characters.
For me, it comes down to larger structures. The two books take very different approaches to chapter form, to narrative tension, and to narrative resolution. Kelly, in Calpurnia Tate, tends to create self-contained chapters – smaller structures that exhaust tension within the span of a single section before moving on. A couple of examples: In “Chapter 20: The Big Birthday,” Calpurnia gets a churlish parrot for a present. The creature is so abusive that after several weeks of its foul-mouthed squawking, they give it away. Rather than interspersing scenes with the crass bird over several chapters with other plot strands, she moves immediately to the re-gifting, quickly discharging the chaotic energy of the bird’s presence. Or consider “Chapter 7: Harry Gets a Girlfriend.” Callie’s older brother “pitches woo,” pissing Callie off (she’s touchingly worried about him growing away from the family). She betrays him; there’s a little stir in the family – but by the end of the chapter, the love interest is out of the question. The episode is over. The opening of the next chapter reassures us that there will be no real consequences: By the third paragraph, Callie is once again Harry’s “long-standing favorite, his own pet, the one he had carried pig-a-back since infancy. I was flooded with relief …” This episodic discharge of narrative energy and stabilization of narrative disequilibrium will appeal to many – it gives the book a cozy feel – as if (despite the turning century in the novel) change is under control, manageable. But the cost of this warmth is a loss of a larger-scale architectural tension and momentum. The story moves through fits and starts.
Charles and Emma, on the other hand, syncopates the tension and release of the “plot” so that chapter endings propel us forward, coming at the tense moments in the middle of episodes. Here, for example, is the end of the chapter in which Darwin decides to have a “goose” (a conversation) with Emma Wedgwood in which he proposes marriage, despite their religious differences. “… On Sunday morning, Charles got Emma alone by the library fire for another goose. The goose. He finally asked her to marry him. // Emma was shocked.” End of chapter. Once again, the chapter asks a question, and we have to read on to find the answer. Very compelling. A very novelistic device. Though our lives are generally undirected, shapeless, and episodic, Heiligman makes these two lives feel motivated and compelling.
So, in the end, being a sucker for tension, I plump for Charles and Emma. Many others would go the other way. But isn’t it great: a race of whooping primates that can engage in argument about two heaps of vegetable matter with little black discolorations on their leaves – and care about the outcome?
TAKE AWAY LESSONS:
* CHARLES DARWIN ON NOVEL-WRITING: “I like all [novels] if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”
* CALPURNIA TATE’S GRANDFATHER ON NIGHT-LIFE: “As it turns out, sexing the young bat is not a difficult proposition.” (Hey there, cutie … Don’t deny it: You’ve been echo-locating me all evening …)
The First Winner of Round 2 Is…
Actually, the purpose of this exercise is to show people what judges talk about when we talk about books, namely (1) Good Lord, what was that Newbery committee thinking?!?, (2) Who gives a $#%&* about the little kiddies, this is what I wanted to win, and since I had to read every last mediocre middle grade title, I’ll vote for what I damn well please!, (3) Etc. etc. Did I say CALPURNIA was long and boring? I must’ve read a different book than the one described here. ***I am now using American Sign Language but since you cannot see me I will translate it into English for you . . . or better yet, Latin: Mea culpa!*** I’m in complete agreement on the wonderful novelistic devices in CHARLES AND EMMA, however. It will face some formidable competition in the next round from either THE LAST OLYMPIAN or THE LOST CONSPIRACY. ****SPOILER**** I already know how everything pans out, but aren’t I doing a fine job of pretending otherwise? **** OKAY, EAT YOUR HEART OUT NOW****
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt