Dear Meg and Allyson,
I’m not sure how to begin this posting other than by confessing my complete admiration for the first chapter of Deborah Heiligman’s award-winning book Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. In the first chapter, Charles Darwin ponders a question of critical importance: to marry or not to marry. A true scientist, he draws a line down the middle of a piece of paper and begins listing support on both sides.
Under Marry, he writes “constant companion (& friend in old age).” Under Not Marry, he writes, “freedom to go where one liked.”
As the chapter proceeds, and Darwin adds support for both sides of his list, Heiligman draws the reader step-by-step into Darwin’s world.
In just eleven pages, the first chapter of Charles and Emma:
- Provides background information
- Introduces the primary character
- Establishes setting
- Introduces the central problem
- Builds tension, and
- Hooks the reader.
Of course, all of these items, with the exception of the first, are critical elements for any first chapter. First chapters have to work hard—every word counts!
So let’s pause for a second on that issue of background information. Charles and Emma is a work of non-fiction (winner, in fact, of the first ever YALSA Award for Excellence in Non-Fiction).
While most readers probably know the basics of Darwin’s life and his theories, they may not know the particulars, such as how long exactly the voyage on the Beagle lasted or how England was changing due to industrialization. Heiligman needs readers to understand Darwin’s world and character before moving on to examine how his marriage impacted his scientific work.
The first chapter includes a wealth of background details, which fall into four primary topics:
- Biographical details, including Darwin’s age, physical description, his father and brother, his extended family, and the death of his mother.
- Life in London in 1838, including friends, the changes brought by industrialization, current religious debates, possible romantic interests, and Darwin’s apartment.
- Work as a naturalist, including the voyage on the Beagle, specimens, discoveries, colleagues, theories about transmutation (evolution), and his encounters with native people in South America.
- General concerns about marriage, including the joy and burden of children, fear about illness, financial issues, potential dislike of in-laws, desire for companionship, and loss of time.
Despite the numerous and specific details that appear throughout the first chapter, the narrative never slows down.
How does Heiligman manage to maintain pace and interest?
First, Heiligman uses Darwin’s Marry, Not Marry list as an organizing principle.
She shows Darwin writing the list in real time. Each item on the list provides a jumping point to introduce relevant backstory or character details. For example, under Not Marry, he wrote, “Loss of time.” Heiligman explains how much time Darwin’s work requires.
He felt sure that if he could work it [a new theory of transmutation] through, he would change the way the world thought about creation… He had started the great project already, and he was consumed by it, giving it hours and hours every day (p. 11).The Marry, Not Marry list provides shape to the chapter, forcing Heiligman to return to Darwin’s specific concerns about marriage, while allowing her to explore his motivations and experience.
Next, Heiligman focuses on interesting details in her descriptions.
Here is a list of items in Darwin’s apartment:
neatly stacked wooden crates, casks and barrels filled with many of their treasures from Patagonia, Brazil, Chile, and Tierra del Fuego: fossil bones, skins, shells, fish preserved in spirits of wine, mammalia in spirits of wine, insects, reptiles and birds in spirits of wine, plants, rocks, carcasses of dead animals, and beetles (p. 6).The concrete details show where Darwin traveled, how he worked, and what interested him.
Heiligman takes time to show Darwin’s social life.
Sure, he’s an intellectual scientist, busy with his notebooks and observations, but he also likes spending time with his friends and family. Heiligman even describes three sisters competing for Charles’s attentions. The focus on social relationships is important. Not only does it show Charles’s humanity, but it also provides a connection point between Charles and a teenage reader, who, like Charles, also faces pressure from family and a desire to develop friendships.
The Marry, Not Marry list provides an inherent point of debate.
Should Charles follow the will of society and marry? Or should he devote himself to his work? Will a wife prevent him from achieving his goals? Could he live a life without companionship? These questions are no different than those faced by people today. Young readers may not be considering marriage, per se, but they certainly worry about balancing time with friends, family, school work, athletics, and boyfriends or girlfriends.
Heiligman ends the chapter with a new question to propel readers into chapter two.
As Charles realizes that he wants to marry, Heiligman reveals a new problem, a fear so great that Darwin can’t even write it down. Before committing to marriage, he must talk to his father. What is this big problem? Read on. The answer is in chapter two.
Heiligman’s use of the Marry, Not Marry list is a brilliant start to Charles and Emma. The list provides structure to the chapter, allowing Heiligman opportunities to introduce important people and experiences in Darwin’s life, while staying true to the central focus of the book, the way that Darwin’s marriage impacted his work.
StorySleuths Tip #56: Find an organizing principle such as a list to gave to shape to information and build tension.