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News: This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin

STOP PRESS: 12th February 2019. This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin has been published! I celebrated it at a Darwin Day event, and since then I've been interviewed by Mariella Frostrup for BBC Radio 4's Open Book programme, as well as blogs and websites. ED launchDzZZa-xWsAAyVMi

The Literary Review said this:

She is unsparingly honest about her battles with self-doubt, her struggle to establish a separate identity as a writer, the difficulties of earning a living and the sheer hard graft of writing. Many biographies have been written about Charles Darwin, and while this thoroughly researched book may shed some light on his less well-known progeny, its reflections on the rewards, pitfalls and craft of writing will prove to be a wise, witty and informative guide for aspiring writers.

For more interviews and reviews, click through to my website


3rd December 2019This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is now available to pre-order. Just pop down to your local independent bookshop, or go online:

And if you would like to read an extract, click through to my more recent post about the book, and scroll down.


25th July 2018 - we have a cover! It's by designer Liam Relph, and I'm thrilled to bits with it!This_is_not_Final_cover_alt


I’m delighted to say that my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, will be published by Holland House Books on Darwin Day - 12th February - 2019.

I'm hugely grateful to my wonderful agent Joanna Swainson, of Hardman and Swainson, and Robert Peett of Holland House Books. But as this is The Itch, I wanted to say a little more, because although the book is rooted in the novelist part of me that wrote The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy, the writer-about-writing, fresh from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is also involved.

But this book has really come out of my failure to write a different book. For years people have asked me when I was going to write a novel about my family, but as well as my own inhibitions about The Ancestor (of which more here on the blog, and here in the Telegraph) I couldn’t see where the story was. Then I was asked to talk about creative thinking in the wider family, and began to wonder if I could, after all, grow a novel out of the science and the art - the creativity - that runs through two and a half centuries of my family like a seam of Potteries clay.

Books about Charles Darwin and his wife and cousin Emma Wedgwood are legion, but I wanted - creatively speaking I needed - to take the road less travelled. There were the fascinating real lives of Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society; Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer; Julia Wedgwood, who as a writer and intellectual was ranked with George Eliot; Ralph Vaughan Williams and his extraordinary love story; and poet and Communist John Cornford, first Briton to be killed in the Spanish Civil War.

Darwin_treeBut even when I invented a fictional character and slid her into the creative lives of Charles Darwin’s grandchildren - my grandparents’ generation - I struggled. There were ten biographies and memoirs written by and about my major characters - there are two on Gwen Raverat alone - and that was before I tackled the books about secondary characters such as John Maynard Keynes, Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf.

Nor was it simply a matter of whether I was “allowed” to change my grandmother’s dates, make a villain of a man whose sons, my cousins, are still alive, or write a sex scene involving someone I’d actually met. The real problem was that these people explore their own motives and feelings, and they tell their own stories: where was the space for me to make a story of my own? In trying to do so, I spent three years in a fierce struggle between my heritage and my identity as a writer - and ultimately the struggle nearly killed me.

When I was better, I gave up the novel. But the desire to write about the family went on gnawing at me, and at last I realised how I might do it. This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin is creative non-fiction, and it takes the reader on a journey through my family, evoking them and their times through the lens of my struggle to grow fiction out of them.

I wanted, too, to evoke what it feels like write creatively: to hunt down something that doesn’t yet exist; to spin invention, memory and research together until you can’t tell the difference; to have mere names grow into real-seeming people who have their own life; to take ruthless technical decisions to make your story seem natural and real: to do what Siri Hustvedt describes as "like remembering something which never happened".

So This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is part memoir, part biography, part book about writing and how stories are told, but at heart it’s the story of how a creative disaster came out of seven generations of creative thinkers. All being well, a year from today it will be on the bookshop shelves. In among business as usual on the Itch - which is mostly about your writing - I’ll be blogging about the process of having my writing published, exploring both the facts and the feelings of having a piece of creative work go out into the world.

And meanwhile, I've dug up an audio diary that I recorded for the Royal Literary Fund when I ran away to the country for a week, to find out if "this peculiar life-writing thingy" could actually be turned into a book.


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This sounds like a book I'd like. Congratulations, you dark horse, you!

Philippa East


Emma Darwin

Oh I do hope you like it! And thank you for the congrats, dearest Whisks!

Tony Lyttle

This sounds like it has been a wonderful project and I shall certainly look forward to reading it. I hesitate to draw comparisons but it does resonate with me as I'm in the middle of what I call, simply, a biography of my humorist, writer, newspaper proprietor and raconteur great-grandfather. Although I never thought of making it a into a novel, it is creative in that I have dramatised certain parts of his story (whilst sticking closely to the facts) rather than just relating it all in documentary fashion. I shall be intrigued, indeed to see how you have tackled 'NOT DARWIN.' Can't wait.

Sally Zigmond

It sounds like my kind of book. Well before I knew you (albeit very tangentially), I have been intrigued by the Wedgwood/Darwin and associated family and the circles of creative genes swirling around it. (I read Gwen Raverat's Period Piece 40 years ago.) I can understand your problems with incorporating fiction into biography and non-fiction and look forward to your resolution.

Sophie Beal

Many congratulations! Really thrilled to hear it's on its way, a concoction of many of my favourite things- writerly thoughts; history of Victorian and Georgian gamechangers and memoir. Hoping you spawn a new genre!

Penny Dolan

Like the sound of this book very much, Emma, and how you've turned the difficulty of too much family fame into something uniquely your own. Good speed to Not Darwin, and to more news about its publication.

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

What a charming idea! And such an appealing solution to the problem. I'm sure your ancestors would be proud. I look forward to hearing more.

John Jackson

This sounds right up my street! Congratulations. xx

Jenny Haddon

Oh that's so fascinating. I really look forward to reading it.

I studied the later Browning as a post graduate and was so frustrated that the letters between Julia Wedgwood and RB were locked away in some private collection. They were auctioned off a dozen years or so ago, I remember. Must have a look and see what's happened to them.

Julia apparently wasn't keen on The Ring and the Book, possibly because of the slightly dodgy morality of the underlying story and/or RB's willingness to get into the mind of a murderer. Or there again, she may just have looked at it, realised that it was twice as long as Paradise Lost and he'd reverted to style that stymied Thos Carlyle, and decided that it altogether Too Much.

Mary Tod

This is wonderful news, Emma. I look forward to adding it to my bookshelf!

Pippa Goldschmidt

Congratulations - this sounds so interesting. Can't wait to read it, particularly as I'm just embarking on a non-fiction-ish project about my family and am very trepidatious. Have you seen this article too: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/12/my-grandmother-family-history-aida-edemariam

John Taylor

I will be first in the queue to read this, Emma! It sounds fascinating. My current novel is driving me up the wall at the late editing stage as I try to honestly portray creative tensions interwoven with personal tensions. No famous big personalities breathing down my neck, but a number of different windows on reality.

Emma Darwin

Your grandfather sounds like brilliant book material. I think life writing, creative non-fiction, call it what you will, is such a fascinating form, and evolving so fast... Best of luck with it!

Emma Darwin

Sally, I drew very heavily on Period Piece for the novel, having grown up on it! Lovely book. I hope you like This is Not a Book when it comes out!

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Sophie! It was a challenge to work out how to do it, which is why I'm slightly stunned, as well as absolutely thrilled, that it is actually going to be published.

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Penny. I do hope you like it when it's published!

Emma Darwin

Thanks, Roz!

Emma Darwin

Thanks, John! Glad you like the sound of it.

Emma Darwin

Jenny, I hate to say it, but their letters were edited by the critic Richard Curle, and published by Faber in the 1930s - that's how I came across them: in the London Library. There are copies floating around on Abebooks, if you're still intrigued. He said he'd only left out a few that were of no consquence, just about trivial arrangements - I assume he was telling approximately the truth.

And yes, she didn't think much of the Ring and the Book...

Emma Darwin

Thanks, Mary!

Emma Darwin

Oh, thank you! And for that link, Pippa - that looks just fascinating. I think this whole non-fictionish, life-writing territory is fascinating, even if rather EEEK!!! for the writers at times!

Emma Darwin

Yes, creative and personal tensions - so muddly, things get ... good luck with it!

Sandra Davies

Having begun writing with the intention of making my family history more appealing to my family, i.e. by slightly 'novelising; their (much less illustrious) activities I only found a way last year, via a short story challenge - the introduction of a fictional character to tell their tale.

I've not struggled so much as you have, Emma but this is certainly a book I'll be snapping up. Congratulations.

Sandra Davies

... and having read the Telegraph article, in which you mention writing DNA, I can claim that too, albeit in a very modest and minor way, because I have some of my paternal great-grandfather's travel writing and his sons' accounts of their WWI experiences ... all the more impressive for being written by hand without cut and paste corrections.

Barbara Howe

Congratulations on finding a way to tell the stories you wanted to tell without losing either your life or your sanity! Looking forward to reading it.

Emma Darwin

Thanks, Barbara. I do seem to have remained sane ... I think!

Emma Darwin

Thanks, Sandra. Yes, I think putting the fictional character in can make all the difference, rather than building it wholly on a non-fic character. An example of telling a lie to tell a greater truth better, perhaps

Emma Darwin

What a fantastic thing to have! I do think that cut-and-paste can make things worse, as well as easier...

Shauna Gilligan

Sounds really fascinating. I look forward to reading it.

Maria Donovan

Sounds like this is a triumph over adversity - and as such will be all the more interesting to read. I like the way it has turned out from your description: after all it has been such a complex subject to approach. And while other people could write a biography, you might be the one person who could write like this. Congratulations on finding your way to the finish!

Carrie Jones

I love observing your interview techniques at the Tea House Theatre- now I would like to see somebody interview you about what sounds to be a fascinating book.

Emma Darwin

Glad you like the sound of it, Shauna.

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Maria! It has been complicated; it took me ages, after I decided in general to write about the family non-fictionally, to work out how to do it - and then to make it work (I hope). But I've learnt an awful lot along the way, about life-writing and all sorts of other writing things!

Emma Darwin

So glad you enjoy the Tea House Salon - it's fun to do. And hopefully there might be some interviews in the next few months. Watch this space ...


So want to read this! I grew up being someone's great-granddaughter, granddaughter and then daughter - nothing like as illustrious as yours though!

Emma Darwin

Well, we all are that in some ways, aren't we. There's an undercurrent (I hope) in the book is about how my situation in terms of trying to write about my family is only an acute attack of what we all suffer from to some extent: how to find our own way of being, as ourselves, while still staying, as it were, in relationship with where we come from.

Emma Darwin

So glad you think so, Philippa (And apols that in all that excitement back in Feb I missed your comment!)

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