This is not a book about charles darwin

A writer’s journey through my family

“Here is the humility, naked courage and fiercely intelligent understanding of what writing a novel takes, and costs, no matter what happens to the finished product. The prize is the dangerous, painful, unwanted knowledge that Emma won at the end of the journey.”

- JENN ASHWORTH, author of Cold Light, The Friday Gospels, etc.

Published 12th February 2019

Published 12th February 2019

My latest book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, was published by Holland House Books on Darwin Day, February 12th, 2019. Part memoir, part biography, and part book about creative writing and what really makes a novel, This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin is the story of how a creative disaster came from ten generations of creative thinkers in the Darwin-Wedgwood family tree.

Books about Charles Darwin and his wife and cousin Emma Wedgwood are legion, but when I eventually gave in to the idea that I should write a novel about my family, I knew I wanted 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.

But even when I invented a fictional character and slid her into the complex lives of Charles Darwin’s grandchildren, I struggled with the factual and emotional truths that seemed to dictate what fiction I ‘could’ and ‘couldn’t’ write. How, among these riches, could I ever find space to create something that would be truly mine?

Writing the novel became a fierce struggle between my heritage and my identity as a writer – and ultimately a struggle that nearly killed me. When I was better, I realised the only way to write about the creative lives of my family was through the lens of my own creative struggle, telling the story of my journey through my family as I tried – and failed – to to write the novel.

Scroll down for an extract, some of the reviews, and links to interviews. To buy the book, ask at your nearest independent bookshop, or click one of the buttons:



"In this witty memoir... Darwin uses her quandary to take us on a fascinating journey through the writing process. In particular, she explores the tricky business of historical novelists walking a tightrope betwen research and imagination... Ultimately what Darwin sets before us is a masterclass in how writers have to learn to fail and fail again before they have a hope of producing something like this book, which may not be about Charles Darwin, but is actually rather good." - Mail on Sunday

“This author of historical novels would seem to have a rich ancestral seam to mine. But, as she reveals in this refreshingly frank, witty, eloquent memoir-cum-biography-cum-rumination, it isn’t that easy.” - Saga Magazine

“Charming.” - The Spectator

“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.” - Literary Review


Open Book on BBC Radio 4 Emma talks to Mariella Frostrup (at 20.00m) about This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin. The rest of the programme is well worth a listen too: Swedish writer Niklas Natt Och Dag, Mohammid Hanif on Catch 22, and debut crime writers Harriet Tyce and Tony Kent

Women Writers, Women['s] Books: an article I wrote about how This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin came about.

Dulwich on View: an interview with Trevor Moore, about This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin.

History Workshop Journal Podcast: Historical Fiction and the Perils of Family Story. I talked to historan Marybeth Hamilton of History Workshop about writing fiction about history, the relationship between history and fiction, and the creative non-fiction that I ended up writing.

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Read an extract

In 1908, Cambridge University’s Marlowe Society was only a year old. It had been founded by undergraduate Justin Brooke – friend but no relation to Rupert, as I expect they were sick to death of explaining – with an explictly anti-Victorian agenda and ethos: to produce neglected plays from the past, using the original, unexpurgated and uncut texts, with men playing women, and clean productions to let the texts speak…

Now, the celebrations for the tercentenary of Milton’s birth were centering on his college, Christ’s, and it was decided that the heart of it would be a Marlowe Society production of the masque Milton wrote for the sons and daughter of his employer, the Earl of Bridgewater. Clearly authenticity in producing Comus demanded at least one actress, and also extras such as dancers, and there would be a vast amount of work. Frank Darwin was a Fellow of Christ’s, and thought his daughter Frances might be able to help with the designs.

Rupert and Justin went to ask, found Frances with Gwen, (they were in their early twenties by then, and studying art together), and four hours later everything had been set in motion …