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A Towering Achievement,
This review is from: This Thing Of Darkness (Paperback)
This is a STUPENDOUS book.
It was longlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize but didn’t make it to the short list. I can’t understand why. True, there’s the occasional lapse of authorial concentration. At one point a character “nearly jumps out of his skin” and elsewhere two dishevelled sailors in an elegant street “stick out like a sore thumb”. On page 110 there’s a jarring, juddering, shuddering anachronism that nearly shook me off my chair and there’s a similar one on page 580. So the blemishes I found in 610 pages can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
These isolated infelicities are far outweighed by writing which will excite and stimulate your intelligence, throw you into the middle of terrifying storms at sea, move your heart and, at times amuse you, the description of a pompous prig on page 459 is a demolition job of Austenesque wit. And if, like me, it was an interest in Darwin that brought you to the book, there’s the self-satisfaction of witnessing the early signs of features that you know already will characterise his later life and work. How, for example, youthful, athletic vigour drained into reclusive valetudinarianism and how, although convinced that “any species was re-shaped to an extraordinary degree”, it was years before he published because “how he did not know”, there seemed “no mechanism to explain it”. We are smugly aware that he is to spend the next twenty years developing the theory of natural selection to explain it.
Yet the hero of this book isn’t Darwin, it’s Captain Fitzroy, the skipper of The Beagle, the man who many may consider, like a minor character near the end of the book, as merely the sailor who ferried his illustrious companion Darwin around the world. But Fitzroy was much more than that, you need a foundation of solid achievement in your own right to be made an admiral in your own day and to have a region of the shipping forecast named after you a century after your death. The voyage of The Beagle was a Royal naval expedition for surveying and mapping. Darwin only went along because Fitzroy, haunted by his predecessor’s suicide through loneliness, wanted a companion of his own social standing, because a ship’s captain, by definition of his rank, had no-one to talk to. Darwin’s status as a gentleman and his budding reputation as a naturalist capable of assembling a collection of specimens to be brought back to England made him a most suitable choice.
What makes Fitzroy the hero of this book are qualities which, paradoxically, were about to be outdated but which were also ahead of his time. Confident in his fundamentalist belief of how the world was created and the God who created it, Fitzroy was sure of his place, and more importantly his responsibilities in that world. “A gentleman,” he says, “should always place duty and public service ahead of all other things”. This duty included his conviction that all races are created equal and that he was failing the God who made him if he didn’t strive to ensure that everybody’s potential was realised (sentiments more sympathetic to us than some of the utterances attributed to Darwin).
Fitzroy’s conviction that the God’s laws governed creation made him believe that those laws could be discerned to mankind’s benefit. God’s laws regarding weather could be fathomed and predicted so that mariners might be safer. Despite being honoured to some extent in other countries for this work, in London vested interests and Luddism conspired to mock and revile him.
Although Fitzroy’s stature is recognised now, in his own time he was reduced to obscurity by greedy, ignorant and mendacious men. Fitzroy was a man of nobility, and the code of honour that informed his life was a divinely dictated obligation to the God who, he believed, had created everyone and everything, but when it came to the facts of creation, Darwin was right and Fitzroy was wrong. So in the end, Fitzroy, scorned and scoffed at, financially ruined through spending his own money on benevolent or patriotic purposes, heartbroken still from the death of his first wife and bewildered by the fame of his former friend, whose work undermined the foundations of his being, could see no reason for going on.