Are you ready for a rave-y post, BrewandBookers? Because ‘This Thing of Darkness’ was a whizz-banger of a book about which I only have positive things to say. I’m talking to the extent that the main character’s academic interest in meteorology made me hop straight on to Amazon and purchase a book about weather. WEATHER. I live in the North-West of England where the sky is perma-grey, and yet I bought a full-on textbook on the atmosphere simply as a result of what I am going to term ‘FitzRoy Fever’. I just can’t believe that this is Harry Thompson’s first and only novel – although I guess I should cut him some slack because he was pretty busy having an illustrious and successful career as a TV producer. Gold star for achievement, Harry!
The book is about the voyages of the HMS Beagle, and in particular its captain Robert FitzRoy and its on-board geologist and naturalist Charles Darwin. One thing that the book does extremely well is flesh out Darwin as a real human man with a life and a personality, and not just that Origin of Species guy you see on ten pound notes. He went through a goucho phase, you guys. And while less celebrated in history, FitzRoy indisputably holds his own against Darwin in terms of being an interesting character; he is a devout Christian, and is generous, studious and committed to his work and his morals to the extent that it cripples him. While they have so much in common to begin with, as young and enthusiastic Christian men and scientists, time and the exploration changes them both and results in differences which drive them apart.
While neither are likeable at all times, Darwin does definitely seem to be given the sticky end of the stick. Since finishing the book months ago I seem to have mentally filed him in my ‘Villains’ folder next to Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. Sensible me knows that this is a bit ridiculous, and of course he isn’t for a moment suggested to be an evil genius. But I think that many people see the good that he has done for advancing our knowledge of natural history and shaping scientific study and automatically Darwin becomes a Good Person in their heads. This was certainly true for me and is just one of the facets which made my experience of this book so refreshing. And, like I said right back at the beginning, FitzRoy definitely gets some great press from ‘This Thing of Darkness’. Until I read the book I had no idea that he had invented several barometers and is considered to be one of the pioneers in weather forecasting, did you? I adore this quote from an interview Thompson did with Victoria Coren for the Guardian:
‘I was drawn to what we would now consider the perversity of the approaches,’ says Harry. ‘Fitzroy was a Christian Tory who fought to prove that black and white were equal. Darwin was a Liberal who believed in the workhouse and was horrified by non-white faces. Because Darwin is an admired figure, there is a conspiracy not to ascribe racist views to him. We see him as a kindly, white-bearded figure who freed us from the shackles of ignorance. Well he was fantastically racist and no they weren’t all like that then.’
Aside from the characters, Thompson does a marvellous job of scene-setting through the eyes of Victorian explorers in unknown territories. Nearly as good a job as the creator of this LEGO HMS Beagle has made of recreating the famous ship:
I particularly love the fact that both Harry Potter and Jar Jar Binks have snuck into the crew, and also that the MacDonald’s Golden Arches were chosen as the ship’s ensign. Genuinely great attention to detail with the inclusion of the South American native in full traditional dress, though.
As far as I can tell from subsequent nosing-around on the internet, Thompson’s research was flawless. I love historical fiction as a genre because it does for me what a really great History teacher will do for their pupils – brings history alive. Corny as hell, I know. But it is so true. Look at the richness in the history of our universe, our planet and our species. All it takes is somebody with the right way-with-words and an eye for the most engaging historical details and you’ve potentially got a firecracker on your hands. And before you know it you’ve not only learned something but you may have been imbued with inspiration to boot. And on that note, I’m off to read my weather textbook and raise my mug to Admiral Robert FitzRoy.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
Rose Tremain is a brilliant author of historical fiction, and I would recommend ‘Restoration’ as a great starting-point for her work (it’s also my personal favourite).
You could also give ‘On The Origin Of Species’ a whirl… I confess that I have only read selected (apologies for half-arsed pun) chunks from it, as it is pretty heavy-going. Kudos if you take on/have read the whole thing.
What do you think?
I’d love to know what you made of this book, and whether or not you fell for it as hard as I did.
Beagle artwork taken from a this-day-in-history style blog called ‘Professor Olsen @ Large’. Relevant post can be found here.
Lego masterpiece props to user ‘the_green_avenger’, taken from here. If you ever visit my little blog, the_green_avenger, then I am sorry for teasing! Your Beagle is actually awesome and your crew members gave me a good giggle.