One of the hats I wear when I’m not stuck in the office is that of a reviewer for The Historical Novels Review, published quarterly by The Historical Novel Society
Recently, the editors have sent me some super books, mainly non-fiction (yes, I know it’s called The Historical Novel Society, but we’re not fussy, especially as there are so many excellent popular histories and biographies being published nowadays — and some of our members are novelists doing research for their stories). But it’s the one novel among them that really stands out for me: it’s This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson and it’s the story of Robert Fitzroy who was captain of HMS Beagle on the voyage that took Darwin to the Galapagos Islands. The novel is a near-perfect fusion of adventure and ideas, comedy and tragedy, involving two fascinating men of their time and their contrasting fortunes. We all know what became of Darwin, but who remembers that Fitzroy invented weather forecasting (but was never acknowledged for it in his own time) and became a Governor of New Zealand?
Anyway, I thought I’d offer here a sneak preview of the review, which won’t be in print until November. I hope it tempts you to read the book!
THIS THING OF DARKNESS
Harry Thompson, Headline Review, 2005, £12.99, hb, 626pp, 075530280X
In 1831, HMS Beagle set out on her now-famous second voyage, to complete the Admiralty’s survey of the coast of South America. Her captain was the brilliant young officer Robert Fitzroy, who had hired a cleric-in-training to be his intellectual companion and the ship’s naturalist. This Thing of Darkness is the story of that voyage and its consequences for both Fitzroy and his ‘scientific gentleman’, Charles Darwin. The two men got on well, despite their contrasting temperaments (Fitzroy was a complex manic-depressive, Darwin a relatively easygoing optimist) and backgrounds (Fitzroy was a minor aristocrat, a descendant of Charles II, while Darwin belonged to a family of nonconformist entrepreneurs and intellectuals). But Darwin’s researches gradually led him into religious doubts, and began to seem to Fitzroy like attacks on his own fundamentalist Christianity. Lest this should all seem too dry-as-dust, Thompson has skilfully woven the conflict of ideas between Fitzroy and Darwin into a tapestry of danger, adventure, tragedy and satire, a story with a terrific sense of pace and place, peopled with memorable characters, major and minor. Especially poignant are the tragicomic Fuegians, whom Fitzroy had brought back to England on a previous voyage in order to ‘civilise’ them, returning them on this voyage to Tierra del Fuego so that their compatriots might ‘catch’ civilisation from them.
Judging from the lengthy bibliography provided, Thompson did a prodigious amount of research and it’s greatly to his credit that it enriches, but never overwhelms, the story. It’s hard to believe that this highly-accomplished novel is the first from an author better known as a biographer of Peter Cook and producer of Have I Got News For You. Deservedly Booker-longlisted, This Thing of Darkness is by far the best historical novel I’ve read all year – an engrossing, thought-provoking page-turner that entertained me for hours on end and showed me many wonders.