The book I most enjoyed in 2009 was This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson. It isn’t new: it was published in Britain in 2005 and then in the US the following year as three volumes, To the Edge of the World. It passed me by at the time and was not very successful. It is a masterpiece of its genre and deserves to be much better known.
It tells the story of Charles Darwin’s voyage to South America and the Galapagos, but the twist is that the principal character is not Darwin himself but his friend and sponsor, the captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy. He was an extraordinary man in his own right, but entirely eclipsed, so far as history is concerned, by his remarkable passenger.
The book is partly a seafaring tale, brilliantly rendered, but it is much more than that. It is also about colonialism. Fitzroy brought three Indians from Tierra del Fuego back to England, sent them to school in Walthamstow, and then in a subsequent journey took them home to South America, aiming to bring Christian civilisation to their people. The venture did not end well.
It is also about science and religion. At the outset both men were believers. Darwin had trained for the clergy. But his discoveries and his reflections on what they meant eroded his faith. Fitzroy had a scientific curiosity as intense as Darwin’s–he pioneered modern meteorology, by the way–but his religious conviction was unwavering. Increasingly, this drove them apart, and Fitzroy came to feel betrayed. In one way he was in fact betrayed. If all this was not enough, Fitzroy suffered from what today we would call bipolar disorder, undiagnosed and untreatable at the time, the “thing of darkness” of the title. The tale is about that too.
It is one of those rare books that send you away with a fresh intellectual passion and a long reading list. (Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button by Nick Hazelwood deserves special mention. Jemmy Button was the name Fitzroy and his sailors gave to one of the Fuegians.) The main facts of the story are all true, as the author explains in a bibliographical note. They are superbly and irresistibly woven together, and I say that as somebody who usually baulks at fictionalised history. I found the story completely absorbing, and many of the incidents and ideas will not leave me alone.
Harry Thompson, the author, was a successful TV comedy producer. He wrote biographies of Herge (creator of Tintin), Richard Ingrams, and Peter Cook; I especially recommend the last if you are an admirer of Cook, as I am. He also wrote an account of an ostentatiously incompetent cricket team he led all over the world as a kind of practical joke; it was well reviewed but I have to say for me the joke quickly became tiresome. None of these offers much clue to what Thompson showed, in This Thing of Darkness, he was capable of. He died of cancer in 2005. He was 45.
A friend recommended the book to me when I complained of unease at coming to the end of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (for the third time, I am embarrassed to admit). It’s a sea story, so it was a plausible remedy–but that’s not why it worked. See what you think.
Thanks again, Anne. Love to the family and Happy New Year.