EPS Review #155 - This Thing of Darkness

This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson, Headline Review, 2005, 750pp.

P bought me TTOD as a Patrick O'Brian surrogate. Would Charles Darwin make a better Maturin and Captain Fitzroy a better Aubrey? For sheer interest the answer is yes. After all, the non-fiction events are unbeatable. Also, while many novels supposedly treat with deep ideas, this one actually made me pause and think about religion, evolution, colonialism and cultural imperialism. Parts of the novel were exciting, parts were funny, and a whole lot of it was terribly sad. The story is framed with suicides.

The first chapters are all about Captain Fitzroy. Where's Darwin?, I thought: Bring on Darwin and the finches and tortoises! But Fitzroy was a fine meticulous leader, as well as a thinker (he invented the weather forecast), a manic-depressive, and an amazingly moral aristocrat. He paid for a large part of the expedition out of his own pocket, and finishes up poor.

A large sub-plot is about four Patagonians (Fuegians) that Fitzroy collects and brings back to England. He, and later various missionaries, wants to show that all races are equal and can be elevated to the heights of Christian civilisation. Darwin, on the other hand, is portrayed as a Social Darwinist, who thinks that the inferior races will be naturally wiped out. Fitzroy's thesis reminds me of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which proposes that "primitive" people, through necessity have keener physical and mental abilities than civilised men. (Alas no review of GG&S because, after an exhilarating start it bogs down in details and I never finished it). The Fuegians do make it to England, and Fuegia Basket even gets a bonnet from the queen. But it all ends badly. Indeed, thanks to genocide and disease, there are basically no Fuegians left today.

If you like Google Earth, then Patagonia is a really great place to zoom in on. And on the same topic, I was never able to penetrate Chatwin's In Patagonia.

The descriptions of London of this time were interesting. King's Cross was a huge garbage heap overrun by feral pigs. So, no change there, then.

There is a bit of record-straightening over who owns the Falklands, and some revenge against some proto-Argentineans. Darwin seems sympathetic to the rising dictatorship there. Also Darwin really liked his white gaucho outfit!

There is a depressing section about Fitzroy's governorship of New Zealand, where he fails due to corrupt commercial interests. In fact, the chief criticism of the book is how slowly the reading goes. This is not due to bad writing (though five stars is generous), but just due to the need to look up and pause after digesting another dose of lachrymae rerum.

Similarly, the time back home in England is grim, with Darwin's disease (perhaps Chagas' disease from the kissing bugs in South America), the death of his daughter, and his enmity with Fitzroy. There are some great bits in the author's Postscript. Harriet the tortoise was still alive at the time of the postscript, but alas now both she and the author, are dead.

Perhaps there are other books that use this historical material to great effect, but this is the first that I have read.

Elise wrote: I thought I sent you a DVD of Guns, Germs and Steel......easier than finishing the whole book perhaps. I have a copy and enjoyed it. It was/is of Jared talking as he goes around the countryside explaining his concepts. I want to read his latest which I think is called Collapse......the hows and why societies fail........and the similarieties between them and us are pretty obvious.....