Friday, 10 April 2015

This Thing of Darkness

Robert Fitzroy

I found the book of this title by Harry Thompson (2005) captivating. Until now I'd been familiar with the history of Fitzroy's voyages from many sources including Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle. This had given a clear account of the second voyage, with Darwin, and good pictorial evidence, but its text and characters remained somewhat dry and fixed in the past, as I suppose befits a serious work of non-fiction. Thompson's is a historical novel and the frontispiece reads, 'This novel is closely based upon real events that took place between 1828 and 1865.' A warning that he is affording himself some artistic license.

The result, however, has brought me closer to Darwin and Fitzroy than anything I have read. Thompson is a fine storyteller and weaves a page-turner of a yarn. It's not Patrick O'Brian but at times it comes pretty close, particularly through the dialogue and the naval routines. Anyone versed in O'Brian will find them gratifyingly familiar. Just as with Aubrey and Maturin, the brilliantly depicted relationship between Fitzroy and Darwin provides much of the pleasure. Their shared passions and unquenchable appetites for discovery are common ground for a deep affection, though the conclusions that each draws from the discoveries made during the Beagle's five year circumnavigation eventually decimate their friendship. But this is only part of the tragedy.

Fitzroy is the hero of Thompson's novel and he is painted as great man and a product of his age. Darwin's character could conceivably be extrapolated to the present, a passionate amateur naturalist on the brink of a cohesive theory. But Fitzroy, chivalrous to a fault, driven by high morals, unswerving Christian faith and duty to his king and country surely belongs to the 19th century. Though historically his values found their most horrendous expression in WWI.

Although Fitzroy is treated dreadfully by his country his intent is always to serve and when his orders contravene his faith he strives to maintain his Christian integrity, thus leading to disfavour with those in power. His is a crummy lot. Fitzroy was a manic depressive, though the condition was yet to be described and recognised, which must have made facing his dilemmas all the more difficult. It is no surprise that he ended his own life, that he survived until he was 59 is testament to his determination in the face of continual let down.

Many of the questions raised in the book feel contemporary. Darwin travels with the gauchos in Argentina. When he meets General Rosas—who is engaged in a genocidal war with the native indians—Darwin finds that despite the brutal reality of the war the General's discourse is convincing. Thompson based Rosas' arguments on speeches made by Tony Blair and G.W Bush to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Themes of western expansionism are just as valid today as they were in the 1830's.

Fitzroy actions helped to further understanding and knowledge of the world but he considered that what he and Darwin had set in motion brought civilization not only forward but beyond him, to a godless society where men questioned God's works without having witnessed their full might as he had around the Horn and in Tierra del Fuego.

Does the world improve through progress? Fitzroy asks. A question that we could well pose today. More people are better fed than ever before, we have hot water, flushing toilets, the Wikipedia, I myself have been successfully treated for a life threatening disease. But we also have extreme inequality, horrendous poverty and exploitation, slavery even. Technologically we advance but the human condition, the greed, the short-sightedness and the corrupt system that so distressed Fitzroy, exist just as they did 180 years ago.


Chris Partridge said...

A great book. Harry Thompson's tragically early death deprived us of so much.

Ben said...

So right Chris, a huge loss.

doryman said...

I just finished "This Thing of Darkness" on your recommendation. I found the discourse fresh and contemporary, while enlightening on the times. Some of the nautical language was uninformed, but sometimes we suspend disbelief for the good of the story.

Thanks so much!

Ben said...

Yes, Doryman, totally agree. Glad you enjoyed it and good to hear from you.