This Thing of Darkness (Harry Thompson)


This is a book of 750 pages about Robert FitzRoy and his voyage in the Beagle with Charles Darwin and what happened to him afterwards.  We also see Darwin separately from FitzRoy, which is probably a mistake.  For the first hundred pages I had a cold and quite enjoyed an undemanding sea story and the lashings of historical detail.  After that my enthusiasm dimmed.

It’s not clear what this thing is.  It isn’t a novel, because the actions of the characters are driven by the need to make them correspond with biographical data, rather than flowing from their own characters and relationships.  And we have to be told about everything that happens, rather than letting a few typical scenes stand for the rest.  It isn’t a biography either, since some episodes are explicitly invented.  So it’s a kind of fictional biography–a fictional biography aimed at elevating FitzRoy with Darwin serving as a mean-spirited foil.

So discussions between Darwin and FitzRoy on the subject of human rights (to express it anachronistically) have FitzRoy the Tory expressing the most palatably liberal sentiments while Darwin is portrayed as representing oppressive industrialists.  Similarly (to take a small matter) Darwin is described as seeking permission for an underling to examine FitzRoy’s meticulously-labelled Galapagos finches (his own specimens not having been properly recorded), whereas historically he seems to have done the job himself.

FitzRoy is portrayed as the enlightened hero (albeit suffering from bipolar disorder) whose every noble inclination–as captain of the Beagle;  Member of Parliament concerned for sailors’ welfare; Governor of New Zealand concerned with protecting the Maori from the criminal depredations of the white settlers; chief of the Meteorological Bureau once more saving sailors’ lives by producing innovative weather forecasts–is thwarted by a combination of bad luck and dark forces in high places.

In fact, a more plausible explanation for FitzRoy’s ill-fortune is the one given by Darwin in the biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore:  I never in my life knew so mixed a character. Always much to love & I once loved him sincerely; but so bad a temper & so given to take offence, that I gradually quite lost my love & wished only to keep out of contact with him.  Twice he quarreled bitterly with me, without any just provocation on my part.  But certainly there was much noble & exalted in his character.

There are the normal irritating mistakes in language:  FitzRoy refers to ideologies and Darwin thinks of him as a brittle perfectionist (apparently a phrase from Desmond and Moore!)  One gets the feeling that Thompson does not understand that evolution is true, whether he likes it or not.

What does the title signify?

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine–The Tempest, Act V Scene 1 as the book helpfully tells us.  This is of course where Prospero accepts responsibility for the ‘savage’ Caliban and here it might refer to:

i)    FitzRoy feeling responsible for the ‘savages’ in his charge, as indeed the second voyage of the Beagle (the one Darwin went on) resulted from his feeling honour-bound to honour a promise made to the Fuegians he had collected on his first voyage;

ii)   his feeling that the theory of evolution and undermining of accepted belief was his fault;

iii)  his accepting his mental disorder (but it doesn’t seem the he did so explicitly, either in the book or real life).

And with more of such subtlety and polyvalency, this might have been a much better book…

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