Naturalist and Commander

(Cover Painting By Raymond Massey)
Reviewed by Ken Ringle
Sunday, July 16, 2006


A Novel

By Harry Thompson

MacAdam/Cage. 789 pp. $26

Those of us in thrall to the late Patrick O'Brian are still combing book stalls and reviews looking for his successor, however profoundly we understand there'll never be one. Like alcoholics licking the lids of empty brandy bottles, we grope for the next fix, hungry for almost any author who will pipe us aboard a square-rigged ship for provocative cerebral adventures. To the Edge of the World is a bulky first novel in the O'Brian tradition by a talented British political satirist, travel writer and TV producer named Harry Thompson. Tragically, he died last year at the age of 45, but before leaving us he made an impressive stab at understudying the master.

What could be more O'Brian-esque than a fictional treatment of Charles Darwin's world-changing voyage on the Beagle alongside a dashing and talented young man-of-action captain? Thompson's almost too neat conceit is that both men start off believing that part of their mission in Tierra del Fuego is to discover scientific confirmation of the Book of Genesis. The more Darwin observes the bizarre animals of the New World, however, the more he questions what the well-born Capt. Robert FitzRoy considers "the natural order of things," both political and ecclesiastical. The intellectual storms in the book parallel those of the Cape Horn setting. Does this sort of novel structure amount to intelligent design?

For the most part, yes. FitzRoy is every bit as fascinating a historical figure as Darwin -- a seaman so proficient that he made his tiny surveying brig a model of nautical efficiency (no fewer than five of his shipmates would rise to the rank of admiral) and a surveyor so precise that his 1830s charts of the bewildering coasts of Chile, Patagonia, the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego were superseded in accuracy only by satellite imagery. He even invented the modern weather forecast. Unfortunately, he was also a bit mad -- a genuine manic depressive even before Darwin began nibbling at his Church of England convictions about the origins of life.

Thompson is so intrigued with FitzRoy that he gives us one hair-raising Beagle voyage to Tierra del Fuego to explore his character alone. In fact, the book is almost one-third over before Darwin steps aboard. He had been somewhat casually recommended for the naturalist's post by Francis Beaufort, the hydrographer of the Royal Navy and later the inventor of the Beaufort wind-force scale. He and FitzRoy quickly become friends. Darwin envisions the Beagle's round-the-world voyage as a global look at God's wonders, instructive for his vaguely conceived plan for an eventual career in the church. FitzRoy values Darwin's friendship not only for the scientific interests they share but also as an antidote to the solitude of command.

Like O'Brian, Thompson gives us an entertaining grab bag of minor characters, from doomed adolescent midshipmen to a roly-poly and happily lubricious Tierra del Fuegan Indian girl who is brought back to England to be civilized and meet the king.

All this is good stuff indeed. Where things get a bit awkward is in the intellectual spine of the book. By all rights, the dialogue between Darwin and FitzRoy should carry the story, but it rarely does -- partially because Thompson, for all his impressive research, has a bit of a tin ear when putting words in the mouths of his two principal characters. They sound convincing when speculating on why geologic strata of sea shells appear on mountaintops -- obviously Noah's flood -- but once Darwin starts mouthing phrases like "survival of the fittest," things start sounding a bit forced:

"I tell you, FitzRoy, our Christian society is no more than an arm of nature -- a Malthusian struggle for existence. Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes . We are riding a wave of chaos!"

"I will not have this -- this nonsense in my house! The civilized universe is fashioned by divine wisdom. It is a machine, and God is the mechanic!"

"If the universe is a machine, then life exploits only its stutters."

This is somewhat less distracting than it might appear, largely because Thompson has wonderful powers of description, whether he's detailing the London street sweepers who collect dog excrement for the tanning industry or sharing with us Darwin's excitement at excavating a dinosaur. Whatever his shortcomings at dialogue, he immerses us in the Darwinian world. He is particularly skilled in evoking the terrifying awe of being aboard a small boat in great waters. Here he relates one of the Cape Horn storms that test the Beagle:

"The wind was screaming through the rigging now, and increasingly mountainous seas were rising ominously beneath the ship. The boundary between sky and sea was becoming blurred: seething white froth filled the air, and breakers were hurling themselves continuously across the deck. FitzRoy gave orders to take her down to storm trysails, close-reefed. He was now barely in charge of the Beagle : the storm had all but wrested control of her. The men were still in the rigging when they saw coming towards them, head-on, a vast, implacable cliff of grey water advancing at speed. Dear God , thought FitzRoy, that wave is almost as tall as the boat is long ."

There are storms aplenty in To the Edge of the World , and they never repeat themselves, never tire the reader. There, certainly, Thompson is firmly in command. What more, really, could a reader ask from an armchair voyage? ยท

Ken Ringle is a former Washington Post reporter and a tall-ship sailor.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company