Irving Stone and his packagers seem to believe that his biographical novels have something in common with the television series that arrogated to itself the name "The Holocaust" -- that regardless of their artistic or historical flaws, they awaken millions of people to a vitally important topic about which they would otherwise remain indifferent or ignorant.
At least, in the introduction to this "novel," Allan Nevins says that Stone's Van Gogh pudding, "Lust for Life," "probably did more than any other single book to break down the barriers to appreciation of impressionist and postimpressionist painting." Nevins is a distinguished historian, but I can only say I am glad he never taught art history. The presumption that "The Origin" will break down the barriers to appreciation of Darwin is manifest in the jacket copy, containing an endorsement from the equally distinguished historian A.L. Rowse that says, "The whole world knows Darwin's name, but hardly anything about the man, the human being. Now at last we shall be able to see him and his work in the round, in proper perspective."
Balderdash (to use a word in keeping with the Victorian pomposity of this book). "The Origin" conveys nothing of Darwin's emotions, and little of his intellect beyond what can be gleaned from documents. It is a novel only in the sense that Stone has invented narrative and dialogue where the documents failed him. I would have more respect for the book if it were labeled biography and the inserted dialogue and narrative dispensed with. (The biography in it is perfectly respectable though perfectly indigestible.)
The narrative and dialogue ought to be dispensed with. An example of the first, describing Darwin's meeting with his future wife after the Beagle voyage: "They found themselves in an embrace of reunion not at all cousinly. When they separated, their feelings went skittering between astonishment and awe." Of the second, Darwin speaking as he examines a barnacle under a new microscope he has designed: "'It is indeed a splendid plaything!' he cried. 'It is infinitely easier to adjust. I will see parts of valves and scrotum muscles I never knew existed. aNor did anyone else! Look at the beautifully contrived teeth, the subtle purple colorings. I feel the way Galileo must have when he first gazed at the heavens through a telescope.'" I feel the way Holden Caulfield must have when he first gazed at the pages of "Silas Marner."
Actually, that quotation is too socialist-realist for "Silas Marner," which does have real feelings beneath its turgid prose. Nowhere in "The Origin" is there any of the one thing that would justify a novel about Darwin: a re-creation of the feelings and the mental processes of one of the great figures of the 19th century. Stone does recount the fact that Emma Wedgwood bore Darwin eight children, the last a Mongoloid when she was 48, but nowhere is there any imagining of their emotions, other than proper Victorian philoprogenitiveness, or any shading of the bitter irony of a retarded child for the genius of natural selection. Stone does tell you that Darwin faced an agonizing struggle between the Christianity of the time and his ideas that contradicted the literal truth of the Bible. But the author describes the struggle only from the outside, in the terms of the available documents, never, as a novelist must, from the inside of flesh-and-blood, and thinking, people. Nor does he show much understanding of Darwin's theories and the nature of the revolution they wrought, though he describes the revolution's surface.
For a superb glimpse of these people's brains at work, forget "The Origin" and read Loren Eiseley's "Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X," a marvelous piece of detective work in intellectual history, published last year, which documents Darwin's unacknowledged debt to his friend Edward Blyth for elements of his theories. Stone lists this book in his bibliography but ignores its hypothesis completely.
If you stick to "The Origin," you will have to work your way through 743 pages of catalogues. It is no accident that I call Stone's novels puddings and label them indigestible. Every few pages there is a list of ingredients of the subject of the moment, like the label on a can of beans. I noted catalogues of the vehicles in London traffic, meteorological forces, ball dresses, nautical jargon, Captain FitzRoy's uniform, Darwin's study at Down House. When I realized that I was making a catalogue of Stone's catalogues, I stopped.
Perhaps realizing his shortcomings as a novelist, Stone goes to such lengths that he invites readers like me, our digestions as irritated by his fits of flatulence (to use a phrase of Darwin's) as Darwin's digestion was by his own well-diaried, literal fits, to find him in error. I think I've discovered one, and even if I turn out to be wrong, the momentary satisfaction gives relief. Stone has Emma saying that her brother Tom really invented photography but Daguerre gets all the credit. What bothers me is not the ingenuity attributed to Tom Wedgwood (which I would consider a novelist's privilege), but Emma's saying this in 1831. Daguerre started work on his photographic process in 1826 but didn't describe it publicly until 1839. Perhaps word flew across the channel early, but until someone offers proof, I have the delightful feeling that I put my thumb in Mr. Stone's pudding and pulled out an anachronism. Little else makes these 743 pages worth masticating.