At the age of but 23 Robert FitzRoy mounted the deck of HMS Beagle as its captain. The ship was called a "coffin brig" for its inability to resist a combination of high seas and cross-winds. FitzRoy's apparent youth belied his long Naval experience - experience that would save the Beagle more than once. A British aristocrat of long lineage, that background didn't prevent him, as it did some, from bearing an enormous sense of responsibility for the ship's crew. When he was firm, it was for a reason, and the crew responded with rare loyalty. The Beagle's job was surveying the South American coast. That assignment and the need for a way to alleviate the captain's isolation set in train a momentous string of events. Under his tutelage, many of the Beagle's junior officers went on to noteworthy careers in later life. It's commendable that a fiction writer went to such effort to track down this information.
There's an ongoing debate - sometimes rancorous - over the value of "historical fiction". Some claim it misleading, while others contend it brings to "life" figures often condemned to academic obscurity. Whatever the merits of converting history into fiction, in the hands of the proper writer, the effect can be illuminating. It certainly is with this excellent work. Thompson lifts the figure of FitzRoy from near obscurity - and sometime derision - transforming him into a figure of notable stature. The author breathes life into the man who sought to be Charles Darwin's nemesis. In the process Thompson shows that FitzRoy was a figure of high complexity, and not the dogmatist some histories have portrayed him.
Thompson has no choice but to make Darwin something of a foil to the naval commander, although Darwin was just a few years younger than FitzRoy. It was Darwin's observations, and his reliance on the geological work of Charles Lyell, that led to questioning of the Biblical Flood. From that erosion of a major theme in the thinking of the early 19th Century, an entirely new science would be founded. From that step, a new view of life itself would also emerge. FitzRoy, even while submersed in his navel duties, understood the challenge to his own beliefs perfectly. His responses to Darwin's challenges are well expressed by Thompson's portrayal. FitzRoy, for example, is depicted as far less of a Victorian Era racist than Darwin, yet defended slavery as a means of "civilising" and "uplifting" those savage people who had been brought to South American shores. To FitzRoy, all men lived under the auspices of his deity. A life of slavery could be redeemed in paradise.
FitzRoy carried a stigma, which Thompson deals with effectively. The former captain of the Beagle had committed suicide. FitzRoy's own uncle had sliced his throat, and he was subjected to periods of dark depression. At one point, FitzRoy resigned his command, feeling unfit to meet the challenge of his assignment. Convinced to retain the post, he carried out further work in some haste. The return trip around the globe to England took only 18 months of a five-year voyage. Thompson, however, is in no hurry and develops the parallel lives of Darwin and FitzRoy fully. The development is rewarding as we learn it was Robert FitzRoy who initiated serious meteorological studies of the British Isles and published a weather forecasting service to protect the lives of fisherman and naval and commercial sailors.
FitzRoy, aware of where Charles Darwin's speculations in South America might lead him, and depressed by the vagaries of both public attention and the Admiralty's indifference, turns more inward, seeking solace in his Bible. He considers it the ultimate truth, and in a speculative confrontation, Thompson has FitzRoy and Darwin thrash out their different views on last time. After publication of The Origin of Species, FitzRoy raised his final objections. Not long afterward, the captain followed his uncle's example and took his life.
It's difficult to praise this book sufficiently. Thompson has undertaken a tremendous task and fulfilled it brilliantly. Knowing how "it all turns out" is of small consequence when reading this book. The author's skill in building the characters, his obvious sympathy for a tragic figure and his knowledge of events and attitudes of the characters and the times make this a most rewarding read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]