This Thing of Darkness might be a novel, and it might be a biography, but it is definitely a compelling account of a complex man living in interesting times. In his later years, Admiral Robert Fitzroy, (now immortalised in the daily shipping forecast), developed the science of weather prediction. But the substance of this novel has a much more dramatic heart. As a younger man, he was the captain of ‘The Beagle’, and Charles Darwin’s companion on his circumnavigation of the globe.
The timeline spans four decades of remarkable discoveries and scientific advances. Evolution and meteorology are significant themes, but in imagined conversations between Fitzroy, Darwin, and many others, the author manages to discuss botany, history, theology, politics, sociology, navigation, religion, engineering, ballistics, philosophy, geology and biology, imbuing these conversations with passion and realism by embedding them into a narrative which vividly describes men and ships lost in stormy seas, earthquakes and aftershocks on the coast of Chile, the establishment and failure of a Christian mission to the hostile Patagonian Indians, and the social and scientific development and controversies at the heart of the British Empire.
‘This Thing of Darkness’ also has a deep dark undercurrent. Admiral Robert Fitzroy died by his own hand in 1865. Harry Thomson cleverly explores the psyche of this enormously complex man and his mental health problems without stepping outside the constraints imposed by its setting in the nineteenth century.
The author’s source material includes Fitzroy’s own entries in the ship’s log, his prolific correspondence, the minutes of the Royal Society and the archives of the British Admirality. But this is no dry academic work. In the heart of the narrative are unrivalled and entangled portraits of the man himself, the British nation, the machinery of empire and a shrinking world. A wealth of descriptive detail immerses the reader deep into the nautical world of the nineteenth century.
“FitzRoy threw open the door to reveal a cabin only five foot six inches wide, and deep and high. The starboard and stern walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling. Just inside the door was the thick tree trunk of the mizzenmast, behind that was a large chart-table, and behind that, a narrow space between the table and the bookshelves.
‘I should have explained that your cabin doubles as our library.’ FitzRoy stated.
‘My dear FitzRoy…’ Darwin mumbled, ‘… the want of room…’
‘My dear fellow, this is one of the largest cabins on board, even with the bookshelves, I’m sure you will all fit into it most comfortably.’
‘All?’ Darwin raised an eyebrow.
‘Did I not say? You are to room with Mr King and Mr Stokes, the first mate and assistant surveyor. Stokes will need to share the chart table with you, as your cabin also doubles as the chart room… and is also the locker for the the steering gear, which is kept under the table.