Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Darwin Conspiracy

Author: John Darnton
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 1-4000-3483-3

Emerging from a self-imposed exile in the Galapagos Islands, biologist Hugh Kellem scours British libraries in search of a research project that will reveal something new about the life and work of his hero, Charles Darwin. His goal is to establish his credentials as a significant Darwin scholar. Elizabeth Dulcimer, rumored to be one of Darwin’s descendants, is pursuing a similar project for personal, as well as professional, reasons. As Hugh and Elizabeth become better acquainted, and eventually fall in love, they decide to work together on their parallel projects. Hugh and Elizabeth’s story, which is completely fictional, provides the outer frame of this tripartite narrative.

The second storyline is an account of Darwin’s five-year voyage aboard the Beagle. As this narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Darwin and some of his shipmates conspired to hide significant facts about certain events that transpired during the voyage. Revelation of these facts would cast a long shadow over Darwin’s subsequent life, work and reputation. Of course, this narrative slowly builds throughout the book and the precise nature of the conspiracy does not become clear until very late in the story. This storyline is a well-composed blend of fact and fiction. Darnton adroitly builds his fictional episodes upon solid historical foundations. Thus, he provides riveting, vivid glimpses of life aboard an early nineteenth century ship and encounters between English explorer/conquerors and indigenous peoples of South America and the Pacific Islands.

The third storyline is revealed through the diaries of Darwin’s daughter, Elizabeth. These diaries have lain undiscovered for just over a century when Hugh and his companion find them hidden amongst packets of discarded letters and documents in a musty archive. Elizabeth, who was quite young when she realized that her father was hiding an important secret, records her quest to uncover the truth in a set of diaries that she keeps intermittently over a number of years. When she uncovers the secret as her father lies near death, she notes it dutifully. As the book closes, Elizabeth Dulcimer and Hugh Kellem prepare to reveal the details of the Darwin Conspiracy to an unsuspecting public.

The historical Darwin actually did have a daughter named Elizabeth, but very little is known about her. Thus, she is the perfect character to provide Darnton’s view into Victorian culture and family life. These passages, similar to those that recount the Beagle’s adventures, offer an intriguing mix of fact and fiction.

Since this is a work of fiction, tidy coincidences are allowed and even expected. Thus, the reader is not surprised to learn that the young scholar, Elizabeth Dulcimer, is Elizabeth Darwin’s great-granddaughter. Additionally, the correspondences between the family conflicts that drove Hugh to exile and those of the Darwin family are obvious. Still, Darnton has constructed a captivating mystery around a well-known historical figure. He has provided intriguing accounts of what life may have been like aboard the Beagle, and of how life may have been in the Darwin household. This fictional work is grounded firmly enough in history to provide clear insights into Victorian morality, British class distinctions and the cultural and religious controversies that Darwin set into motion with his theory of natural selection. Since these controversies persist today, nearly 150 years after Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, this book has a sense of timelessness that makes it a compelling read.

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