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Old 14th May 2007, 14:49   #1
BeccaK
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Default Harry Thompson: This Thing of Darkness

I feel certain that lots of Palimpers/Palimpsestarians/Palimpoids will have read this, but there wasn't an already existing thread that I could find. My apologies if one already exists.

I'm two thirds of the way through this book, and I know that I'm not going to be able to write a review of it. I've been reading it over a few weeks and I've already thoroughly forgotten a good many of the characters' names and actions.
I'm aware that, as I read on, the characters are becoming more and more ambiguous. I can't unreservedly like either Darwin or FitzRoy, though I'd very much like to be able to. I'm particularly enjoying the natural history, though occasionally I realize that my understanding of science is about 150 years old or out of date!
Do others have any slightly more considered thoughts than mine to add?!

An aside: does anyone know if this is the same Harry Thompson who wrote Penguins Stopped Play?
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Old 14th May 2007, 15:06   #2
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Default Re: Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness

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Originally Posted by BeccaK View Post
I feel certain that lots of Palimpers/Palimpsestarians/Palimpoids will have read this,
I think they've all been waiting for me to get around to it as I bought it early last year. But since I can't seem to read a book this year, I don't think I'll be giving it a shot any time soon.
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Old 14th May 2007, 15:12   #3
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Default Re: Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness

This is the same Harry Thompson who wrote Penguins Stopped Play.

It is now 18 months or so since I read This Thing Of Darkness, and I find it still think about it very often. The level of detail that it presents is extraordinary - even simple loading of cargo or flogging a sailor are played out over many pages. All of the characters have very human frailties but few are ill-meaning.

The central premise is a compare and contrast between Captain Fitzroy and Charles Darwin. Fitzroy is a brilliant naval officer, but no politician. He is a dreamer - an idealist - who seeks to chart the southern oceans and find a passage beyond Cape Horn. When the admiralty pull the funding, he supplements his ship and engineers it from his own pocket. As he meets natives, he takes three of them under his wing and sends them to England to be educated. This has mixed success - particularly with the one they name York Minister - who is clearly unable to make the cultural leap. York Minster and Jemmy Button return to Tierra del Fuego with similarly mixed results.

Darwin, on the other hand, is a flighty man who settled on botany only to avoid asking his uncle for more money to support his whimsical lifestyle. Darwin's theory appears to have drawn heavily from existing knowledge and was, perhaps, not the brilliant inspiration that we are taught.

As the novel unfolds, Fitzroy becomes poorer and poorer, whilst Darwin becomes more and more feted. This seems harsh, particularly when Fitzroy goes on to develop the system of weather forecasting - a truly brilliant innovation. And as their fortunes diverge, a personal animosity builds.

This is all set against a magnificent backdrop of grey, inhospitable clifffaces and mountains. At the beginning of the book, it is revealed that Fitzroy was given command of the Beagle when his predecessor committed suicide - driven to despair by the landscape and the conditions. Over the course of the book, we begin to see why. There are also memorable stops in other new territories - memorably in New Zealand, a violent and licentious community of alcoholic white settlers, with no law other than the law of the jungle.

This is a terribly sad and fatalistic novel. We know from our history lessons how things will turn out, and watching it - every now and then allowing hope to enter our hearts - can be a painful experience. Even now, 18 months on, I can't think about the novel without a lump in my throat.
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Old 14th May 2007, 18:02   #4
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Default Re: Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness

Sounds interesting, I may try this.

Quote:
Darwin's theory appears to have drawn heavily from existing knowledge and was, perhaps, not the brilliant inspiration that we are taught.
Many scientific theories do, of course. As Newton said:

"If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

Darwin worked on his theory systematically for some twenty years, but his genuis lay in the leap of discovering common descent and natural selection, neither of which had been proposed before (although Wallace had some very similar ideas that were developed concurrently). He did that by synthesising a vast body of evidence with his own research, which in itself was some scientific feat.
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Old 14th May 2007, 18:49   #5
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Default Re: Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness

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As Newton said:

"If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Even that's not original. It comes from the side of a £2 coin.
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Old 14th May 2007, 18:57   #6
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Default Re: Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness

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Originally Posted by MisterHobgoblin View Post

This is a terribly sad and fatalistic novel. We know from our history lessons how things will turn out, and watching it - every now and then allowing hope to enter our hearts - can be a painful experience. Even now, 18 months on, I can't think about the novel without a lump in my throat.
Masterly review, MisterHobgoblin. I fully agree. Don't be put off by the size of the novel, or the subject matter. It is a great read.
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Old 15th May 2007, 11:22   #7
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Default Re: Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness

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Even that's not original. It comes from the side of a £2 coin.
Indeed not - first attributed to Bernard of Chartres, a 12th century neo-Platonist philosopher. I assume it's on the £2 coin as Newton was in charge of the Royal Mint for many years.
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Old 9th Aug 2010, 16:05   #8
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Default Re: Harry Thompson: This Thing of Darkness

I finished this at the weekend - it ended up partly responsible for my not doing as much with the work documents I had taken home as I intended. The undeniable heft of the volume had me intimidated for a while, but once engrossed, I got through it relatively quickly.

Reading the author's short afterword was almost as fascinating as the book itself, principally finding out that very little was pure invention, for example that the language used, flowery as it might seem to the modern reader, is exactly as per contemporary accounts.

One thing amongst many that impressed me, was Thompson's description of the illness that FitzRoy suffered from, which very early on in the book sounded like manic depression, and indeed the afterword confirms this.
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Old 9th Aug 2010, 16:20   #9
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Default Re: Harry Thompson: This Thing of Darkness

Wasn't this being handed around the table at B'York? Is that the one I'm thinking of?
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Old 9th Aug 2010, 16:35   #10
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Default Re: Harry Thompson: This Thing of Darkness

Quite possibly that's where I first became conscious of it. I picked it up at the Oxfam bookshop at Belfast BDO, following encouragement by several other BDO-ers. Best £1.50 I ever spent!
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