Choosing your next book is a bit like online dating. You scan the inner-flap profiles of a book, see a few key phrases like "nineteenth-century historical fiction" and "Darwin's theory of speciation" and perhaps "loves cats and books," and then fling yourself towards commitment. At best, you end up happily in love with a book for weeks, cutting off your friends in the midst of conversation to ask if they've read it yet. At worst, you spend a desultory few hours in each other's company, thinking of all the other books you could be reading, or root canals you could be getting.
From its profile, Galapagos Regained and I looked promising. It's a satirical, historical look at issues of scientific discovery and religion in the mid-nineteenth century, focusing on a female protagonist trying to recreate Mr. Darwin's trip to the Galapagos and disprove the existence of God. My first-ever history paper was on Darwin's personal religious evolution, and for a while thereafter I pretentiously thumbed through On the Origin of Species on a daily basis and scribbled self-conscious commentary in the margins. Even after my interests had expanded, I retained a fondness for the troubled, often-indisposed, mild-mannered scientist who found himself at the center of moral and social controversy.
So I began Galapagos Regained with high hopes. But—and let this mark the end of my tortured online-dating metaphor—we failed to connect. Despite the adventurous plotting, despite the knee-deep historical references, despite the tongue-in-cheek cleverness of the prose, our time together was ultimately tedious and unrewarding.
It's not a plot that ought to be dull: Miss Chloe Bathurst, an enterprising young actress in London, finds herself employed on Darwin's estate as a zookeeper. In order to pay off her father's debts, she endeavors to steal poor Mr. Darwin's theory of transmutation and win a contest disproving the existence of God. Because she apparently requires specimens from the Galapagos to prove this theory to the contest committee, she embarks on a trans-Atlantic quest to retrieve them, with a crew of believers and non-believers in tow. During the course of their journey, the team encounters shipwreck, piranhas, South American rubber wars, slavery, multiple marriage proposals, and a good number of thorny theological conundrums. But action is not always meaningful; here, it often felt arbitrary and engineered—not unlike the adventure novels and Robinsonades of the 1850s.
The prose, too, mimics the conventions of the era (both "whilst" and "forthwith" are common species here), almost to the degree of caricature. Sentences like this one—"Her spontaneous choice of locution, Godspeed, piqued Chloe's sense of irony, a transmutationist soliciting heavenly favors on behalf of a departing voyager being so prodigious an incongruity" (p. 208)—may be found standing elbow-to-elbow on every page, like overdressed gentlemen bumping against one another in a crowded room. They aren't bad sentences; it's merely that they are vain sorts of sentences, more concerned about their own appearances than anything the characters in them might be doing or discussing.
The dialogue is similarly overwrought, but somehow much more tolerable. While it's unlikely that it's ever been natural for a person to say "Allow me to buy you a libation" (p. 84) in any era, something about the grandiose speech-making felt like watching actors on a stage, all exhibiting a rather dry sense of humor.
There is, at least, some fun to be had in this novel: Galapagos is at its best when it's buried in its own historical references. Reading it was sometimes like stumbling through the archives, bumping into everyone from Alfred Russell Wallace to John Henry Newman to Rosalind Franklin. (Gregor Mendel even performs a little feat of time travel to have a conversation on genetics and descent in a hookah den in 1849; this constitutes the only truly fantastical activity in the book.) For anyone familiar with the naturalists and intellectuals of that era, it's more than a little satisfying to watch them all meet, shake hands, and expound on their theories.
It's also satisfying to watch the unfolding of Morrow's own theses about God, life, and the scientific workings of the natural world. It takes some time for his ideas to emerge from the muddle of other arguments, and Chloe Bathurst's own notions take a number of seemingly senseless turns. At first she's a theist intent on disproving God only for the sake of the prize money; a near-death experience results in newfound and temporary evangelism. It isn't until the final scenes, when Chloe is strolling again through Darwin's (purely fictional) zoo that her final vision—a nearly-spiritual exultation in the godless intricacies of nature—comes into focus:
. . . Just then she fancied she could hear the laughter of the subterranean creatures. And this was no soft vermian titter, either, but a roar of elation, as if the worms understood what magnificent chips they were in the mosaic of Creation, as if from their grubby vantage they'd apprehended the whole transmutational scheme of things—as if they knew their own wonder. (p. 472)
This paragraph, and others like it, are more or less the reason I was so infatuated with Darwin as an undergraduate. It gets at what Darwin called the "grandeur in this view of life," that "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." It's a beautiful way to see the world, and a beautiful thing to encounter in a novel.
But I'm afraid the joy of intellectual history could not sustain my interest for the almost five hundred pages of Galapagos Regained. Unless you are far more patient than I am (not a difficult feat to achieve), or far fonder of satirical shenanigans, your time might be better spent with the original Voyages of the Beagle.
- Although, as I've never tried online dating, this metaphor may be wildly inaccurate.[return]
- Satire is not known for its adherence to logical necessity, but surely some of Darwin’s other fauna could have served? He fine-tuned many of his ideas by dissecting barnacles, after all, which are generally more available in England than equatorial tortoises. [return]
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species; or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray, 1859.[return]
Alix E. Harrow teaches history and posts speculative fiction reviews on her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.