Synopses & Reviews
In this riveting new novel, best-selling author John Darnton transports us to Victorian England and around the world to reveal the secrets of a legendary nineteenth-century figure. Darnton elegantly blends the power of fact and the insights of fiction to explore the many mysteries attached to the life and work of Charles Darwin.
What led Darwin to the theory of evolution? Why did he wait twenty-two years to write On the Origin of Species? Why was he incapacitated by mysterious illnesses and frightened of travel? Who was his secret rival? These are some of the questions driving Darnton's richly dramatic narrative, which unfolds through three vivid points of view: Darwin's own as he sails around the world aboard the Beagle; his daughter Lizzie's as she strives to understand the guilt and fear that struck her father at the height of his fame; and that of present-day anthropologist Hugh Kellem and Darwin scholar Beth Dulicmer, whose obsession with Darwin (and with each other) drives them beyond the accepted boundaries of scholarly research. What Hugh and Beth discover Lizzie's diaries and letters lead them to a hidden chapter of Darwin's autobiography is a maze of bitter rivalries, petty deceptions, and jealously guarded secrets, at the heart of which lies the birth of the theory of evolution.
With The Darwin Conspiracy, John Darnton again delivers a stunning tapestry of history and imagination, a galvanizing novel.
"Darwin's theories have been under attack since he first published The Origin of Species in 1859, but this grandly ambitious novel goes a few steps further to intimate that he was a fraud and a murderer. Told by turns from three perspectives, the story opens in the present on a volcanic outcrop off the coast of Ecuador where Hugh Kellem, a British field researcher, while tracing Darwin's research path, meets Beth Dulcimer, a beautiful scientist rumored to be distantly related to Darwin. A quick shift shows an ambitious young Darwin about to embark on the Beagle. A little further on, Darwin's youngest daughter, Lizzie, enters via her journal entries, written in the 1870s, decades after Darwin's famous five-year voyage. As the three perspectives unfold, Hugh and Beth find themselves trying to solve the same mystery that intrigued Lizzie 130 years earlier: what happened on the 'nuit de feu,' the night that transformed the confident, robust Darwin into a haunted near-invalid for his remaining years? Stilted dialogue, perfunctory romance and expendable subplots make for a rough voyage, but Darnton (Neanderthal) puts real passion into his historical imaginings and recreations: the revelation of the 'true' origin of the theory of evolution is particularly inspired and more than enough to sustain another Darntonian bestseller. Agent, Kathy Robbins. 100,000 first printing. (Sept. 20)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Going back and forth in time and written with careful elegance...this work...dares you to put it down at every chapter's end. Recommended..." Library Journal
"[T]he final sections are just plain silly....Reduces one of history's most important scientific discoveries to a mediocre whodunit." Kirkus Reviews
"If there is a set of requirements for the idea-driven popular novel that serves up fast-paced history and questions of consequence, The Darwin Conspiracy has them all..." Washington Post
"The pages of The Darwin Conspiracy turn quickly and the ending is a neat surprise...But as it is, however, the book is not burdened with too much substance." Christian Science Monitor
"An elaborately plotted but unconvincing historical thriller in which two young researchers comb musty archives and crumbling manor houses for hidden documents that will reveal a secret side to Darwin's personality." New York Times
"A wonderfully entertaining creation that stands as a convincing mixture of truth and speculation....engaging speculative fiction about the convergence and deviations of science, faith and the truth they make up." Dallas Morning News
Fact and fiction become intertwined in this novel that explores the mysteries attached to the life and work of Charles Darwin. The narrative unfolds through Darwin's view, that of his youngest daughter, Lizzie, and two scholars.
From the author of the bestselling Neanderthal comes this novel of gripping suspense and scientific conquest-a page-turning historical mystery that brilliantly explores the intrigue behind Darwin and his theory of evolution.Its 1831, and aboard HMS Beagle the young Charles Darwin sets off down the English Channel for South America. More than 150 years later, two ambitious scholars pursuing their obsession with Darwin (and with each other) come across the diaries and letters of Darwins daughter. What they discover is a maze of violent rivalries, petty deceptions, and jealously guarded secrets, and the extraordinary story of an expedition embarked upon by two men. Only one returned-and changed history forever.
About the Author
John Darnton has worked for thirty-nine years as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He was awarded two George Polk Awards for his coverage of Africa and Eastern Europe, and the Pulitzer Prize for his stories smuggled out of Poland during the period of martial law. He lives in New York. His first novel, the best seller Neanderthal, was praised by the San Francisco Chronicle for being "as informative as it is entertaining."
Reading Group Guide
“An entertaining, fast-paced read.” —Los Angeles Times
The introduction, discussion questions, author interview, suggestions for further reading, and biography that follow are meant to enhance your groups discussion of John Darntons The Darwin Conspiracy, a novel that weaves a meticulously researched reconstruction of Charles Darwins life and work with some artful speculation about their lingering enigmas into a Hitchcockian historical and psychological thriller.
1. We first meet Hugh Kellem while he is conducting research on an island so small and bleak that it is known only as “Sin Nombre,” Spanish for “no name.” Toward the novels end—which paradoxically falls 170 years earlier—Darwin will arrive at the same island. At what other points in this novel does Hugh reenact episodes of Darwins life? Does Lizzies narrative also echo her fathers, or does it anticipate Hughs? In what ways does Darnton use his novels parallel storylines to build mystery and suspense or deepen the exploration of certain themes? How would this novel be different if it unfolded in a single time period or was told from a single point of view?
2. Darwin came to the Galapagos carrying just one book: Paradise Lost. How does that book, which tells the story of Lucifers rebellion and the temptation and fall of man, forecast themes in Darwins narrative and in those of Lizzie and Hugh? Is nature this novels paradise, and if so, how is it lost? How do you interpret the scene on page 223 that begins with an encounter with giant tortoises and ends with a tableau of their butchery? What are we to make of Darwins later outburst: “What a book a Devils chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature!” [p. 225]?
3. Darwins overbearing father almost prevents him from shipping out on the Beagle, but at the last minute he secures his permission. How is he able to do this? In undertaking his epic voyage, is Darwin trying to live up to his fathers expectations or subtly defy them? How are other characters in the novel affected by their fathers? Who succeeds in breaking free of the paternal spell and who succumbs to it?
4. Both Hugh and Lizzie are overshadowed by siblings who are older, seemingly more gifted (Lizzie is known to posterity as “slow”), and more loved. How does this shape their respective characters? How does each adapt to his or her status? Compare Cals ambiguous role in Hughs expulsion from prep school to Lizzies love affair with her sisters fiancé. Is Darwins relationship with McCormick also a form of sibling rivalry? In what ways do the veiled and often unconscious struggles between competing siblings, real or symbolic, replicate the warfare in nature?
5. As a child, Darwin is said to have told fibs, a habit he has since outgrown. How does this detail foreshadow his later actions? When does the adult Darwin first engage in an act of deception? Is he simply defending himself against McCormicks attempts to undermine him? Does this novel portray Darwin as fundamentally dishonest, or is he someone who becomes dishonest in a moment of weakness and then feels driven to perpetuate his deceptions? Are we meant to see him as evil or simply flawed? How would you compare what Darwin does with Cals doctoring of experimental results, Hughs theft of Lizzies journals, or Lizzies subterfuges? What are the consequences of their respective acts of dishonesty?
6. Why does Captain FitzRoy object so violently to natural law and transmutation, the ideas that preceded the theory of evolution? Are Darwins discoveries really inimical to religious faith or only to a particular kind of faith, and if they are so heretical why do they become more widely accepted, even in his lifetime? Why do you think evolution is more controversial today than it was thirty or forty years ago? Does Darwin lose faith because of what he apprehends about nature or because of what he learns about his own nature?
7. While Darwin is collecting specimens, FitzRoy describes himself as a “naturalist in reverse” [p. 72], because the Captain proposes to return three he “collected” on an earlier voyage. The specimens are, of course, human beings, the Indians Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket, and York Minster. What are the consequences of their kidnapping and repatriation? In returning them to their home, FitzRoy is not just being altruistic but undertaking missionary work. Discuss the ways that science and religion intertwine in the course of the voyage and to what ends.
8. As a youngster, Lizzie Darwin seems to have possessed the same traits that made her father an outstanding naturalist. But as a young woman, she has turned to “ferreting out the secrets of others” [p. 61]. What parallels does Darnton draw between Darwins pursuit of the inner workings of nature and his daughters pursuit of the inner workings of her family? Does Lizzie choose that path because Victorian society barred young women from a career in science? In what other ways is she thwarted by the sexual mores of her time? Can we view her investigation of her familys secrets as an unconscious protest against her status? What do you make of the fact that she loses her virginity almost immediately after discovering the truth about her fathers past?
9. Among the many things that Darwin dislikes about McCormick is the fact that he is “lower class” [p. 125]. How does class figure in this novel? How does it determine the prejudices and behavior of its characters? How are the cruelties of the English class system mirrored by other systems of inequality and oppression, such as slavery, the subjection of women, or the extermination of Indians? (Of all the novels characters, Darwin alone seems singularly insensitive to the fate of Jemmy Button.) In what ways can Darwins findings be seen as challenges to the old hierarchies? In what ways can they be seen as justifying human predation and exploitation, which might be explained away in some circles as “survival of the fittest”?
10. On board the Beagle, Jemmy Button is enraptured by what Darwins lessons in “sigh-eenz” [p. 99]. Yet following his return to Tierra del Fuego, he rejects both science and his new name. What is responsible for his disillusionment? How do you interpret the note Hugh finds in his hand: “I seen your ships. I seen your cities. I seen your churches. I meet your Queen. Yet you Inglish know life less as we poor Yamana” [p. 155]. Is Jemmy right?
11. While reading Lizzies journals, Hugh, who has the benefit of knowing how her life will turn out, feels as if he is “seeing a speeding car and knowing that it is soon to crash. Possessing that knowledge was like being God” [p. 163]. Does reading this novel, so much of which is grounded in fact, place the reader in a similar position? Discuss the appeal of historical fiction and its peculiar tension between the known and the unknown, the factual and the invented.
A Conversation with
Q: Where did you get the idea for The Darwin Conspiracy?
A: The seed of the novel was sown during a visit I made to Darwin's home, Down House in Kent, in 1996. I felt instantly at home among the Victorian furnishings and especially so in Darwin's study, reminiscent in its coziness of his cabin on The Beagle. The curator let me sit in the chair in which he wrote the book that changed the world, The Origin of Species, a thrilling experience. My trip to Down House yielded some fascinating details about Darwin's eccentricities. He was subject to unending illnesses, which fit no known diagnosis. He really did have every symptom described in The Darwin Conspiracy in addition to others that don't appear in the book. When he was writing Origin, he would leap up from his writing chair to vomit in a washbasin across the room, sometimes more than once a day. He was also prey to all kinds of fears, which today we'd call phobias of travel, of socializing, of appearing in public.
And then of course there was his famous ability to procrastinate. Once he came up with his theory of evolution, he waited 22 years to publish it, and he did so only when a competitor came up with the identical theory and threatened to scoop him. He did everything to avoid committing it to paper. Imagine: you've come up with a world-shaking idea and you take an eight year detour to study barnacles. Biographers and scholars have long debated these aspects of his personality. Some have concluded that he was suffering from guilt, that his body and mind were in a state of rebellion because he knew his work had the power to overturn the bedrock of the Judeo-Christian belief that man, along with all the other creatures, was expressly created by God. I began to wonder: what if there was another explanation?
My questions only deepened as I began doing research. During a trip to the Galapagos, where I, like Darwin, encountered animals unafraid of humans, a new thought occurred to me. (My Eureka moment, I hasten to add, was hardly comparable to his.) What if something happened during the five-year trip on The Beagle, something that opened his eyes to the governing order of the natural world but that also filled him with incapacitating guilt? It would have to be something that could explain two things at once: where he found the inspiration for his theory and why it exacted such a toll of suffering. This thought brought the seed to germination. I began to look for clues in his voyage and his later life that could fit together in a totally different pattern than the one that is widely accepted.
Q: How did you construct all this into a novel?
A: I decided to build it around three different time levels. One would be a relatively straight-forward description of Darwin's amazing trip on The Beagle. This in itself is a gripping tale a suicidal captain going crazy, a trip around the most dangerous straits in the world, a young "savage" being returned to his native land after having been taken to England and "civilized," and finally, the visit to Galapagos, the almost mythical archipelago where Darwin got his first glimmer of how new species might come into the world.
The second time level would be the 1860's, when Darwin was already famous, and this would be conveyed through a journal kept by one of his daughters, Lizzie. Lizzie is a close observer of her father and she becomes suspicious of him and of what happened to him many years ago. She never quite solves the puzzle of what lies behind his strange behavior, though she leaves behind clues.
Finally, there is the present, where two researchers, Hugh and Beth, each with their own secrets, pick up on the clues and attempt to unravel the mystery.
Q: How much of this novel is true?
A: It's a work of historical fiction, with equal emphasis on "historical" and "fiction." I estimate that about 90 per cent of it is true. The historical characters are all drawn from life; most of their actions and even some of their dialogue are taken directly from the known record, which is ample, thanks to many contemporary accounts, including of course Darwin's. The captain, Robert FitzRoy; the Indian, Jemmy Button; the jealous rival, Robert McCormick, and Darwin's daughters, Lizzie and Henrietta, all existed. I did extensive research, using the tools of a reporter, to present them as complete human beings. The contemporary characters, Hugh and Beth, are entirely fictional.
I must add that the 10 per cent that is fiction is a mischievous brew. I took liberties in two particular areas. McCormick was indeed a competitor of Darwin's onboard ship (his position as surgeon would normally have entitled him to act as The Beagle's naturalist) but he did not meet the end that I provide for him. And although little is known about Lizzie Darwin, there is no reason to believe that she was suspicious of her father or engaged in sexually promiscuous behavior that the Victorians would have roundly condemned.
My intent was to construct an alternative narrative that, while admittedly false, actually fits the facts better than so-called historical reality. The higher purpose of The Darwin Conspiracy is to make a point about those fascinating, supremely arrogant 18th century folk we call the Victorians, and to drive home a serious point: just how comprehensive, convincing and true the theory of evolution actually is. My expectation is that Darwin enthusiasts and he's got a big fan club will be intrigued to see how a given fact, viewed from a slightly different perspective, can take on a totally different meaning. They'll need to have a sense of humor.
Q: What short of research into Darwin's life and work did you do while writing the book?
A: I followed his footsteps wherever they led, from his days at Cambridge to his voyage to the Galapagos to his retirement, at an early age, at Down House. I read his letters at the Cambridge University Library, handled his specimens at the Darwin Center at the Natural History Museum, gazed upon the portraits at his publisher, John Murray's, and sat in the deserted hall of the Linnean Society, which heard the papers of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on July 1, 1858. When I learned that he took Milton's Paradise Lost with him on the voyage he read it by the campfire under the Southern Cross I felt I had to re-read it too.
Q: Did any of your findings surprise you?
A: There were many surprises along the way. One was the nature of Darwin himself. He is a sympathetic bundle of contradictions: a world-class adventurer who rode with the gauchos in South America yet retired at an early age and never so much as crossed the English Channel; a family man who considered taking religious orders before marrying a deeply devout woman and later became an atheist; a man of science to his dying day, fascinated by all of nature, great (evolution) and small (the study of earthworms).
A second surprise was how much the theory of evolution was in the air during Darwin's time. He was far from the first to theorize that one species could grow out of another. Given the obvious similarities among species, the concept of evolution was not unheard of (though the word "evolution" was not used in that sense). Even Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, believed in the concept. Charles Darwin's contribution was in coming up with the mechanism to explain how the process occurred: by means of natural selection, minor variations that endow some individuals with a greater capacity to survive.
Q: The topic of this novel might be considered controversial due to the continuing debates over the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution. Do you fear repercussions?
A: The Darwin Conspiracy does more than poke fun at the Victorians. It also takes on present day creationists because it strongly upholds the elegant simplicity the undeniable fact, if you will of evolution. The larger point I am trying to make is that the theory fits every observable piece of information and is undeniably true. I can't be more explicit without giving away the surprise ending of the book. Incidentally, Thomas Huxley, who was Darwin's champion, grasped the beauty of the theory instantly. When he first heard of it, he clapped his hand to his head and said: "How stupid not to have thought of it."
Q: What do you think about the proposed policy of requiring biology students to be told about "intelligent design" as an alternative theory to evolution?
A: I think it's hogwash. The two are not equivalent. One is a religious belief, the other is a scientific fact. Darwin's theory is a "theory" in name only, in the same way that the Newtonian concept of gravity is called a theory, as someone said. That doesn't mean it is speculative or seriously open to question or is only accepted provisionally until something comes along to prove it wrong.
Many of the arguments that are used against the theory of evolution today, particularly the argument of "intelligent design," were employed against Darwin in his time. They eventually lost out because the evidence to support the theory was so compelling. As we now see, they did not totally disappear. But they make even less sense today than they did then, because science has moved on.
Objectively speaking, there is even less reason today to support creationism than there was in the 18th century. Darwin, for example, was criticized for not being able to specify the means by which natural traits are passed on. Today we know that it is done through DNA. At the same time, evolution has been made palpable in various studies, including one of how finches evolve in the Galapagos to take advantage of changing rainfall conditions. The capacity of the AIDS virus to survive and stand up to new generations of drugs is nothing more than evolution writ small.
I believe that people who feel threatened by Darwinism today are people who cannot accept the idea that humans are not the center of the universe. Darwin himself embraced that idea and found it, in an odd way, frightening but also exhilarating.