In the News Dr. Harry Karlinsky

The Scotsman – Review by Stuart Kelly

Published on Sunday 29 January 2012 00:00

THIS may be a bagatelle of a novel, but it is one with so much charm and erudition it is more memorable than any door-stopping wodge of prose presenting itself as a diagnosis of the state of the nation.

Subtitled The Life And Collected Works Of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879), the conceit behind this enchanting work is that Charles Darwin had an eleventh child, Thomas, the existence of whom has been discovered through researches into the London Asylum, Ontario.

The novel’s frame suggests the author was actually looking into the life of the (real-life) medical superintendent R M Bucke when the documents came to light. The mask of academic objectivity never slips, making the fiction all the more elegant. Thomas Darwin’s incarceration (and air-brushing out of history) was the fault of cutlery. Like many a shy child, he was an avid collector; and applied his father’s more famous theories to analysing why inanimate objects change: why does a pastry fork have a knife-like tine? How did the olive spoon come into being?

He is the only person to think the man-made might make itself without man – which, given contemporary speculation about artificial intelligence is both prescient and delightfully stupid.

The real intellectual sprezzatura of this fiction is how closely it keeps to the beat of history as we know it. Thomas Darwin’s belief in “spontaneous mechanical fusion” is a transposition of genuine beliefs about spontaneous generation; his application of evolutionary theory to artefacts is just a key-change from R M Bucke’s actual beliefs about evolutionary theory’s relation to the sphere of ethics and metaphysics (he was the author of Cosmic Consciousness: A Study In The Evolution Of The Human Mind). When Thomas attempts to discover if a pastry fork’s right hand blade gets thicker through use (just as a muscle does), he is consciously adapting his father’s (incorrect) Lamarckian belief that acquired characteristics might be bred into the next generation. None of this jiggery-pokery with 19th-century science would qualify the book as a little triumph. What does, however, is the emotional impact of the story. Karlinsky very cleverly organises the material in the way an academic might, but in order to deliver a series of increasingly affecting jolts. The reticent prose, of both the fake Victorian documents and the surrounding explication, belie the tragedy. Thomas is both clever and not-quite-good-enough; his inadvertent immersion into the “progressive” lunatic asylums is horrifically typical. That Karlinsky prefaces all this with research into all the people for whom the only posterity is an admission date makes it doubly moving.

Like Paul Guinan’s Boilerplate – the story of a Victorian robot – this weaves together the actual and the imaginary with consummate skill. Knowing that it is a fiction makes me want it even more to be true.