Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews

Mr. Darwin's Shooter

Roger McDonald
Alfred A. Knopf, 1998 365pp
ISBN: 0-09-183671-9

reviewed by Ann Skea

From the author's notes: "It struck me early, considering this novel, that the greatest set of blinkers most of us wear is not around accepting Darwin's theory of natural selection or some half-understood version of it, but in thinking ourselves back to a time when the ruling idea was creationist"

Part of Roger McDonald's purpose in Mr Darwin's Shooter, then, is to recreate this creationist world, which Darwin himself struggled to reconcile with the evidence of his researches. He does this well, although his focus is not on Darwin but on the man who made much of Darwin's research possible - Syms Covington.

Little is known about Covington apart from an uncertain birth-date, a few references to him in Darwin's letters, and some watercolour paintings and a scrappy diary in the State Library of New South Wales, Australia. He was about sixteen when he joined HMS Beagle in 1832 as a "fiddler and odd-job boy", and during the voyage he became Darwin's servant, specimen collector and assistant. Darwin taught him to shoot and skin birds, and to prepare all kinds of botanical specimens. In fact, it was Covington's finches, caught, prepared and (most importantly) labelled as extra specimens for his own private sale, which became a crucial part of Darwin's proof of 'transmutation'. The scientist, it seems, had neglected to label his own collection.

To Darwin, Covington was "my servant...an odd sort of person", but in Janet Brown's recent biography of Darwin (Charles Darwin: Voyaging,(1955)) he is "the unacknowledged shadow behind Darwin's every triumph".

Syms Covington, in McDonald's book, is far from shadowy. He is as solid a physical presence as can be found anywhere in modern fiction. A rumbustious, fiercly independent and prickly sort of youth, and a contradictory, proud, deaf and very determined old man.

Covington was born in Bedford, England, home of John Bunyan, and a strong centre of non-conformist religion. McDonald builds on this fact, making Covington's deeply held religious faith a source of spiritual conflict as he grows aware of Darwin's developing ideas and the contradictions these create for his own creationist beliefs. Covington still carries this conflict with him when he migrates to Australia on leaving Darwin's service in 1839. It makes him irritable and restless. "Where is God?", he demands of the surgeon MacCracken. "In your dissections at the Boston hospital, and ever after...have you ever seen evidence of the human soul?", "The difference, MacCracken [between a man and a rat, noddy-foozle!], what is it?". And the question of his own role in Darwin's research disturbs him deeply. "The devil's work", he calls it, and he waits anxiously to read The Origin of Species for some indication of the role he suspects he played in its genesis.

Covington's personality dominates this book as we move back and forth between episodes from his youth, his travels, his work with Darwin and his later life in Australia. But there are other strong characters, too. John Phipps, the charismatic Congregationalist sailor who recruits his 'lads' to religion and the Navy. And MacCracken, the American surgeon who saves Covington's life in Sydney and unwittingly becomes his supporter (his moral counsellor, almost) by sharing business interests with him.

Darwin himself remains remote. But the awkward balance of co-dependence and shared skills and hardships within the master-servant relationship is vividly drawn. McDonald, perhaps, imposes some of his own modern Australian conviction of equality between people on Covington, whose independent, ambitious spirit frequently leads him to test the limits of the master-servant relationship. But this is especially relevant to Covington's life in the young Australian colony where many, like MacCracken, came to make a fortune, hiding their backgrounds as best they could.

MacCracken, an educated Bostonian fleeing a breach-of-promise dispute, tends to regard Covington as a "well meaning peasant", but he comes, eventually, to acknowledge him on his own terms as an equal. Not, however, before Covington has irritated and badgered him into a state of defensive fury in which he "came to feel he might strangle him".

Mr Darwin's Shooter works several levels. It is a satisfying and well written story, and McDonald touches lightly on the vast complexity and puzzle that is life. It returns Darwin's theories to their original context, allowing the imaginative reader to share some of the anxieties, difficulties, anger, and sometimes exhileration, that his theory of evolution produced in ordinary people when it was first published. And it not only redresses a balance by acknowledging the real Syms Covington's role in Darwin's research, it restores him gloriously to life, here, as a remarkable and memorable fictional character.


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