Kristina Carlson (2013) Mr Darwin’s Gardener trans. Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah; Peirene Press, London; 112 pp.; ISBN 978-1-90867009-0 [originally published in Finnish in 2009].
Charles Darwin moved to the village of Down in Kent in 1842 (the village name was later changed to Downe and it is now part of Greater London). He remained there until his death in 1882. In this novel set in the village, Darwin is a looming presence but we never meet him. People talk about him, his work and his eminent visitors, and we know he still goes for his daily constitutional, but the focus in this story is on Thomas Davies, the Welsh man who works as Darwin’s gardener. Thomas has had a hard life – his father died early and left the family poor, then Thomas’s wife Gwyneth died three years ago. His only solace is his two children, Cathy and John. He loves them dearly but Cathy is feeble minded and John has a limp because one leg is shorter than the other.
As the story opens we pass quickly from neighbour to neighbour, and the whole novel continues in this polyphonous fashion. Slowly the picture of village life, personal intrigues and family sorrows emerges. An early sight of Thomas Davies has him on a hill near his house, railing against the heavens because of the grief he feels since his wife died. He looks heavenward but is there a god listening?
Some of his neighbours think Thomas is overdoing the grief, showing off even. Some think he is getting above himself by associating with Darwin. Standing out in a small community is not a good thing. Some believe that the afflictions of his children are a divine punishment on Thomas for his arrogance, or perhaps some wrongdoing committed before he appeared in the village. The sense of divine retribution is still strong.
Thomas is impressed by Darwin’s knowledge and his ideas. Darwin leaves him written instructions for the garden and he begins an experiment to see if electricity will promote the faster growth of agricultural crops. Darwin is old but his dedication to knowledge and his curiosity remain undimmed.
As the seasons turn, Thomas progressively loses faith in heaven and divine mercy, and at one point he admits he is praying ‘under duress’ to a god that does not exist. His neighbours fear that he is careering towards suicide and that he will kill his children along with himself. His actions later in the tale scare the villagers into action, but the outcome is something none of them expect.
Darwin has ignited the debate between science and religion but the lines are not clearly drawn. Darwin’s ideas are debated in the local pub, though typically no one has read his works, even those few residents with literary pretensions. There are many who still see science as the work of Satan.
The division between the private lives of villagers and their public interactions is always maintained. The private realm is often full of fears and insecurities, petty jealousies and hatreds. When a thief and philanderer, Daniel Lewis, returns to the village with a changed appearance, a merchant recognises him and a band of men take revenge. Privately each of them is ashamed of what they do but none of them is brave enough to say it aloud. Village gossip condemns Daniel Lewis, but some women show him mercy in private. Later Lewis will write a lurid take on Darwin’s ideas and Thomas Davies’s private life, igniting yet more village scandal.
There are class divisions in the community, but Dr Kenny the local physician and Henry Faine the solicitor have to muck in with the rest in order that village life remains on an even keel. As Henry Faine muses at one point, if you remain on good terms with everyone, no one notices you. When you live in a small place, not being noticed is as close to freedom as you will get.
In the end Thomas Davies the gardener comes to an acceptance of his lot. He realises that further sorrow on his part will only breed more sorrows in his life. He has made a transition from religious belief to humanism – as many who live after him will do – and we sense that his love for his children will be the beacon of his life now. He finds renewal in his support for Darwin’s work.
Kristina Carlson is a Finnish writer but she captures the atmosphere of a nineteenth century English village in exceptional detail. The polyphonous style, where a paragraph can begin in the third person and shift to the first person of the same character while the next paragraph shifts to someone else entirely, might be disturbing to some readers and takes some getting used to. There is also a lot of onomatopoeia, the sounds of birds often mirroring the snatches of chatter and internal voices we are privy to among the villagers. Yet the story comes together to provide a rich glimpse into a small world being riven by an extraordinary scientific revolution, spearheaded by the old respectable man who lives in Down House in their very midst.
This is a wonderful tale of people living through momentous social change yet who remain focused on the mundane passions and interests of their daily lives. It made me wonder whether we ever really recognise times of momentous change other than when we look back.