Book Review

Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Mr Darwin’s Gardener is a beautiful, modernist novella about the late 19th century inhabitants of the small village in Kent where Charles Darwin lived in his retirement.

Although it is a contemporary Finnish text (hence why I bought it to read in Finland), Kristina Carlson’s novella is far more English than I’d expected, and in fact a nuanced insight into my own culture, 130 years ago, rather than an exploration into the world of the Finns. To be honest, the latter is what I was hoping for when I was rashly judging books by their covers in the Finland section of the Marylebone Daunt Books,* but this short text is good enough for me not to mind the fact that is it unfit for the purpose it was bought for. So, although Mr Darwin’s Gardener is not the cultural exploration I was hoping for, it is a marvellous piece of fiction.

In a small, narrow-minded, English village, there lives an aged celebrity, one time scourge of the Christian world but now a generally respected (due to popular collation of creationism and evolution) scientist, Mr Charles Darwin. He does not appear in the text as anything but a shadowy figure, reported but never met, and the main protagonist of the piece is, as one would expect from the title, his gardener. Thomas Davies, then, is a Welshman far from home, over-educated for his class but unwilling to engage with other people of his intellectual level. He is, in many ways, a sexless Oliver Mellors.
Thomas is an atheist, a gardener whose botanical knowledge extends a little too far beyond the practical, a man infused by the theories of his employer, but simultaneously grief-ridden and self-hating due to the death of his wife and the fact that their surviving children both suffer from disabilities. Thomas, a modern, thoughtful man, laments that in a world where truly only the fit survive, his young would not make it alone. His heart and his mind are at war – he will not act on his naturalistic beliefs and abandon his weak offspring to death, because that would be inhumane, yet he knows they are not the cream of the evolutionary crop that every member of a dominant species should be. And this is what defines humanity, right? The ability to hold diametrically opposed ideas without either being affected by the other. One can accept that nature is callous and meant for the strong, yet still hold an urge to protect the weak. A respect for the natural world does not inherently condone a move towards anarchism.

In fact, Mr Darwin’s Gardener is far more about collectivism than it is about individuals. We see the whole village – from the grocer to the publican to the local gentry to the labourers to the teacher. Many believe Thomas is likely to kill his children due to his godlessness and grief, but in fact Carlson writes of a very affectionate bond between the father and his children. She writes too about the return to the village of a young man who ran away after getting a girl pregnant (he is, the reader presumes, looking for her, for she too ran away but in a different direction) and the girl’s father’s botched attempts at revenge. Carlson writes about domestic boredom, about class struggle, about social rejection and about scientific interest and sudden, dramatic, technological change. No telephone has yet reached the village, but everyone knows what it is, and many have encountered one when out of the village. This is a place and a time on the cusp of modernity – evolution is vaguely acknowledged, but God is not yet Dead. Mr Darwin’s Gardener is full of short trips into the minds and houses of various characters, returning most regularly to that of the titular figure, whose attitudes towards his family, education and spirituality are the most 21st century of them all.

It is modernist in that it is like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – we sweep up and out of people’s conscious minds, through their window and into the soul of the next person along – we see the same incidents and people from different perspectives – the narrator is liquid, loose, but all movement is smooth and gentle and tight.

All the big issues are present, all the big sins, the big virtues: we see lust and compassion, greed and generosity, birth and bereavement. Mr Darwin’s Gardener is a rich, short, text, well-pitched and nuanced, short but wide. It may not have length, but its literary girth is undeniable.

A beautiful, charming little book. I’d recommend it.

* I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s a bookshop in London that has a huge, vaulted room at its rear where it arranges books – travel guides, fiction, non-fiction – by country. Great for literary holiday shopping. Intellectually intriguing from a bibliographic perspective, too.

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