Resolution: A novel of the boy who sailed with Captain Cook
A. N. Wilson
Atlantic Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
THE handsome dust-jacket announces that this is “a novel of the boy who sailed with Captain Cook”. As a young man, the traveller and naturalist Georg (or “George”) Forster accompanied his father, Reinhold, on Cook’s second expedition to the southern hemisphere in the early 1770s, later writing a famous account of the voyage before Cook himself could reap the literary rewards.
A. N. Wilson, a distinguished biographer and novelist, offers a highly literary account of Forster’s life, shuttling between different phases of a fascinating career and between different levels of narrative. The epigraphs to each section of the novel are from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, a poem that haunts William Golding’s novel Rites of Passage, and Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels of Britain’s naval wars against revolutionary France.
Wilson’s interest is less in anthropology or naval history, and more in the scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, and the violent eruption of revolution and Romanticism in late-18th-century Europe.
In the 1780s, George was a professor of natural science in Germany, married to Therese Heyne, the daughter of the professor of rhetoric at Göttingen. Wilson brilliantly conveys the agonies associated with a failed marriage, the pleasures associated with true friendship, and the contrasts between the German and British intellectual communities of the day.
George’s conversion to the Jacobin cause in Mainz, and his subsequent disillusionment, are less securely handled. The bouleversement of his unconversion from Jacobinism is rather laboriously linked to his loss of faith in his fathers, both earthly and heavenly. Early in the marriage, Therese’s giggles at the idea of prayers before bedtime are enough for George not merely to “abandon a personal Divinity”: “Even the sort of Deistic moral arbiter propounded by Professor Dr Kant was dismissed by the laugh of this young woman.”
Whereas Golding’s fictional Reverend Colley is represented as a doomed Jonah, whose sudden realisation that he is homosexual destroys him, Wilson’s George Forster dies more slowly on his long voyage into agnosticism. Memories of Tahitian girls and the exotic natural world of the South Seas present a poignant contrast to George’s troubled engagement with the complexities of modernity.
Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.