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Laughter that was the death of faith

25 November 2016

Michael Wheeler on a stylish story of youth and disillusionment


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.

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