ISBN 978-1-78239-827-1 (hardback),
The year is 1772. Two sloops under James Cook’s command, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure, the latter captained by Tobias Furneaux, are making their way south towards Cape Town. Aboard Resolution are father and son Reinhold and George Forster. Reinhold is a “natural phil-osopher”, a collector and documenter of flora and fauna; the role of his 17-year-old son is to illustrate the specimens his father has collected.
The latest novel by prolific English writer A.N. Wilson fictionalises the life of George Forster. It opens with a scene aboard Resolution. Reinhold’s servant, 19-year-old Nally, holds a monkey the Forsters have acquired in the Cape Verde islands, and which he has named “Plunkett”. Observing the creature closely, Nally comments on its similarity to a human, foreshadowing the great debate on the theory of evolution. The anecdote of the monkey is followed by the back-story of the Forster family, then leaps forward in alternating chapters from Cook’s 1772-75 voyage to the post-Resolution life and career of George Forster.
As Wilson makes clear, the Forsters were an exceptional family, although they displayed “an unerring instinct to support the wrong side in history”. Originally from England, their forebears emigrated in the seventeenth century after the country fell under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. The Forsters fled to “Germanised” Prussia, where Reinhold later became the Lutheran pastor of a village near Danzig. There George, the eldest of six children, was born in 1754. Later, the family migrated to England, where Reinhold found employment as a schoolmaster at Warrington.
Forster the elder was a dedicated botanical collector and a polymath who spoke seventeen languages. He was also acquainted with naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who had sailed in Cook’s Endeavour. A follower of Swedish botanist Linnaeus, Reinhold also set out to out-Linnaeus Linnaeus. Born with an unshakable belief in his own genius, Reinhold was also an obdurate, peevish bore, nick-named the “tactless philosopher” by one English colleague.
In Wilson’s words, “In Reinhold the lust for knowledge was a twofold thing, everlastingly co-existent with the pleasure of putting another in the wrong”.
Reinhold and George sailed in Resolution by default. Joseph Banks was first appointed to the role of expedition naturalist, but, as is well known, the wealthy young man’s extravagant alterations to Resolution made the vessel unsafe. To Banks’s fury, the additions were dismantled. A scene in which Cook and Banks conflict over the demolition is included in Wilson’s novel.
[Banks] – What in the name of f***ing HELL do you think you are DOING?
[Cook] – I am making the Resolution seaworthy, sir. I have removed four of her guns – if we are to carry that weight it had better be barrels of Sauer Kraut to prevent the men getting scurvy – thirty deaths we had in Endeavour – I’m not having that again on any ship under my command,
[Banks] – But my laboratory, my f***ing CABIN – you –you –
I found two difficulties with the above exchange. To the best of my knowledge there were no deaths from scurvy on the Endeavour voyage; the fatalities that did occur were from accident and tropical diseases such as malaria. Also, I doubt if an angry Banks would have been so profanely disrespectful towards the man whose nautical skills had taken him safely around the world.
Exit Banks, enter the ambitious Reinhold and his precociously talented illustrator son, George, who are both invited to replace Banks in Resolution.
The aim of Cook’s epic second world voyage was to search for Terra Australis Incognita, the Great Unknown Southern Continent. Other key players aboard Resolution include the “dry-skinned cold-eyed astronomer” William Wales and the laconic Captain Cook, whose “silences were impenetrable”. Cook orders the defecating pet monkeys to be tossed overboard, including Plunkett, much to the distress of the sensitive servant, Nally.
Fast forward to 1784. George, now thirty, is newly married to Therese. The couple are travelling through East Prussia in the company of another man, who Therese calls “Assad”, but whose real name is Friedrich. George carries physical scars from Resolution’s voyage: a “greyish, pitted” skin, many of his teeth are rotting or have fallen out, and those remaining are “orange verging on mahogany”. Therese is no great beauty either – she has a bad squint.
It becomes evident that George’s voyage with Cook has had an unforgettable effect on his life. A superb illustrator and gifted chronicler, he has published A Voyage Round the World, an account of his three years aboard Resolution. The book has been very successful, and has brought him scientific acclaim. But this intellectual success is not matched by domestic contentment. George and Therese’s marriage is a loveless one. Both admit that they married mainly “to escape their fathers”, an unpromising motive. George and Therese’s sex life is thorny and contrasts starkly with the open promiscuity that George witnessed in the South Seas, and which so disgusted his father.
Therese becomes a principal character in the increasingly bizarre carousel that is George’s life. People pester him for details of Cook’s voyage and implore him to write another book about it. One even suggests a title – Cook the Discoverer. George comes under the influence of Enlightenment intellectuals such as Goethe, Rousseau and von Humboldt. Goethe’s loosely autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) resonates with George. In 1787 he publishes an acclaimed essay, Cook the Discoverer, and even Therese is impressed. In Vilnius they manage to conceive a daughter, Rose, to whom George becomes devoted, but always there are those indelible memories of life aboard Resolution and the exotic, alternative ways of living he had witnessed in the South Seas.
We return to 1772. Resolution and Adventure are now heading for the Antarctic Ocean. George celebrates his eighteenth birthday on board. The vessels are beset by fogs, blizzards and ice fields, and the ships’ men take comfort in rum and brandy. Reinhold gripes after the expedition’s sheep and goats are taken below and housed, “bleating and pissing... butting and shitting” alongside his cabin.
On 17 January Resolution becomes the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle, but finds no great continent. Inexplicably to this reviewer, there is no mention of the fact that Resolution and Adventure become separated in Antarctic waters, as happened on 8 February, 1773. This must have been a trau-matic event for everyone aboard Resolution, including the Forsters, yet the separation is omitted entirely. (The sloops’ later separation off the coast of New Zealand is included.)
1773 ends with Resolution’s sojourn in Dusky Sound, in the extreme south-west of New Zealand. Here it’s suggested that there was wholesale copulation with Maori women. This would have been difficult, as there were very few women there. Mass fornication did occur between Resolution’s men and Maori women, but weeks later, in the much more northern Queen Charlotte Sound.
Back to the future. It’s now 1785. While still immersed in domesticity and marital bickering, George is elated to learn that the Empress Catherine of Russia intends to finance an expedition of discovery to the South Seas. It will consist of a fleet of five vessels, and George will be engaged “as chief scientist and chronicler of the voyages”. Alas, just when he thinks his life will be put back on a much-needed even keel, Catherine’s voyaging plan is aborted. War has broken out again in Europe, and such expeditions are now unaffordable. Instead, George joins the revolutionary Mainz Jacobin Club, and becomes a supporter of the incipient French Revolution. In the meantime, Therese leaves him, and George takes her friend Caroline as his lover.
Writing fiction based on real historical events involves a difficult balancing act. The factual scaffolding must be kept intact, so that within that framework the invented episodes and the crucial fictional element – characterisation – can flourish.
If the principal aim of the novel Resolution is to move the reader over the manifold predicaments of George Forster, then it succeeds. His wretchedly dysfunctional family life, his sulking and ultimately unfaithful wife, his alignment with the Jacobin Club, and witnessing of the terror following the French Revolution – all these draw the reader sympathetically to George’s side. This means that his ultimate demise is very affecting. The portrayal of the envious, vain, prudish Reinhold is convincing too, while the understated presence of Cook the enlightened but laconic commander can be felt throughout the Resolution voyage chapters. Wilson evokes the political ferment of the late eighteenth century in Europe convincingly, and is also a sharp observer of the characteristics of the era. For example, from the chapter 1789: “George was standing at the window of their apartment in Mainz. Beneath, in the street, a procession of thirty-five, or so, caliches, elaborate rococo carriages, painted, some with flowers, others with the coats of arms of their occupants, passed through the main street to the great Romanesque cathedral of St Martin of Tours”.
However within the non-fiction framework of George’s voyage with Cook, there are serious lapses. For instance in the chapter 1790, the novelist writes that “Mr Alexander Dalrymple, the hydrographer who had accompanied Cook on the first voyage to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in ’69”. That was not so; the Admiralty did not want Dalrymple to command the Endeavour voyage, and he did not sail in her.
There is a reference to Resolution and Adventure being imperilled as they approached “Matarai Bay” (sic). This episode actually occurred off Tahiti Iti, near Vaitepeha Bay, whereas Matavai Bay is in Tahiti Nui, miles away to the north. We are also led to believe that the Swede Anders Sparrman was assaulted by natives on Tahiti, whereas the attack actually happened later, on Huahine Island. In the chapter 1785, we are told that Cook’s sailors while in the Sandwich Islands, stole “sacred images from the islanders on Maui – acts considered blasphemous”. Neither Cook nor his sailors landed on Maui – the island where the deities were removed was Hawai`i.
George is said to have mightily impressed the young Therese with stories of his running “from the Anthropophagi of New Holland”. But Resolution did not go to New Holland (Australia), and most historians agree that the Australian aboriginals were not cannibals. The inclusion of George’s boasting may have been intentional, but if so it should have been stated as such.
I mention these lapses not to be pedantic, but in the firm belief that in the genre of historical fiction, literal truths are as important as fictional ones. Established facts should stand; they should not be changed by the author.
Stylistically, Wilson evidently has an aversion to quotation marks. These are eschewed throughout the novel, a long dash being employed instead. For example, in the following passage of dialogue:
–What’s he saying, lad?
– Bones, Captain – this was George who spoke. (by the end of the first day he had a hundred words of the Easter Island language and was beginning to master the sentence structures.)
– Oddidy said,
– Mother bones.
– His own mother? There was real horror in the Captain’s voice.
– They seem to have the same word for wife and mother, said George.
– The Captain allowed himself a little pleasantry.
– Rather Greek of them.
I found this use of the dash rather than single or double quote marks a source of irritation throughout. Why was this annoying device employed?
There is much to admire in the novel Resolution. Its depiction of George Forster, Enlightenment Man, is moving. So too is its evocation of that special era in European history. A pity then that the novel pays insufficient attention to several important facts of Cook’s second world voyage.