The Evolutionist is a triumph of biographical fiction, an utterly convincing character study of one of the most poignant figures in the history of science: Alfred Wallace, overshadowed by Darwin as originator of the theory of natural selection. Wallace’s status as social outsider, beside the more established standing of Darwin and his connections with Lyell and Hooker (the latter represented by the fictitious composite character Newcastle), conspired to deprive him of fuller credit for his accomplished work in advancing the controversial new theory—especially as the younger Wallace chose to go through Darwin himself to present his paper first explicating it.
The genius of the novel is its convincing immersion in the language of its time, the mid-nineteenth century. Neither dense nor affected, however, the period piece reads as naturally as if its prose were our own. Particularly seamless is the blending of speech by the characters in Wallace’s circle, and the narrative voice portraying the protagonist in third person. To take just one example: “Bates and he had a devil of a time squeezing through the narrow channel.”
The portrayal of Wallace is both sympathetic and complete, fully disclosing his limitations and personal disinclinations in navigating the convention-bound proprieties of scientific approval in the Britain of his time. That very personality, both reticent and principled, endears him to the reader even as it explains the failure of his discovery to pre-empt Darwin’s more celebrated work.
Along the way, the pacing of action, thought and dialogue keeps us engaged in the journey, whether in the muck of the Amazon and jungles of Borneo, or the salons, courtrooms and pubs of London. Sirlin has a deft touch with visual description to complement an unerring taste (“A pill of memory stuck in his throat”) and ear for authentic language. The latter is notable for ringing true in a wide register of social classes and brings the secondary characters to life alongside the fallible hero, Wallace.
Not that Wallace was his only worst enemy. Sirlin uses his lawyer’s skills to chart the mystery of the origins of Darwin’s famous “Origin of Species.” While some of the blame for Wallace’s obscurity lies with his self-effacing humility, and some for an accident at sea, and still more for the constricting mindset of established science, the machinations of Darwin and his associates clearly contrived to bring Darwin’s long-simmering theory to the fore. In this drama, however, even these competitors show compassion and respect for Wallace’s acquiescence; and Darwin himself admits: “Your essay inspired a clarity of vision that had altogether been precluded by my own cowardice.” Thus both key figures are well rounded, Darwin here featuring honest self-disclosure along with his weakness in the matter of bringing the unborn theory forward.
The Evolutionist works as an entertaining read, as a polished literary gem, and as an authoritative exposé of science’s most celebrated “coincidence.” The thorough research appears as it should in the best historical fiction, to make the world and its characters come truly and convincingly alive.
(I reviewed an Advance Readers Copy of this book.)