Nothing happens; and nothing happens; and still nothing happens. Everything remains the same… or so it seems. But the truth is that everything is changing imperceptibly all the time.
The Great Unknown set in the 1840’s Britain and France, forces one to confront the question that has haunted us all from the dawning of time. What does it mean to be me, to be a human being at all? Who am I? What is meant for me? Where do I come from? What does it all mean? Am I superior to animals, after-all, aren’t I an animal myself? This was a time when everyone alive was challenging the religious beliefs in the name of scientific discovery. This could be seen as dangerous, questioning what we’re meant to blindly believe. Science vs God, even now is rocky terrain but then it could be downright sacrilege.
Then there is the Chartist movement, whose goal during this time was to gain rights and political influence for the working class, which naturally upset the upper classes. Surely you can’t let just anyone have sway in politics, how can the average man carry any weight in the important decisions of one’s time? Everyone has their own view on this.
The novel begins with wet nurse, Mrs. Constantia MacAdam, providing milk for an infant born to a merry, wealthy family- the Chambers. Welcomed into the fold more like a friend than a servant, she grieves the loss of her own twin infant boy while nourishing her surviving twin daughter and the Chamber’s son, born with extra fingers and toes. We learn her name isn’t quite her own, for her past is shadowed by the loss of her mother when she was a little girl, while no true history of her real father remains. Living in a household filled with people of a curious, questioning nature, it’s impossible to not be disturbed by her own bottomless pit of mystery. Separated from her own dear husband, in order to give birth to their twins, and for reasons she will keep to herself, communication is precarious between them. Tormented by her mother’s secrecy before her tragic death, her deep love and memories flit about, unable to secure any solid evidence of her own origins. Her beautiful mother, who lived a bohemian existence, raising her in India, keeping her past veiled left her with endless questions. Is life a twist of fate, are we guided by god, is it orderly, disorderly?
Others think of Mrs. MacAdams as a French hussy, whose terrible fashion sense certainly speaks loudly for her worth, or lack thereof. Good women do not go by false names, and can it be trusted that she is even married at all? But Mrs. Chambers knows that “folk may have perfectly innocent reasons for preserving a discreet anonymity”. In this household too, children are permitted to read scandalous books, such as the Vestiges. An anonymous book published that dealt with speculative natural history, embraced by polite society, inspiring people’s thinking to turn towards science, before Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published. Naturally to the clergy minded, it was criticized. Nature should be proof of God’s existence, not an argument against it! Throughout this book, evolution is a theme but so too is the strange happenstance that occurs in so many of our lives. Which do we cling to? Is it like Lady Janet believes? That “incalculable harm may be wrought by such a book”? Certainly there can be nothing evil about looking to fossils, to trying to find answers and meaning? Nothing wrong in studying the evolution of creatures, plants… Just as intelligent and progressive as the family, she fits in perfectly- sharing a love of fossils with Mrs.Chambers.
It is a novel of not just self discovery but of trying to embrace some sort of order in this, the great unknown. Everyone in the book engages in the new discoveries, even debating geological matters. Each has their say. Political matters account for much of the novel too, as all men who work this earth should have a voice, and risk death to use it. To think what we read can be a threat to the old ways.
There is scandal and shame in Mrs. MacAdam’s single mother’s past, but she will, as the strange whims of fate have it, get to the root of the truth.
The book began slowly and eventually I began to be more invested in Constantia’s story. There are deeper questions that may exasperate some readers and it can feel like a lesson at school which is great if it’s your fancy and you want to learn about geology, and the shift of scientific thinking among the masses.
Publication Date: February 18, 2020
W.W. & Norton Company