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Review: The Great Unknown, by Peg Kingman
Norton, 2020. 324 pp. $27

In 1845, Constantia MacAdam, just delivered of twins (one of whom died), serves as wet nurse to the large, ever-growing Chambers family, temporarily residing outside Edinburgh while their city home undergoes renovation. Constantia, unable to be with her beloved husband, makes the best of her grief over her lost son and her struggle to make ends meet, but she has lucked out. Not only has she landed among the kindest people in Scotland, who treat her like a family member rather than a servant, she’s never found such intellectual stimulation in her life, and she thrives on it.

Mr. Chambers, a newspaper publisher, takes a keen interest in the natural world and urges his immense brood to do likewise, even (if not especially) the girls. He impresses Constantia, who also loves natural science, because of the breadth of his knowledge and the liberality of his mind. A sensational book has appeared, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and its unorthodox views receive a warm welcome in the Chambers household. The reader will guess that Vestiges anticipates Darwin’s influential book almost fifteen years later.

Figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith, depicted here at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, were part of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, often presumed to be an eighteenth-century phenomenon. But their nineteenth-century counterparts included such scientific and cultural luminaries as Thomas Carlyle, Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, and James Clerk Maxwell (courtesy Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

While this is happening, the Chambers’ gardener, who has been at this residence all his life, has derived similar revolutionary ideas from observing the randomness of life and death, thriving and deformity, among his beloved plants. And on a Scottish island reasonably near in mileage yet isolated and hard to reach by even the fastest transport, a quarryman seeks to split apart a limestone ledge, in which, he believes, important fossils lie.

To say, therefore, that The Great Unknown is a philosophical novel about the origins of life restates the obvious. The story, at first glance, may seem thin. Constantia longs to rejoin her husband. She also strives to learn who her father was, which the Chambers family, being the soul of tact, infer is a troublesome matter, a secret best left unprobed. Her good character is plain; what more need anyone know?

That doesn’t satisfy Lady Janet, a distant relative of theirs who possesses neither tact nor sensitivity, though she does express much righteous superiority. (When Constantia finally gets the courage to talk back to Lady Janet, it’s delicious.) Lady Janet is the foil for the good-hearted spirit of inquiry that reigns chez Chambers, and a reminder of how different they are from most Britons.

But there’s much more besides the evocation of a country on the brink of a moral upending through scientific discovery, or the excellent, personal portrayal of the conflict between religion and science. We have a thought-provoking daily drama playing out chance and consequences, fortunate or tragic, and people trying to figure out whether these outcomes mean anything or merely display the benign indifference of the universe. (Note the name Constantia in this regard.) Add to that what makes a person human, and how we differ (or don’t) from other species; or is it just our vanity that we do?

In sentences that have a Victorian ring, Kingman has crafted a plot that often turns on Dickensian coincidences, perhaps too fortuitously, at times. But she’s also created a family as a perfect test case for her themes, and not just because of their scientific curiosity. The male species of Chambers are born with a sixth finger on each hand and a sixth toe on each foot. Random chance, indeed, as with the success of surgeries necessary for these digits’ removal. As for Mr. Chambers, imagine a Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice as a witty, urbane man of science who’s more immediately concerned with his daughters’ grasp of Linnaean nomenclature than how to attract a husband—though, rest assured, they have dancing and music lessons too.

Further, when anyone in the household has a musical idea that grabs them at any time, they are encouraged to try it out immediately:

It was understood by all that musical ideas were so fragile, so evanescent, and so precious that they were to be snatched from the thin air upon the very moment of their wafting into existence; they might otherwise as evaporate as quickly as they had precipitated, never again to be recovered. No chances could be taken with them; it was a duty to bring them into the world. Constantia became accustomed to seeing an inward distracted stillness fall over the faces of the girls; any of them might, even in the midst of nursery-supper noise, fall silent for a moment; then spring from her chair, to run to the pianoforte—the harp—the violin.

Not everyone will gravitate toward a quiet, reflective story like this, a daguerreotype of the moment when brave thinkers began to ask the most earthshaking questions without fear of divine retribution. But readers who take The Great Unknown for what it is will be greatly rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.