My second session for the day, again, a writer I had not heard of before. This man is amazing, the session was packed, full, in the gorgeous Heartland tent complete with ‘stained glass’ borders around it, the perfect setting for such a unique storyteller. A. N. Wilson is English, public school and Oxford educated. He is very well known in the UK as a writer, newspaper columnist, for his extensive writing of biographies, novels, and for his religious views. He has written biographies of all sorts of people – CS Lewis, Queen Victoria, Jesus, Dante, as well as the city of London. Much more recently his increasing interest in historical fiction has resulted in the publication of Resolution, the subject of this session.
The man is a born entertainer, and there were so many laughs from the audience as he regaled us and weaved all over the place with his tales of life on the high seas, the Pacific Islands as seen by Cook and his crew, the French Revolution, Captain Cook himself, Boswell, what scurvy does to you, a stale marriage, Goethe, public school education, and, hilariously, roast penguin.
Most of us will know Resolution as the ship that Captain Cook captained on his second voyage to New Zealand/South Seas over the years 1772-1775. This novel is not about the Resolution or its voyage per se, but more about George Forster who was on this voyage.
Having had enough of botanist Joseph Banks on the first voyage, that of the Endeavour, Cook employed naturalist Reinhold Forster for this second voyage. I don’t know the reason, and I vaguely recall Wilson saying something about this, but Reinhold also took his 12-year-old son Georg on the voyage with him. What an extraordinary thing to do with a 12-year-old child, going to the other side of a little explored world, looking for the southern continent – Antarctica – in a sloop not much bigger than the tent we were all sitting in.
Reinhold made himself as unpopular on the voyage as his predecessor Dr Banks did, plus it seems young Georg didn’t have the best time either, being under the control and domination of a tyrant of a father. His refusal to eat his daily ration of sauerkraut resulted in him getting scurvy which must have driven Cook crazy, but because George was under his father’s control and not Cook’s there was little Cook could do. Refusing this daily dose was a whipping offence, such was Cook’s passion for the health of his crew.
Georg was a born artist and during the voyage did the most exquisite and detailed drawings and paintings of flora and fauna encountered on the voyage. Fortunately, most of these works were acquired by the British Museum (another wonderful diversion story by Mr Wilson), and can be viewed there. Georg rocketed to fame when at the age of 23, he published his journal of the voyage, some weeks ahead of Cook’s journals, and considerably fatter. It was an instant success, to the absolute fury of Cook, resulting in Forster being admitted to the Royal Academy.
His future as a scientist and naturalist would appear to be sealed, and he ended up being the librarian at Mainz University in Germany. He became extremely interested in the revolutionary ideas of Benjamin Franklin and the Enlightenment, being one of the founders of the Jacobin Club. He was in Paris when an Austrian/Prussian force took control of it, resulting in him being considered an outlaw for his ideas. He ended up dying in Paris, unable to return to Germany. He was only 39, but look at what he had packed into those years. He had married unhappily, to Therese Heyne, with whom he had three children. She remarried and became a successful novelist, in the Jane Austen vein. In yet another wonderful anecdote, Wilson told the story of how he saw Forster’s small desk that he had on the Resolution with him, in a Captain Cook museum in Whitby that had been donated by a descendant of Forster’s.
Without having read the book the father-son, parent-child theme would appear to be quite strong. Wilson talked a bit about this when asked about why he chose Georg Forster as the subject for his novel. He said that he had read Reinhold’s journal of the voyage, finding it very funny, and in total understanding as to why he was known on the ship as the ‘tactless philosopher’. He did get to wondering what it would be like to have this man as his father.
Wilson, it seems, had a wonderful relationship with his father who was much older than the average father. He spent lots of time with his father, good time, but couldn’t help notice that others saw his father differently, not necessarily in a good light, from how he saw him. I think we all have this with our parents to a certain extent, but for Wilson, it would appear there was a most noticeable and puzzling difference to the two types of relationships.
Aside from this most personal of revelations, this was an extremely entertaining and polished delivery. Wilson was very at ease with this audience, we hung on his every word, he had wonderful illustrations – Forster’s art work, portraits of him pre and post scurvy, his wife, the guillotine in action. The information, the stories, the anecdotes just flowed out of him, and he was even able to incorporate the noon chiming of the Town Hall clock into yet another French Revolution piece of gore – Quasimodo, as well as the Red Arrows overhead with a passing helicopter. We would never have got that level of entertainment sitting in one of the fully enclosed Aotea Centre theatres!
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
You can see A.N. Wilson with Simon Wilson talking about The Human and the Historical, at 1.30 – 2.30pm on Sunday 21 May.
by A. N. Wilson
Published by Atlantic Books