29 October 2012

Review: Two Years Ago—Vol. I by Charles Kingsley

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2004 (originally 1857)

Read July 2012
Two Years Ago—Vol. I
by Charles Kingsley

Two Years Ago is the story of Tom Thurnall, the son of a doctor, and himself a physician-- and, like many physicians of his period, an amateur naturalist. So of course I was obligated to read it for my exams. Kingsley's big emphasis on what makes Tom as a scientist different from the people around him is his method of observation: he sees well. He doesn't conform to the stereotype of the scientist as socially clueless; rather, he's the sort of person who sees others very, very keenly. But not quite well enough: "He had watched human nature under every disguise, from the pomp of the ambassador to the war-paint of the savage, and formed his own clear, hard, shallow, practical estimate thereof." He understands people very well, especially their weaknesses... but is often unable to see their strengths. He can manipulate them, but not love them.

If you guess that this results in the novel being about Tom learning to see the goodness within people, you'd be right. But though the narrator always has time to stop and drop a moral judgment on Tom ("the possession of power, sought at first from self-interest, has become a passion, a species of sporting, which he follows for its own sake"), Tom is actually a very good scientist and a very good person, bringing a number of positive changes to the town where he takes up residence, and handling tricky situations in a way to fair to all-- even the terrible people! A lot of the last chapter is about his fear of an approaching cholera epidemic, and he does a lot to stop it from hurting anyone.

Running alongside his hijinks is a subplot about his love for Grace, who is (surprise) a religious woman. She loves him, too, but he suspects her of theft, and she can't tell him what she thinks did happen, so separate they shall remain. A lot of the novel's threads come together at the climax at the end of the first volume... but the cholera is still on its way and no one can stop it. Thankfully there's a whole second volume to drag his reformation out through.

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