In Darwin’s garden

3 September 2009 | Authors, Interviews

Interview with Kristina Carlson, author of Herra Darwinin puutarhuri(‘Mr Darwin’s gardener’, 2009)

Kristina Carlson. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Kristina Carlson. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Time: late 1870s. November. Place: the village of Downe, Kent, England. Villagers gather in the church on a rainy Sunday. Thomas Davies stays at home with his two children.

After the death of his wife, Thomas has been unable to get over his grief and anxiety. The villagers don’t approve of Thomas’s way of living – he isn’t sociable, keeps to himself, doesn’t go to church, and reads too many books. His employer is Charles Darwin: a famous – or notorious – man who writes too many books. ‘Mr Darwin lives here, and atheism is a worse threat than in the neighbouring villages,’ says Stuart Wilkes, voicing the views of the villagers.

Thomas is the central character in Kristina Carlson’s new novel, Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (‘Mr Darwin’s gardener’, Otava, 2009). Ten years ago her previous novel, Maan ääreen (‘To the end of the earth’), set in 19th-century Siberia, won the Finlandia Prize for Fiction.

As 2009 is the second centenary of Charles Darwin, the author of On the Origin of Species (published in 1859), the first question that comes to mind is whether this is coincidental or not…

KC: Well, I didn’t have the anniversary in mind at all when I started writing the novel at the beginning of the 2000s. Aside from Darwin and the clergyman Innes, all of the characters are fictional. The geography of the village is also largely imagined, although I did visit Downe in the middle of the 2000s – I may have added a few hills where there weren’t any.

The voices of the narrative alternate between the villagers and Thomas himself. Petty-bourgeois virtue and self-satisfaction are amusingly abundant when villagers meet on the street, at the pub, or at the parish reading circle: rumour and scandal get around. The slim volume (176 pages) contains a dozen or more humorous, minimalist portraits, but characters can also be seen sincerely pondering serious questions on religion and the philosophy of life.

Although his presence is felt, Mr Darwin is not among the voices in the book himself. Neither is God – but he visits Thomas one night: ‘I saw God the evening before last – he was short, thickset, swarthy, hirsute, with long hair, I saw him walking past the house with his head bowed, he said something just before he walked to the edge of the forest and vanished from sight….’

In his grief, in ‘anger and disbelief’, Thomas has prayed to the ‘God that doesn’t exist’, ‘against my better judgement, out of necessity’. When God goes away, Thomas begins to recover from his anxieties. With his children, he begins to experiment with the influence of electricity on farming – science, condemned as Godless, infuses him with a belief in life. ‘Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks.’

It seems, then, that there are four main characters in the novel, as it were – Thomas, the multi-voiced flock of villagers, Darwin and God.

KC: God is in the picture, because the church was still a strong influence on social life in the late 19th century, despite the fact that secularism – as well as industrialisation and capitalism – were gaining ground. But I think the essential thing is that people’s loneliness and despair is crying out for a god, and everyone seems to have a god suited to their own needs. Even Thomas, although he doesn’t really believe. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between faith, knowledge, intelligence, and people’s internal needs. In its day, Darwin’s work raised questions that shook the faith of those who believed the Bible. It still does.

But how did you come to find yourself in Kent in the 1870s, in Darwin’s garden?

KC: It was because the first idea that came to mind for the book was the title. I could have dealt with the subject as an allegory, of course, and the story could have been set in any era, but it was easier to go back to when there wasn’t as much commentary, discussion, and other materials as there are now.

A simpler world, where there was still a strong consensus about the feeling of security that faith gives to believers?

KC: Yes.

The village’s rich flora (trees, flowers, crops) and fauna (cats, hares, birds, frogs) also appear in your book. How did you learn about them?

KC: I wrote about plants and animals that I’m familiar with – I’ve seen large European hares in Brandenburg in Germany, the village where I stay in the summer has a colony of jackdaws, and so on – and then I checked to see if the same species exist in Kent. I would have like to have written about the Mourning Cloak, which is an exquisite butterfly, but it doesn’t live in the British Isles. In timing the spring  my friend the translator David McDuff, who lives in Kent, helped me. I read a lot to acquaint myself with the place and time. Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, for example, was very interesting. But, as often happens, and as it should, only a few crumbs of borrowed facts remain in the novel. What happens in people’s head is the most important thing.

In Finland (too), works of fiction tend to be categorised, put in marketable pigeonholes (thriller, historical novel, light fiction etc.); I suppose one could say that Herra Darwinin puutarha is a postmodern Victorian novel? And my guess is that you don’t like that definition, for ‘postmodernism’ is, after all, such a dubious, worn-out and uncool term?

KC: Yes. And no.


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