Review | The Great Unknown : by Peg Kingman

The Great Unknown is set in 1846 in Britain. It was a time of social turmoil. The working man wanted his voice heard in government. The Chartist Movement met with violent measures from the powers that be. Chartist leaders were imprisoned or they left the country. It was also the time when people were beginning to think about the questions Darwin finally, publicly, addressed in 1859. In the 18th century many saw science as a remedy to society’s ills. Science disturbed the status quo and challenged Biblical authority.

  • What is your name?
  • Where did you come from?
  • Where are you going?

These questions probe at the essence of what it means to be human.

Evolving Views in Victorian England

In the above setting, we are introduced to the central character who goes by an assumed name, Mrs. Constantia McAdams. Her husband, Hugh, a Chartist, has fled to France. She remains in Edinburgh to give birth to twins, one of whom does not survive. She is employed in Edinburgh by a brilliant family, the Chambers, to be wet nurse for their 11th child. Constantia is warmly welcomed and included in dinner table discussions with many guests and free flowing intellectual back and forth. Parlor games often involved finding Latin origins of words and every new quest was expected to propose an original name for humankind (“Homo prometheum”, and “Homo mensor” are two examples). It is here that Mrs. McAdam is introduced to the book “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation”, a prelude to the “Origin of the Species”. It is controversial and ripe for discussion. Prince Albert read passages aloud to Queen Victoria. Abraham Lincoln and Tennyson embraced its message of a universal natural law. There was great speculation on the identity of the anonymous work’s author and its conclusion about the formation of the solar system, history of the Earth, and origin of plant, animal and human life.

In Scotland, nearly everyone learned to read. Every minister presided over his kirk and a free school as well.

“Vestiges” appears and reappears in the novel, travelling from hand to hand. We meet Mr. Gun, the Chamber’s gardener, who questions why God doesn’t take better care of the Earth. Mr. Gun and Constantia are connected by their care and keeping of homing pigeons. For Constantia to have a carrier pigeon, a creature that seeks to return to its own home , seems appropriate.

Mrs. McAdam struggles with issues of identity. Her mother’s early death left a cloud of uncertainty over her true paternity. She wonders about the big questions:

  • Are we ruled by chance, nature or God?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What separates us from other creatures?

Global Plotline, Family Ties, and Universal Origins

Constantia’s upbringing is slowly revealed. From her birth in India, to becoming an orphan at age 9 or 10, to being raised by Rani Nungklow, a friend of her mother, her search to find her father continues to Paris where she meets and marries her husband. The twists and turns of this heroine’s journey to discover her “true” family roots are intriguing. I found this book to be a challenge to read but well worth the effort and the time. Even though it is Victorian Britain, the questions posed are timeless.

Constantia is on a journey to discover her own origin (her own home). She seeks answers to the questions:

  • What is my name?
  • Where did I come from?
  • Where am I going?

I liked the juxtapositioning of Constantia and the homing pigeon. As a result of her pigeon’s ability to carry a message “home”, Constantia finds her own way home.

“This astonishing novel blends an Austenesque wit and psychological insight with a grasp of early evolutionary theories worthy of A. S. Byatt, Patrick O’Brian, or Barry Unsworth.”

ANDREA BARRETT, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and National Book Award Winner

Published by Audrey Newhall

I am an avid reader and contributor to Penna Book Reviews

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