It is 1815. Napoleon is on his way to exile on Saint Helena. Paris is filled with victorious foreigners — Brits, Prussians, Austrians. Looted booty from the Napoleonic conquests — art works, fossils, scientific specimens — is being squirreled away against claims for return. New scientific speculation is challenging orthodox theology. Lamarck is teaching new evolutionary theory. Cuvier is busily studying comparative anatomy. It is a world in flux, socially, intellectually, politically. It is the world of Rebecca Stott’s new historical novel, The Coral Thief.
Into this world she introduces 21-year-old Daniel Conner, an Edinburgh medical student come to study at the Jardin des Plantes under Cuvier. He comes with a letter of introduction and gifts for the great man from his mentor in Edinburgh. But on the coach to Paris, he is entranced by a fellow passenger, a mysterious older female who seems to know a good deal about the new scientific ideas and a good deal about the world as well. After some stimulating conversation they both fall asleep, and when Daniel wakes up, he finds that the woman is gone and so are his letters of introduction and gifts. So begins Stott’s novel.
It is a book that combines the historical romance with the jewel heist thriller, an intriguing combination that would seem to offer some promise. Unfortunately, it is a promise that is not quite kept. While Stott does manage to create a nicely researched picture of Paris in this post-Napoleonic era, it is more a miniature than it is a mural. Perhaps because most of the story is narrated by the youthful, inexperienced Daniel, the historical framework often lacks depth. He is too wide-eyed and self-absorbed to give the reader the kind of context a more seasoned observer might provide. While this may be appropriate from the point of view of character, it is somewhat disappointing from that of the reader. Stott does try what she has called an “anchoring of Daniel’s story to history” by interspersing short clips of third person narrative describing Napoleon’s passage aboard the HMS Bellerophon and eventual arrival on Saint Helena, yet more often than not these passages read as intrusions. The novel never really captures the turbulence of the period.
The thriller plot which involves a gaggle of master thieves and a corrupt policeman weaving a tangled web around the young, lovestruck hero is far-fetched and lacks the kind of blow by blow details one has come to expect from these kinds of narratives. For example there is a description of the opening of an intricate cabinet in which a diamond has been hidden which really gives the reader very little information about what is actually going on. There is a chase through the underground quarries of Paris that never creates any suspense. There is even a scene in which a soporific drug is administered to a whole party of dignitaries gathered to honor a Dutch emissary which might make sense in satire, but is clearly absurd in a thriller. Indeed the whole heist plan seems to be unnecessarily elaborate.
Add to this the fact that most of the characters are stock figures from the great collective unconscious of fictions past. There is the earnest innocent thrust into a world he is not quite prepared for. There is the world-weary older woman, Lucienne Bernard, more than willing to teach him what life is really like. There is the unrelenting detective with as much of the crook about him as the lawman. There is the faithful servant, more friend than retainer, the fun-loving boon companion, the silent, devoted henchman. All in all, the novel is peopled with a collection of characters that are drawn to type, and provoke little interest as individuals.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the attempt to say something about the blossoming conflict between religion and new scientific thinking in the period just before Darwin. Daniel Conner, although presumably trained in science, has been taught in a system that has not yet been touched by the new ideas. It is a system that is still reconcilable with contemporary theological thought. He is on his way to Paris to work with George Cuvier, a comparative anatomist concerned with the study of the particular facts. The answers, he says, are in the bones. Cuvier is set in opposition to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck, an early evolutionist, was committed to a more speculative approach to science. The more Conner becomes acquainted with the new ideas, especially as they are developed by his free thinking inamorata, the more he begins to question if not always Cuvier’s way of thinking, certainly the religious ideas with which he was raised. Although these questions are not necessarily resolved, Stott does present the beginnings of the intellectual controversies that were to dominate the nineteenth century, and reverberate even today.
I must confess that while I was reading The Coral Thief, I was also rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The idealistic Conner reminded me of the idealistic Lydgate. The freethinking Lucienne made me think of the kind of woman Dorothea would have liked to be. Cuvier as portrayed by Stott seemed much of a kind with the mummified Rev. Casaubon. Not that such comparisons are bad in themselves, but when you start comparing a historical novel to Middlemarch, you are setting what may well be an impossibly high standard.