Seeing as God saw, John McCrystal

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids
Fiona Farrell
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869418649

“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write,” Charles Darwin exclaimed in a letter to eminent botanist J D Hooker, “on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!” After all, his entire theory of the evolution of species through natural selection was premised in brutal competition – the survival of the fittest and the extinction of inferior species and races. The history of creation was strewn with the by-products of this process, the lumpish mistakes and misbegotten monsters that had flourished briefly before losing the fight against fitter, better conceived competitors, and dying out.

While there was widespread resistance to Darwin’s Origin of Species (and the even more controversial Descent of Man) on the grounds that it was unscriptural and that it forced upon the reader a repugnant conclusion – that humanity itself was descended from something low and ape-like – it caught on in England. It was, after all, an amazing thing to consider that science had discovered a window into the very mechanism of creation. To know how nature worked, how it continuously produced and destroyed, was to see as God saw. And to believe, as the Victorians did, that humanity was the last and finest product of the whole process, at the very apex of creation, was simply irresistible. It was an intoxicating notion, and those under its influence were bound to wreak as much havoc as they did good, as has been the rule throughout the entire history of science.

It is against this intellectual background that Fiona Farrell sets her latest novel Mr Allbones’ Ferrets, subtitled “an historical pastoral satirical scientifical romance, with mustelids”. For in the story of the introduction of ferrets, stoats and weasels to New Zealand – or at least, in the story as she re-imagines it – Farrell finds a rich seam of imagery to mine for her habitual preoccupations: the hubris of those who proclaim the mastery of the “human” over “nature” in the concept of human nature; the often fatal impact of the imagination on reality, where those who travel hopefully arrive and try to make what they find fit their aspirations for it; and behind every human story, the menacing void of extinction.

One night out poaching for rabbits in an English woodland with his best ferret Pinky, selectively reared by his own expert hand, young Walter Allbones surprises a couple lying in the undergrowth. Nothing unusual about that, but, as they exchange words, Allbones realises the older man and his young companion are Quality, and could make trouble if they guess what he’s doing knocking about private property in the dark. For their part, the man tells him he’s showing his granddaughter a badger sett in the hope they’ll spot the cubs. Allbones is able to direct them to another part of the woods and, after giving a false name, is relieved to be allowed to go on his way.

The matter doesn’t end there, however. The gentleman wishes to speak to Fowler Metcalfe further. Allbones learns this from Fowler Metcalfe himself, the big, thuggish brute whose name he borrowed on the spur of the moment. Fowler is not pleased, and forces Allbones to answer the summons.

For Allbones, the conversation he has in the book-lined study of the big house takes an unexpected turn. Instead of a dressing-down for poaching, he is offered employment – to procure and deliver a large quantity of assorted mustelids, particularly ferrets. And the house itself is a revelation, stuffed with examples of animals alive and caged or dead, stuffed and mounted. His new employer, Mr Pitford, is a naturalist. His granddaughter, Eugenia, is his ward and pupil, and training to be an engraver of natural history books.

Enticed by the reward (and with more than a hint of blackmail hanging in the air, given how much Allbones knows about ferrets, and the fact that he hangs about the woods after dark), Allbones accepts the commission to amass the mustelids. These, he understands, are to be consigned to one of the colonies, New Zealand, which has lately been overrun with the rabbits that were introduced in their turn some 40 years before. As he visits the house over the next few weeks, he gets to see many wonders: live, flightless woodhens arriving from New Zealand; a pair of stuffed wattled crows with striking plumage and, in the case of the female, a great, hooked beak, from which Eugenia is sketching an illustration; and, of course, Eugenia herself.

By the time Allbones is offered the position of handler and keeper to the ferrets on their outward journey, he has become quite smitten with her. And whereas the money offered is not enough to induce him to take up the job and commit himself to the long, arduous, dangerous sea voyage, the fact that she is making the trip most certainly is. By now, Allbones’ nemesis, Metcalfe, has got a whiff of what Allbones has been so furtively up to, and has muscled in on the deal. A lumpy passage is in prospect, regardless of wind or sea conditions, and so it proves.

Give or take a couple of lithe and muscular twists, the narrative of Mr Allbones’ Ferrets is about as linear and conventional as Farrell gets. She has meticulously researched the business of ferreting, and certainly knows her sandies from her polies, her hobs from her sluts.

The novel opens with Allbones waiting with his nets ready at the entrance to a burrow, as Pinky goes about her horrific work underground. It’s hard to imagine a more apt symbol for the red-in-tooth-and-claw aspect of Nature than the ferret – those ruthless, efficient killers with their pitiless, onyx eyes. And passages of the book recreate the conditions aboard the immigrant ships that populated New Zealand from England with the salty tang of authenticity.

There’s a neat parallel between the different bands of beings on the voyage – the ferrets in their cages, the human cargo hutched miserably between decks – that is occasionally made explicit. One of Allbones’ duties tending the ferrets is to see that any females coming into season are mated promptly, as left on heat they can die, apparently from anaemia. An Irish inmate of the single men’s quarters overhears, and says he knows the feeling. It’s hard to consider the image of that lethal cargo of furry, primal appetite heading for its rendezvous with New Zealand and its defenceless population of birds without seeing the voracious hopes, expectations and ambitions of the immigrants in the same light.

So much for the “scientifical historical” aspects of the novel. The satire, like the ferret, does its work underground, but it’s effective. The blithe indifference of the Victorians to the outcomes of colonisation, born of their sanguine belief in extinction as an inevitable effect of the improving powers of natural selection, is the principal target. And the sinister implications of Darwinism, later manifested in the systematic racism of the 20th century, are hinted at in the girl’s name, Eugenia.

The romance threatens to be the weak point. It seems implausible at first that a girl raised in Victoria’s England could be as emancipated from considerations of propriety and class as Eugenia is. It’s only as the plot thickens and the reader sees why Pitford should have had an ulterior motive in emancipating her from the mores of her day that her character becomes more credible. Overall, though, it’s as if the ideas and preoccupations informing Farrell’s previous works in fiction have interbred, and Mr Allbones’ Ferrets is the happy result – a rich, satisfying and deft novel.


John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

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