This novel recounts the fictional life of Syms Covington, an historical character who was Charles Darwin's servant during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836) and for two years thereafter in England. Covington then moved to New South Wales, but remained in correspondence with Darwin for the rest of his life. (He died in February 1861.)

MacDonald expands on these facts to create the engrossing story of an "elderly" Covington--he would have been in his mid-40's at the time--who befriends a young American physician in New South Wales. Covington develops appendicitis and MacCracken, the young doctor, saves his life. They become friends and during the next two years Covington gradually reveals his story.

The book flashes back to the voyage of the Beagle and reveals the development of Covington's prickly but worshipful relationship with Darwin. In 1860 Covington, who has become a wealthy landowner in New South Wales, anxiously awaits his copy of The Origin of Species. After enduring the agony and adventure, after studying thousands and thousands of specimens, how will Darwin bring it all together? The theory of evolution rocks Covington to the core. Has his work played a part in helping Darwin to develop this godless theory?


This is a complex novel of scientific discovery and religious faith, ambition and adventure, and the endless wonder of the world of nature. Of particular interest is the relationship of MacCracken, the young doctor who gives science a human face, to his mentor Syms Covington, a man with an intuitive, but unsystematic, grasp of the natural world.

Hovering in the background is Darwin's great theory, which seems (at least to Covington) to wipe out everything he has spent his life believing in. The resolution comes in the form of romance. MacCracken courts and weds Theodora, Covington's daughter by an Argentinean woman he met during the voyage of the Beagle.

As he nears death, Covington has an epiphany: "He saw Darwin on his knees, and there was no difference between prayer and pulling a worm from the grass. As for Mr. Covington, he prayed in the old-fashioned way. It was the last of anything he knew." (p. 361)


Random House Australia

Place Published

Sydney, Australia



Page Count