In the 18th century, Dawnay Price is an anomaly. An educated foundling, a woman of science in a time when such things are unheard-of, she overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher.
Against the conventions of the day, and to the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.
Source: ARC from Hodder and Stoughton via NetGalley
This is a wonderfully researched historical novel that delves deep into the motivations and mind of an eighteenth century foundling and her life as a natural scientist. Told entirely from Dawney’s POV, the story has a very distinctive voice as Dawney recounts her life from the loss of her brother, to her time in the orphan asylum and on into her discoveries abroad. A curious child that is forever questioning everything, Dawney makes for an interesting narrator, though her impulsive nature does sometimes blind her to more obvious things.
For the most part I liked Dawney. I liked her intelligence, her hunger for knowledge and her perseverance in teaching herself to write and finding ways to broaden her horizons. I was less keen on her narrow-sighted focus on her goals, which sometimes led her to behave in selfish ways, especially when that was mixed in with her impulsive moments, but it was believable in someone so driven. I also loved the fact that though she is an atypical woman for her time, she’s not just a modern character supplanted in a mock-historical world. The challenges she faces are real and her reaction to them believable.
The pace of this story is very slow at times, detailing some aspects of Dawney’s childhood that perhaps didn’t need to be examined quite so minutely, but in doing so it captures the essence of its time and echoes the literature of the century. I loved the depth of detail concerning the 18th century world, though, and the descriptions of Dawney’s time in Portugal, the horrors of the earthquake and her exploits on Minorca/Menorca were excellent. In fact there’s a lovely (if quiet) sense of discovery and wonder through the first half of this book, making it seem as if she could find almost anything out there in the world.
However, I did have one big issue with this tale: the romance. Leaving aside the issues with who it actually is that Dawney falls in love with, I found it difficult to believe she would actually fall in love with anyone. Until that moment (right up until said man makes his move, in fact), Dawney has dedicated her life to science. An easy thing to say, I suppose, if not given an alternative. But that wasn’t what bothered me. It’s the fact that until that moment she’s never once shown any sign of caring for anyone to any great depth. Not even her tutor or his wife. She likes them well enough, but she doesn’t love them, nor does she want to or show any signs of longing for a deeper connection to anyone. So for her to suddenly decide herself in love seemed completely out of character.
Admittedly, she doesn’t exactly throw herself into the love affair, and besides a bit of absent pining, her behaviour remains pretty much the same. Which merely reinforced my feeling that falling in love was something Dawney simply wouldn’t do. Sadly, as the novel winds on and the sense of wonder fades, bringing the romance more to the forefront, I was less enthralled by it. Especially when Dawney is being willfully blind to the blatantly obvious.
By the end I felt as though the romance was just a tired cliché that provided the impetus for Dawney to move on from her London life, rather than becoming mired in her old ways. It all seemed too predictable and not at all what I expected from this otherwise refreshing tale about a smart woman centuries before her time. Add in the fact that I couldn’t see why she would fall for that man over any others and I found the whole aspect disappointing.
Which is a shame, because overall this is a well-written, excellently researched historical tale about an unusual heroine making her own way in a constricted world. It has wonder and delight, alongside intelligence and discovery, though perhaps a little less whimsy than I expected from the title and cover. It’s slow and steady, but ultimately rewarding. It’s not perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.
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