Rebecca Mascull is the talented author of The Visitors, a poignant and lyrical novel about deaf blind Adeliza Golding and her coming of age at the time of the Boer war. Now Rebecca has written another highly original novel, Song of the Sea Maid, a life of foundling Dawnay Price. It is set in the 1740s so I was especially intrigued by locations such as Coram’s Hospital in London, which houses a museum describing the lives and origins of foundling children. I’ve also become aware of the Enlightenment passion for fossils and classification and the work of Joseph Banks and Linnaeus as collectors, but cannot say I’ve come across any women I would call scientists (or natural philosophers). Here are the questions I asked Rebecca after reading her highly thought-provoking novel:
1. Do you have scientific interests yourself? Did you look at early experiments, fossils, and so on? How difficult was it to 'un-know' what we find self-evident today?
I’ve always had a fascination with science, but just not a very scientific mind to go with it! I try to fathom scientific theories and I do my best with my arty-type brain! Yet I’m just as interested in the history of science and how individuals came to their breakthroughs. I have collected fossils myself on Charmouth beach and have had a great interest in Darwin for many years, largely due to my mum who is a bit of an expert on him. Your third question is a brilliant thought and I know exactly what you mean. I found it quite difficult to discover research texts that would allow me to understand where the 18th-century mind was in relation to scientific endeavour. I read contemporary texts yet also I found a wonderful book by chance in a second-hand bookshop all about the history of the search for early human evidence; it went through all the theories people have come up with since ancient times about where we come from. This gave me an excellent grounding in how my character Dawnay could have been educated and how her contemporary thinkers would have been discussing human origins. I learned so much! All of the theories and thinkers mentioned in the novel are real, early attempts to grope towards some kind of theory of evolution. I was so surprised to find that people like Leonardo da Vinci had thought about the origin of fossils so long ago. Our study of human origins certainly did not begin with Charles Darwin!
2. There are aspects of the novel that made me wonder if it is speculative fiction, because it is more intentionally inventive with history (for example the cave), than most historical fiction. What do you think?
Mm, well, I would say it’s not really speculative at all, certainly that wasn’t my intention. Let me qualify that, but it will be tricky without using spoilers! From my point of view as author, as the person who did all the research, there is nothing in this novel that I believe would be impossible in Dawnay’s lifetime. Reading the Author’s Note at the end of the book should give readers a good insight into what was really happening in science and women’s lives at that time. There were female scientists doing brilliant work, but we just don’t know about them because they are not trumpeted or taught extensively. I have taken some poetic licence with Dawnay’s discoveries, but they are all based on real evidence of other finds at other times and places. Just because something hadn’t been found by the 18th-century, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been found! Of course, ancient finds have been lying around undiscovered for thousands if not millions of years until someone lucky enough stumbles across them. Dawnay was lucky, yet so were those in more recent times who have found fossils, bones and evidence of early human culture. But it’s not just luck – someone who wants to find these things has to have an obsession and a determination to look for them and never give in. Dawnay is a person like this, so if anyone was going to find such a thing, it would be her!
3. What first interested you in foundlings? What research did you do into the institutions and their inmates?
I felt strongly from very early on in the writing of this book that Dawnay should come from the meanest of origins i.e. that she should have lots of obstacles to overcome. I wanted her to have to battle against not only prejudice against women but also against the poor. It really was felt by some of the gentry and aristocracy that the poor were a different species and that all of their misfortune was brought on their own heads by their own innate lowliness. I thought it would be doubly fascinating to follow a character who was as poor as poor could be, as well as being a girl, and see how she would fare in her aspiration to become a scientist, or a natural philosopher, in the parlance of the time. And so she begins her story as an orphan living on the streets stealing pies! The orphanage she is taken to is very much based on asylums – as they were called – that sprang up all over London and further afield in the 18th-century, by benefactors wanting to improve the social and moral lot of the poor. I visited the Coram Foundling Museum and learnt a lot about the everyday life of the orphans there. Yet, my asylum is an amalgam of different institutions around the time, using some of the nice bits and the not so nice bits of the real 18th-century orphan’s experience.
4. Dawnay appears to have been born with a remarkable intellect. Can you tell us about any other people of the time on whom she was based?
You’d be amazed how many female scientists there have been over the years, yet as I said earlier, they are not part of our general knowledge. I was particularly inspired by Émilie du Châtelet, who was a scientific genius, responsible for translating Newton, carrying out experiments into a range of disciplines and devoting her life to mathematics and science. She also loved her jewellery and fancy frocks! I remember reading a marvellous description of someone who visited her, to find her most dishevelled amidst piles of papers and crazy tangles of experimental equipment and yet decked out in all her finest jewels! I loved that image! Although my scientist has no interest in fashion, I certainly kept that dishevelment and enjoyed shocking her contemporaries by her plain and unruly dress sense! There was a mathematician called Sophie Germain who also inspired Dawnay’s character, in particular, her determination to learn against all odds. Sophie’s parents were dead against her learning mathematics, so they banned her from reading and writing in her room and stopped her fire being lit to keep her in bed, only to find her wrapped in blankets asleep at her desk in the mornings. Sophie also took it upon herself, having been banned from attending lectures due to being female, to write to experts of the day and share ideas that way. I have a huge respect for anyone who is determined enough to circumvent the pointless strictures of their own society and question every time somebody tells them No without a darned good reason for it!There are many other female scientists throughout history - a great book on this is Hypatia’s Heritage by Margaret Alic, a must read for anyone interested in the subject.
5. You take a different view to mine in The Penny Heart, that most women from the bottom of society were doomed to a fairly desperate life, however clever or lucky they seemed to be. What are your thoughts?
I do agree that this is true for the majority of poor women at that time. I just happen to be writing about one who escaped that trap. It was the age of the Enlightenment after all, and one in which benefactors did exist and did indeed save some children from a fate worse than death on the streets and in the workhouses. I don’t believe it was impossible to do it, I just think very few did. I’ve chosen to write about one of the lucky ones, but to me that does not diminish her struggles. Her life as told in the novel has some periods of easy living, yet I think these are balanced by other experiences she has that are very trying, difficult and at some points tragic. She has many losses to contend with throughout the story and one of my themes is the conflict between heart and mind. One of the things I wanted her to learn was that people need each other to survive and I think she goes through some tough times in learning that lesson.
6. I’m curious about why you set the novel as early as the 1740s, more than one hundred years before the ideas Dawnay speculates about were published. What was it that attracted you to that decade?
Firstly, I wanted to imagine a scientist working a good few generations before Darwin, in order to explore the idea of where scientific theories come from. It is sometimes assumed that there are these lone geniuses who have a stupendous lightbulb moment and come up with these brilliant theories out of nowhere. Perhaps that has happened in history, but to me, it’s far more likely that all great thinkers are highly influenced by the thinkers that have come before them. Beyond that, there was a mixture of reasons for choosing that period. Firstly, I knew I wanted one of the characters at least to be involved in a war around that time, and I noticed that there were already quite a few novels and films set in the late 18th and early 19th century i.e. during the Napoleonic wars, so I wanted to avoid that period. Also, without giving away any spoilers, there were a couple of major events that happened during Dawnay’s time that I wanted to include and this pinned the novel down to a very specific couple of decades. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about! But readers will have to read the book itself to find out!
7. Women's aspirations versus their biology seems to lie at the heart of the book. Is that an important theme for you?
Absolutely. I’ll always remember reading the poem by Lynn Peters, WHY DOROTHY WORDSWORTH IS NOT AS FAMOUS AS HER BROTHER, where she is too busy finding socks and boiling eggs to write about daffodils!It always stuck with me, that until very recently the fabric of women’s everyday lives mitigated against so many endeavours, from striding out into the world on heroic adventures to literally having enough space in your head to think of anything vaguely profound at all. Anyone who has had young children to look after will know that feeling! My agent once talked to me about the idea of women writers “writing in the corner of the kitchen table”. I love that image and I think for many it is still true today. Let me make it clear, I am absolutely not saying that it is easy for men to achieve their aspirations. Life is hard and full of traps for everyone, male or female, writer or scientist or otherwise. ‘Jude the Obscure’ is the ultimate novel all about that woeful subject. But I think you’re right that women’s biology has at various points proved difficult for them to achieve in other areas. Dawnay has to grapple with this and I would say there are many places in the world where women have to face this on a daily basis, so we are not out of the woods yet…
The SONG OF THE SEA MAID is launched on 20 June 2015 (Hodder & Stoughton).