I was browsing in a book shop over the weekend and spotted a new novel entitled The Specimen (authored by Martha Lea).
A quick read of the blurb, and I purchased immediately:
The year is 1866. Edward Scales is a businessman, a butterfly collector, a respectable man. He is the man Gwen Carrick fell in love with seven years before. Now he is dead and Gwen is on trial for his murder.
From country house drawing rooms to the rainforests of Brazil, The Specimen explores the price one independent young woman might pay for wanting an unorthodox life.
Set in a Victorian world battling between the forces of spiritualism and Darwinism, polite society and the call of clandestine love, Gwen and Edward’s tale is a gripping melodrama, a romance and a murder mystery that will compel readers to its final thrilling page.
I’ve only read three chapters, and I’m hooked. Not just because it’s science-y, but because the science sits within a broader background of social and historical factors.
Actually, science is always influenced by such factors, but it’s reasonably rare to see it presented this way in general literature.
Here’s a quote from Gwen, responding to Mr Scales’ interest in her nature paintings (the year is 1859):
“When a young woman makes a picture of a pretty red beetle, Mr Scales, it is called ‘Delightful’, put into frame and a husband is found for the artist. When a young man makes an anatomical study of a Cardinal beetle, he is expected to know that it is the Pyrochroa serraticornis, and he is bundled off to university to that he can one day add to the body of scientific knowledge on Coleoptera.”
Whilst we may all scoff at the gender discrimination intimated in this passage, and gratefully pat ourselves on the back that we live in much more enlightened times, it’s worth considering that even now a career in science isn’t always taken at face value for women.
Take a recent New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, in which the opening sentences read thus:
She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
The words were later edited following expressions of indignation from many online commentators.
[image of Pyrochroa serraticornis thanks to gailhampshire on flickr]