It is the 18th century, and a tiny orphan girl has just lost her brother. Filthy and starving, she attempts to steal a wig from a wealthy gentlemen. He takes pity on her and instead of sending her to the workhouse, drives her to the next best thing: the Asylum for the Destitute Wretches of the Streets of London. Dawnay is one of those characters you don’t forget. Ever. We know she is feisty and strong from the very beginning, when she is scrubbed down in the bath and they “find a little girl.”
Her hunger for knowledge and a lot of luck win her an education and an opportunity. At first I thought that Dawnay was so lucky that it was almost unrealistic. A beggar girl gets to study science and travel, financed by a man who is no relation of hers. However, this goes to shows just how privileged a woman would have to be to get anywhere near doing what Dawnay did, which was near-impossible for even the wealthiest and most high-born of women at the time. I think the author,Rebecca Mascull, really wanted to emphasise this idea: ask yourself how many extraordinary discoveries, intelligent theories and brilliant ideas have been lost to humankind over the years, purely because they were the ideas of women, or of people who weren’t “educated” or wealthy enough? Dawnay is given a chance, and the results of this chance will benefit the world.
Just like The Visitors, this novel is beautifully written. As Dawnay grows from an inquisitive and spirited child to an intelligent, headstrong woman, she develops her theories and defies all conventions by travelling abroad as an unaccompanied woman. The descriptions of some of the places she experiences and the creatures she encounters are wonderful and often full of colour. Dawnay talks of her discoveries so artistically yet always with the mind of an observer and with a scientific outlook: “There are variations in colour and pattern on the skin of each separate lizard, yet within each tiny landmass the lizards are all the same. For example, on one all the lizards are tan mottled with black patches. On another, they have a green tail and a dark brown body; others have aqua patches beneath the chin; one islet is home to only black specimens, while some are striped and more still are spotted. It is as if the Creator grew burthened with tedium at the idea of one single lizard species when painting the island of Minorca and thus decided to mix up His palette and experiment.”
Dawnays’s theories intrigued me. Bearing in mind that she didn’t have the range of scientific knowledge and proof we have now, it was fascinating to witness the workings of her brain and to read about how we came to understand evolution. It was her idea, an idea we would laugh at now, of a link between humans and “people of the sea”, that had me unable to put the book down. I kept asking myself “But what if?”
One of my favourite things to read about is the research that goes on in order to write a novel and I know that Rebecca spends a lot of time on this. Song of the Sea Maid was authentic but not stuffed with facts. Rebecca used just enough of her research to give the reader a feel for the 18th century. There are small, delightful details that make the book that tiny bit more special: a frost fair on the ice, quills, jars labelled ” Tongue-Stones- the Petrified Tongues of Sea-Monsters” and mouthwatering descriptions of food: “We eat a delicious stew made of lobster, served with thin pieces of toasted bread and small potatoes. There are clams too, eaten with lemon, and curious crustaceans that appear to be a barnacle of sorts […and] a kind of nougat mixed with almonds, and soft pastry cakes that melt of the tongue.” I liked that Rebecca used some of the spelling of the time, for example she writes “Menorca” as”Minorca”, and words and sayings that make the characters’ speech sound realistic.
Constantly needing to prove herself, Dawnay is fierce and determined, which I sometimes found made her naive and selfish, too. But I felt she really grew as a character throughout the novel and I knew from early on that I had found a fellow feminist in this character! A bitter-sweet love story revealed just a little bit more of her personality and the unexpected ending fit perfectly, asserting once more Dawnay’s strength as a woman and a scientist. Although I don’t pretend to know what Rebecca Mascull’s intentions were when writing the ending, I think that the direction the story took showed just how much would be lost if women were still confined to a life without knowledge, and the injustice of making women choose from a tiny smattering of choices offered to them. Dawnay Price is a fictional version of all those women who have paved the path for women of the present day.
Song of the Sea Maid is released on the 18th June 2015. You can buy your copy here.