Song of the Sea Maid, my second novel for Hodder and Stoughton, comes out on June 18th this year. Yet as with many novels, the work started a long, long time ago. I had the idea for the theme many years back, when studying Psychology A level. We were discussing perception and looked at evidence of a tribe in a jungle somewhere that it turns out have perfect photographic memory. They need it to find their way around their environment and it made me think about the capacity of the human brain, and how your setting might affect this. It made me wonder whether there might be such people in remote places all over the world and throughout history who might have extraordinary abilities and also wonderful ideas that could change the world, but because of their remoteness, no one would ever know about it. Thus, the spark for Song of the Sea Maid’s protagonist, Dawnay Price, was born: what if a person with no power and no position in society came up with a remarkable scientific theory or discovery? Would the world ever hear about it?
Here I discuss the problem in my Author’s Note, which will be found at the back of the novel:
One of my main ideas behind the novel was this: what if a poor woman made an important scientific discovery in ages past? Would this idea be heard or remembered? Charles Darwin, a century after Dawnay, did not develop his wonderful ideas in isolation. His work built upon that of many others over the centuries…Darwin was a man of independent means who was able to put forth his ideas, eventually, though of course even in his age he met with considerable obstacles. Yet largely he was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Dawnay Price – an C18th woman and orphan – was the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The reader may like to consider how many other important ideas have been lost throughout the history of humans which were likewise thought of by the ‘wrong’ people, and this may well continue to this day.
So, my main character has three main problems to overcome in terms of her setting: she’s poor, she’s a nobody and she’s female. Put these three together in the 1750s and you have the perfect recipe for obscurity and even subjugation. My narrative had to find a way for her to negotiate these challenges, to fight her way through them to make her ideas known. If you know anything about the 18th-century, it may well be how dirt poor the poor were, how filthy rich the rich were, and due to rigid social structures, how hugely difficult it was to move upwards or make any changes to that system. Add to that being female – in an age where women were generally thought of as children of larger stature – and it seems impossible to manoeuvre within such strictures. But some women managed it, albeit largely of independent wealth, and there are notable examples of female scientists in the 18th-century, detailed beautifully in the book ‘Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century’ by Margaret Alic. This excellent example of hidden history reveals the many forgotten examples of female scientists throughout time, as its author states:
From the earliest times women contributed to the development of scientific knowledge, yet most of the women in this book remain unknown – even to historians of science – and most of those recorded here were women of privilege; as such, they represent only the surface of the history of women in science. Thousands of other women scientists have undoubtedly been forgotten forever.
It was quite shocking for me to discover that there were so many examples of female scientists, doctors, chemists, astronomers, physicists, biologists, naturalists etc. etc. — few of these women have statues or plaques or dedications to them and their ground-breaking work. Remember too that many of them were lucky enough to have a bit of money and it was this that gave them the freedom to practise their specialisms. Thus, the poor throughout history – female or male – may have come up with the most extraordinary ideas were it not for their circumstances – perhaps some of them have, but we just never hear about it.
To find out how or whether Dawnay Price manages to circumvent her setting, you’ll have to read the book! Suffice to say, it ain’t easy! But I like a good challenge, and I like reading stories – and writing them – about characters who must face their own dragons and overcome them.
So, the next time you see a statue of a grand name in any field of human endeavour, spare a thought for the nameless millions who could have made the world a better place if the world had indeed been a better place in the first place! That sounds like a pretty decent goal for all of us, let alone a novelist: giving voice to the voiceless. Let’s hear it for the voiceless, the nameless, the nobodies. If you give them the chance, they might just change the world.