Wednesday 29 May 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill (2013)

I’ve reviewed 32 books so far as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, dedicated to novels set in the nineteenth, but written in the twenty-first, century. But Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars (2013) was a breath of fresh air as it dealt with a setting and community I hadn’t read about before.

The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill (2013)
Brill’s novel is the tale of Hannah Gardner Price, a fictional Quaker ‘lady astronomer’ in mid-1800s Nantucket. When we meet her, Hannah is as dedicated to sweeping the stars in search of a new comet as she is to the Discipline demanded by her religion. She works in the town library, misses her twin brother, who has joined the scores of local men on offshore whaling expeditions, struggles to keep up with the domestic chores in the home she shares with her father and judges the young women in her community who don’t have a scientific or intellectual calling as she does.

There are powerful, gravitational, and even fatalistic forces at work though when Hannah crosses paths with Isaac Martin, the second mate on a docked whaling ship. Originally from the Azores, Isaac is looking to elevate his station by learning navigation. But he’s black and so Hannah faces censure from her community when she takes him on as a pupil and the two grow closer.

Hannah is a well-realised protagonist, Brill’s prose is beautiful and her subject matter fascinating. Nantucket came alive in the pages of her novel, being at once idiosyncratic for its natural features, Quaker heritage and role in the whale oil industry and a microcosm of the huge social, scientific and technological advances occurring nationally and internationally in the mid-nineteenth century. While the astronomical explanations eluded me at times, I found myself racing to the end, partly to find out what would happen to the characters, and partly to read the Author’s Note and discover what plotlines had a basis in reality.

Amy Brill
No serious spoilers here, but, while Brill’s romance plot is fictitious, Hannah is modelled on a real Nantucketian astronomer, Maria Mitchell. It delighted me to find that a life like Hannah’s for a woman scientist in the period wasn’t implausible, even if it was improbable.

Overall, The Movement of Stars was human, compelling and well written. It’s not flawless—Hannah, Isaac and Mary Coffey are certainly the most believable characters, with the wider cast not getting the same level of development, and it will be hard to please everyone with the ending. But it achieves one of the main goals of historical fiction, transporting readers through time and space.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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