The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics opens with the wedding of Lucy Muchelney’s ex-lover, Priscilla Carmichael. Still struggling to come to terms with the death, six months earlier, of her beloved father – to whom Lucy had been an unacknowledged apprentice – this latest abandonment is too much for her to bear. And as if that weren’t bad enough, Lucy’s brother is anxious to marry her off (or sell her beloved telescope) so as to reduce his financial burden.
Under this enormous cloud arrives a letter from Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth and widow of astronomer George St. Day. Before St.Day’s death, these letters would include his latest observations recording the positions of potential new stars. In days past, Lucy would perform the mathematical calculations necessary to support the finding and transcribe the information into the star catalogs that had been her families’ means of support. But now Catherine’s letter is a plea for Lucy to help the Polite Science Society find someone who can translate a treatise on celestial mathematics by French astronomer M. Oleron. Catherine is not a member of the Polite Science Society, a bastion of male scientists, but has offered to help fund the translation. Is there a student or protégé of Albert Muchelney’s that Lucy feels able to recommend?
Well that protégé is – of course – Lucy herself, but how is she to convince the Polite Science Society that she, a mere woman, is capable of the task? She decides to approach them in person.
Catherine St. Day is at a loss as to what to do now that she is a widow. She has spent her married life travelling with her husband around the globe. Now…
She felt…rudderless. Sluggish as a ship becalmed. The long span of her future stretched out toward the horizon, a flat opaque nothingness as terrible as any sea…She had spent her whole life assisting others’ ambitions…She was desperately in need of occupation.
Into this sluggishness walks Lucy, with her bright eyes and hopeful spirit. She convinces Catherine that she is more than qualified to perform the translation of Oleron’s work and Catherine decides to support her efforts. She introduces Lucy to Mr. Hawley, president of the Polite Science Society, as a candidate for the work. The men scoff loudly at the idea and then propose to debate Lucy’s suitability via the Scientific Method:
First, whether women are capable of astronomy; second, whether they would offer any particular benefit to astronomy; third, whether astronomy would be of any use or benefit to women; fourth, whether it would harm the needs of mankind to encourage women to put their efforts toward the sciences rather than the continuation of the species.
Obviously, Lucy is turned down rather rudely. Catherine is appalled by the pettiness of the society and decides to back Lucy herself, convincing Lucy to stay with her and complete a translation of her own. Lucy agrees and begins a translation designed for the average person to understand – The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics.
Lucy and Catherine spend a great deal of time in each other’s company over the next few weeks and a budding romance ensues. Lucy has always been attracted to women but this is something new for Catherine. She did not have a happy marriage with George, and she had a brief, unsatisfying affair after his death, so being attracted to Lucy was not something she saw coming.
Catherine made herself comfortable in the opposite seat and finally opened up the box with the thoughts she’d been hiding away for most of her existence. The inescapable truth: women could fall in love with other women. Strange indeed that an idea could change your life so completely, and yet fit so perfectly with all that came before…It was desire, the same as she’d felt for the attractive men she’d known.
There are many things going on in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. First, we have the developing romance. Second, we have Lucy forging ahead with her work, in spite of the Polite Science Society and all the obstacles that involves. Third, we have Catherine awakening to her bisexuality and also to her own gifts as an artist – maybe her embroidery work is more than “just playing with fripperies”, as her husband had declared. Fourth, we have the actual science involved and the scientific community (and their fervor at this time in history) that could be its own story. Add to that a few more characters and subplots and at times, the novel loses its way.
There is, of necessity, a fair amount of set up that needs to take place before the plot can unfold and the first part of the novel proceeds at a good pace. But in the middle, the pace starts to drag a little and some of the subplots cooled my interest in the heroines. Lucy and Catherine fall prey to my least favorite obstacle – not communicating with each other – and I found myself frustrated that two such intelligent women could leave important things unsaid or misunderstood. I was also dismayed when Lucy declared in a scientific debate – “Didn’t Copernicus believe the sun revolved around the earth?” Because no, indeed, Copernicus proposed, against the wisdom of the day and the all-powerful Church, that the earth revolved around the sun. Thankfully, the pace picks up again in the last few chapters and the ending had a delightful twist that made it more than satisfying.
Overall, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is an engaging story of romance, feminism, and women helping women succeed in spite of the obstacles men put in their way. The writing is beautiful, often lyrical, and full of gorgeous imagery. Its insight into the lives of women at the time, especially women with scientific gifts, is thought-provoking. Despite the slow pace in the middle, and a few too many subplots, in the end, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a satisfying read.