There were two races to record and observe the transit of Venus across the Sun in the 18th century – in 1761 and 1769 – and both show, as Wulf points out in her pacy yet informative account, “a century in which science was worshipped”. Worshipped so much that men were happy to risk their lives for it.
Well, some men were – Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (their mapping of the border between the Southern and Northern states of America is reflected in the naming of the “Mason-Dixon line”) were on a ship caught in battle with the French on their way to Bencoolen, an observatory point in Sumatra. So traumatised were they that they refused to carry on. The Royal Society threatened them with court and the Admiralty with charges of mutiny.
Science didn’t always advance with threats, though: this history is as much a testimony to the characters who undertook foolhardy tasks as it is to scientific progress. The remarkable Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche, for example, made a 4,000-mile journey from Paris to Siberia during the first transit. His second journey took him to California – he was the only man to observe both transits from beginning to end.
Wulf highlights the links between commerce and science (the investment of the East India Company in the first British expedition), the importance of countries co-operating with one another, and the input of the state (the enthusiasm of the monarchy for scientific expeditions helped release funds).
But her story belongs to the fearless – and the fearful – individuals who endured hostile terrain and conditions in the name of science.
The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka based her chorus of young Japanese women emigrating to the United States on the real-life recollections of those who left their homes as girls to marry strangers, and the authenticity of her story is indebted to those memories.
The mostly teenage girls have only photographs of their intendeds as they sail across the ocean, and most are disappointed by the faces that greet them when they arrive. A life of toil in the fields, or serving rich households awaits, but Otsuka also shows a generation adapting to new soil, giving birth to children who will grow up American, and the shock that comes when Pearl Harbor forces America into the war and Japanese families are interned. This is the story of the immigrant experience, but it is also the story of the powerless: these women have no rights, no authority, no voice.
The Uninvited Guests
by Sadie Jones
The Torrington family – Charlotte, her grown-up children Emerald and Clovis, small daughter Smudge, and one-armed second husband Edward Swift – live in a grand, crumbling country residence which they can’t afford to keep up.
One stormy night – the night of Emerald’s 20th birthday party – there is a train crash nearby; the railway billets a group of survivors on them. The hordes (annoyingly spelt “hoards” throughout) of strangers, oddly hard to count, are faceless, nameless hungry strangers – except for a gentleman in a cherry-red waistcoat who knows Charlotte from way back and has a sinister agenda of his own .... This is a mixture of a comedy of manners and a ghost story, with hints of Saki, Nancy Mitford, and Iris Murdoch. A pleasantly eerie read, with a sweet ending.
The Last Time I Saw You
by Eleanor Moran
The first is that neither of the denouements, for the end of the friendship between subversive Sally and obedient Olivia, or for the “mystery” of Sally’s untimely death in a car accident, is unpredictable or particularly shocking. The second problem is that Moran can’t quite decide what she wants to write – a witty, sharp take on modern morals and manners (she is actually better at this aspect), or a deeply felt examination of love and friendship. The latter is foiled by some sloppy metaphors (“his words weave and dart, taking you on the path he’s carving out with them”) and lots of unnecessary detail – this 500-page novel should have had at least 150 pages cut out of it.