Personally, I am not a big fan of fridge magnets with twee mottos, but there is one I do like. It says: “Well behaved women never made the history books“. If Dawnay Price, the protagonist of Rebecca Mascull’s second novel had been a real person, she would definitely have made the history books. In fact, she would probably have been writing them.
Dawnay (there is an explanation for her odd name, but I won’t spoil it) has a rotten start in life in mid-18thC London. A homeless ragamuffin, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets until a chance encounter sees her taken in by an orphanage. Once there, the young foundling risks being despatched to the workhouse by secretly teaching herself to read and write. Her efforts do not go unrewarded as when local benefactor Mr Woods agrees to educate a child, Dawnay is chosen. Under the dedicated tutelage of Mr Applebee, the naturally gifted Dawnay thrives. Intelligent, curious and determined, she is drawn to the wonders of the natural world and resolves to travel abroad in order to explore and develop some of her ideas about the origins of life, amongst other things. Achieving her ambition to see beyond the shores of Britain, Dawnay secures a passage to a small group of Portugese islands known as the Berlengas. A passionate love affair, natural disasters and the risk of being ostracised by polite society do not deter Dawnay from her chosen path as an explorer, scientist, philosopher and writer.
Firmly rooted in history, but not at all dense, this is an absorbing read. Dawnay reminded me just how much we take for granted in the West, including women’s education, free speech and some semblance of equal rights (although we still have a way to go!). Unfettered by social conventions, which were extremely rigid in the 1750s, she forges her own path in life. Her ideas are heretical yet she refuses to be subdued. This book is a testament to self-belief, intellect and hard work. With Tim Hunt’s comments about #distractinglysexy women in laboratories recently, ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ explores some extremely topical themes.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this book; it is published today by Hodder & Stoughton. Although not a YA book per se, it would make a fantastic gift for any young female who is struggling with identity and finding her place in the world. ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ is a positive affirmation of what it is to be sexy and smart; the two are not mutually exclusive.