“Ashton told her that it had always been his dream to be a natural philosopher. He wants to venture the world in search of new species of flora and fauna like Sir Joseph Banks in Tahiti.”—The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen Volume 1, chapter 16.
Many Jane Austen variations focus on relationships, fashion, and feelings. A few, as we have seen in earlier reviews, include a more spiritual dimension. Fewer still include science themes, although Austen’s era was a time of discovery, invention, and great progress in science, which was called natural philosophy or natural history. Here are a few gems I have enjoyed.
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, Volumes 1-3
Rarely do we find an Austen variation written by “a gentleman” like The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen: A Novel by a Gentleman, by Collins Hemingway. This one follows multiple strands in its three volumes. As you may expect, Jane Austen herself is the heroine, and she finds love and marriage. She and her husband also experience serious marital challenges. The viewpoint is Jane’s, including her feelings about sex and pregnancy and motherhood; quite a challenge, but Hemingway does it well.
The story is tucked into a time period during which we know little of Austen’s actual life. Her fictional sweetheart is Ashton Dennis. Mrs. Ashton Dennis (“MAD”) was a pseudonym that Austen actually used in a letter to a publisher.
Many true events from Austen’s life are intertwined with fictional elements in the novels, including the marriage proposal she accepted and then changed her mind about, as well as family relationships and crises. Some of her actual letters are included in volume 3.
Hemingway obviously knows his history well; he includes historical events such as battles and wars. Austen is sometimes criticized for leaving such things out of her novels, but if you want them, here they are!
The first volume begins with an unplanned hot air balloon ride across the country, with Jane and Ashton using trial and error to survive. Ashton makes a trip to the West Indies to study nature, but ends up more involved in war. Richard Trevithick’s early “loco-motive” run by a steam engine winds its way through the novels, as the Dennises support its development.
Jane and her husband bring a group of scientists together to discuss possible inventions they might fund. Astronomer William Herschel leads as the elder statesman of the group, while his sister, astronomer Caroline Herschel, is so shy Jane can barely get her to talk. Trevithick promotes big projects like his railroad, factories, and new weapons. Chemist Humphry Davy “makes the case for gases, electricity, chemicals, and other insubstantial and subtle agencies.”
Jane describes the discussion in a letter:
“Imagine a glittering ball, with people coming and going from room to room, full of cheer and grace, the halls ringing with laughter. Yet the brilliance is not in the clothing and manners so much as in the thought, for apart from Dr. Herschel and Mr. Davy, natural philosophers and mathematicians dress and behave more like apothecaries than aristocrats.
As the talk swirls among mechanisms, mathematics, and chemistry, I have the sensation that we are back at King Arthur’s roundtable, with the knights of old doing battle as a way of acquitting themselves nobly before their monarch” (Volume 2, chapter 4).
As the novels continue, we see the trials and failures of some devices, such as Trevithick’s railroad. The Rumford fireplaces and kitchen stoves succeed, however, as Ashford’s sister cleverly finds ways to bring them into fashion!
Religion and Abolition
This series also gives insight into religion, with discussions between an evangelical and a more traditional Church of England clergyman. The latter objects to evangelicals partly because of their music.
“’Hymns to our Savior to the tune of drinking songs!’ said Mr. Collier, alluding to the well-known practice of the Methodists in which they wrote Christian hymns to the melodies that the laborers already knew. ‘God must wince at the sound!’ ‘We make a joyful noise unto the Lord,’ Mr. Thornton replied” (Volume 2, chapter 8).
Jane and her husband also have discussions about their own faith and about the Creator’s role in creation.
They hear horror stories about the treatment of slaves, and Jane is shocked when a plantation-owning friend whips a servant. Jane and Ashton support Evangelical Christian William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery movement.
Warnings: The books contain references to sex, though always within marriage. And the last book in particular has a long section about war, with gory details, and references to euthanasia. (To me this part was less interesting, as it doesn’t really develop Jane and Ashton’s relationship, though the first part of volume 3 is more focused on their family.)
The main story about Jane and her marriage, and later their handicapped child, is intriguing and thought-provoking. The author occasionally goes down byways of history, so I recommend these books for those, like myself, who enjoy the history as much as the fiction.
Other Novels with Science
Robin Helm’s series “Yours by Design”, reviewed earlier, also has a strand related to science. Will Darcy goes back in time well-prepared with knowledge of the Industrial Revolution, knowing dates for inventions such as the cotton gin and the steamboat. He uses his knowledge to invest wisely as well as to take advantage of new inventions. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who moves forward in time, is of course amazed at the developments based on Benjamin Franklin’s electricity!
While not strictly an Austen variation, Georgette Heyer’s delightful Regency novel Frederica also includes science. The heroine’s 12-year-old brother Felix is fascinated by engines. He convinces his Marquis cousin to take him to see the machinery at a foundry (metal-working factory), and Felix takes exciting surprise rides on a steamboat and a hot-air balloon.
I hope you will enjoy these. Please tell me below if you know of other Austen or Regency novels with a science theme!
Much in these novels revolves around what is new; the latest thoughts and ideas and experiments. In our lives, we don’t know which new ventures will succeed and which will not, but we take risks so that we can grow, even through our failures. What are you trying now that is new and risky, and how do you handle the fear of failure?
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, by Collins Hemingway, volumes 1-3. Kindle edition.
“Yours by Design” series, by Robin Helm.
Frederica, by Georgette Heyer.