By Brenda S. Cox
“Here we are–at the mercy of the wind and the waves, and marauding pirates—strangers aboard a vessel, hurling our prayers and supplications to God and hoping that He, in His infinite wisdom, will equally hear the Jew, the Irishman, and the Anglo-Saxon and grant us peace.”–Mr. Gabay in Celestial Persuasion
Abigail’s brother Jonathan served as a ship’s surgeon under Captain Wentworth. Jonathan is transferred to another ship, where he attempts to defend Dick Musgrove. The cruel captain of that ship flogs Jonathan instead, who is set ashore with his wounds. Wentworth visits him, and begins to correspond with Abigail. Other characters from Austen’s novels play minor parts as Abigail’s friends.
Abigail ends up moving to Argentina, which is just becoming a haven for persecuted Jews. She struggles to find her place there. Abigail seeks a balance between pursuing her own goals and dreams, and fulfilling the dreams of her father and brother. Will she find a man who shares her faith and will support her in using her gifts and talents?
As a child, Abigail learned to enjoy the stars and to recognize constellations. She says, “Jonathan and I had a tradition that began after our mother died. Each night before reciting our prayers, we would look for the seven stars that make up the constellation Ursa Major. You see, these are easily recognized, even for a small child, and almost always are visible—which was Jonathan’s intent.”
Abigail’s role model is Caroline Herschel. Abigail hopes to make astronomical discoveries as Caroline did, perhaps even to discover a new planet as Caroline’s brother William Herschel did. Abigail watches the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. She carries her 10-foot telescope and other astronomical instruments with her into the hinterland of Argentina to explore the skies there.
While her father trained her as a scientist, Abigail’s mother had less orthodox views. Abigail says, “According to Mama, being born under a specific constellation predisposed a person to certain personality traits and to a particular destiny.” She discusses a Jewish version of astrology (see below).
I enjoyed Abigail’s love of learning and science, and her desire to be accepted as an intellectual equal by men.
The book gives insights into Jewish celebrations, traditions, dietary laws, and worship. Abigail and her companion keep the appropriate ceremonies wherever they are.
For example, at Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a new month, she explains to a non-Jewish friend, “The moon has been a point of great significance since the time of the ancient Israelites. We use its cycles to calculate the months of the year, which differs from the Gregorian calendar based on the sun. Rabbi Nachman suggests that when even the slightest portion of this heavenly body is spotted, that least sighting—that modicum of hope—is sufficient to proclaim a fresh beginning for every one of us. And this evening, as witnessed by the shape of the moon, we celebrate the head of the new month and wish each other peace.” (By the way, Muslims, cousins of the Jews, also use a lunar calendar based on the moon.)
The historical background does not obtrude on the story, but we do see glimpses of the British war with Napoleon. Argentina’s fight for freedom from Spain is also going on, with real-life military leader José de San Martín as one of the characters. (See also “History of the Jews in Argentina,” wikipedia, which gives an overview up until the present.)
Interview with the author, Mirta Ines Trupp:
What led you to write Celestial Persuasion?
I think the idea began to take root while I was writing my previous book, The Meyersons of Meryton. That novel was a Pride and Prejudice variation. I had introduced Jewish protagonists and a background story that included Nathan Rothschild and Moses Montefiore into Austen’s beloved story. As I came to the final chapters, I found an opportunity to introduce another snippet of my heritage into the narrative. I wanted to transport that devious blackguard, Mr. Wickham, to a penal colony in Argentina—rather than Australia. I began to do some research and fell down the proverbial rabbit’s hole. It was then that the idea for a new book began to unfold.
I found that Argentina’s colonial period—when that modern-day country was known as the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata—was significantly intertwined with the British empire. Although the area was ruled by the Spanish crown, it was hard to overlook England’s influence and contributions to that fledgling nation. I was attracted to the similarities I found between Argentina’s Regency era and Austen’s. What with all the stories of naval officers, banished monarchs, and ladies in Regency dress, I couldn’t resist!
I read about Lord Duff, the Fourth Earl of Fife and his patronage of José de San Martín, Argentina’s famed liberator. I discovered Mariquita Sanchez—a fascinating, trailblazing woman! Her forbidden love affair with Jacob Thompson reminded me of Austen’s Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. Because the Napoleonic wars and the Viceroyalty’s struggle for independence occurred in the same time frame, I wove a story around Abigail Isaacs—a young woman who finds herself in dire straits—and the good captain of HMS Laconia.
What do you love most about Jane Austen and her novels?
I love that her protagonists begin with one set of ideas, and by the end of the story, they end up with another. Their growth is essential. The opportunity for self-realization is fundamental in any novel of worth; but it is Austen’s realism that truly inspires me. Through her work, we can see life as she saw it. She brought us some compelling subjects to consider—even though she used humor and sarcasm as a creative vehicle. Jane Austen allowed us to look into a specific society, a specific culture.
I love that sense of intimacy we seem to have with her. I feel as if she were my friend! She has given us leave to do so with her honesty and genuineness. With my cultural heritage and ethnic background, following in her footsteps gives me a platform to share my passion for combining Judaica with historical fiction. I certainly do not claim to have her genius! Her style and wit are legendary; nevertheless, I feel that Jane Austen opened the door for the rest of us who have stories to tell—in a style all our own.
Can you explain to us the Jewish perspective on astrology and astronomy?
These are complex subjects and I am not qualified to explain the Jewish perspective—or any perspective—by any means! For the purposes of my story, I did want to focus on the Hebraic interpretations, however, and I did a bit of basic research. I visited countless websites and tried to focus on the ancient viewpoints, which differ from today’s modern interpretations.
For example, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) published astronomical tables, which mostly focused on the movement of the planets. His astrological treatise called Sefer Ha Olam (The Book of the World) warned readers against the wrong applications of this study. He was an ardent believer in astrology, but only when practiced correctly and within the context of the faith.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), otherwise known as Maimonides, also spoke against using astrology as a tool or a crutch. He indicated that there were certain practices that were effective and involved true ancient wisdom; however, he advocated that a Jew should trust wholeheartedly in God. While the stars may predict the future, these plans could always be changed by Divine Intervention. Maimonides believed we should not worry what the stars and planets foretold. We should concern ourselves with serving the Lord and only focus on performing His mitzvos—His commandments.
The Talmud (the primary source of Jewish religious law and theology) speaks of the astrological signs of the planets (the mazulos) and the stars. Each planet has its own mazal (characteristics) and plays a role in our daily lives. God brought them into existence for our service. The sun was created to illuminate earth; the moon was created to count the months accordingly; and the stars served an even more meaningful purpose—to dictate the outcome of our lives.
In short, I found that the ancient scholars believed that the two subjects were interconnected. Each have a purpose and place in Judaism. Here is a brief excerpt from Celestial Persuasion:
Abigail’s brother’s “shelves were lined with an eclectic combination of writings. Books of Kabbalah and astrology were placed side by side with authoritative treatises on astronomy, physics, and physiology. . . .
“Abigail reached for an ancient tome . . . passed down throughout the generations. Jonathan had shown her this very book when she was yet a child of five years of age and their mother had left their world. The Sefer Yetzirah, Jonathan had explained, was devoted to speculations concerning God’s creation of the world. He had shown her drawings of the constellations that formed the galgal hamazalot, the wheel of the Zodiac, which exerted influence on Man’s traits and tendencies and on the natural course of things. Abigail recalled his gentle voice as he proposed that they study the celestial spheres together and learn of their characteristics. In her innocence, she had asked if their mama had become one of the heavenly formations watching them from above.
“’Dearest, you may still speak to Mama,’ Jonathan had said. ‘Ask her to guard you and guide you from her heavenly home. You may look upon the shining stars and imagine one of them is our own mama sending her love to us here on earth. But Avi, the stars and the moon, and all the wondrous celestial creations, are only a manifestation of God’s will. We must always remember to place our faith and trust in our Creator.’”
Thank you, Brenda, for this opportunity to talk about my new book, Celestial Persuasion. The eBook preorder link is available here. The print version will be available on June 30, 2021. Happy Reading!
If you enjoy Austen variations that also teach you about faith, science, and history, I think you will enjoy Celestial Persuasion.
Have you ever experienced a conflict between using your gifts to pursue your dreams, and meeting the expectations and needs of family members or others? How do you find the right balance?