Monday, 11 November 2013

Deconstructing Damaris

When writing Her Saving Grace, I was prepared for a backlash from the historical puritans (which so far, hasn’t come) but it might surprise many people to know that the science loving, polymath, Damaris Wellesley, is based on real people

Now when we think women and science, especially the origins of women in science, we perhaps think of Marie Curie, or she would at least be high on our list, but while she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was far from the first female scientist. 

Science didn’t begin as we know it today with structure and form, overseen by teachers, conducting experiments that thousands have done before and if one wishes to pursue a career in science, getting a job working for a profit company, or working for a university and applying for research grants. 

Granted, many scientists did teach at universities, but just as many if not more, did not. Science was, to my modern understanding, more what might be considered a hobby. Wealthy men with money, no profession, time and curiosity, set up rooms or laboratories and thought about stuff, then set about devising ways to prove the conclusions that had come to. They dabbled in science, almost. The gifted could also be supported by scientific institutions or wealthy patrons, although they were most certainly middle class, or raised and educated by a charitable institution. 

There were science journals, where people could publish papers to be read by like-minded people, but they were few and far between. Many scientists also preferred to publish books of their works and theories although unlike today, it wasn’t a for profit venture. In the Victorian age, publishing began to become a for profit business but until then, people financed their own print runs (or found a patron to back them) and were as likely to lose money as make it. 

Émilie duChâtelet, mathematician & physicist

Anyway, under those circumstances, it was actually easier for women to study science than in later periods, when entrance to universities and science organisations was banned. 

Rich women didn’t have to keep house and raise their own children so providing they had an understanding husband, lover or father, they could study science just as easily as a man, although I will admit that they were less likely to be taken seriously by many men.

Also unlike today, science was viewed more as a collective, so rather than focusing ones efforts only on one field of research and perhaps a few related areas, many studied various fields, such as Mary Somerville who began studying algebra and mathematics but also wrote papers on magnetism, physics, astronomy and chemistry, as well as translating the work of others into English.

The character of Damaris is based largely on that understanding, with her sharp mind and a broad range of knowledge, from philosophy to anatomy. 

I had to make her older in order to give her the age necessary to have amassed all this knowledge, but she could not be infallible however, so I also gave her one large deficiency, her personality. 

Today we might wonder if Damaris was on the autism spectrum, perhaps with a mild form, such as Asperger’s syndrome, but I didn’t want that to become the focus of the story. 

Her personality is largely based on my own personality, and she is perhaps my most autobiographical character to date. 

When I was a child, I was told by a parent that they suspected I was autistic and had a personality disorder, I am happy to reveal that I am not autistic nor do I have a personality disorder (believe me, those thoughts haunted me for years). I was also constantly likened to a person who was constantly reviled by my family. This was sometimes done in anger, “You’re so much like X!” while at other times I think it was just a general musing, and “Doesn’t she look like X when she does that?” 

However, whether cruel or just thoughtless, the actions of a parent can have a big impact on how we view ourselves, and present ourselves to the world, which is where I believe Damaris’s behaviour stems from. 

While I don’t consider myself a polymath, I do consider myself intelligent and dare I say it, of above average intelligence. My school even tested me and I am almost a genius, just 2 points shy of the 140 necessary to be called one. 

It’s hard for me to say that though, as I expect people to point and laugh. You see, as you probably know if you read this blog, I also grew up dyslexic and undiagnosed and if that wasn’t enough, I’m also very shy and a terrible introvert. Did rejection cause the shyness and introversion? It’s impossible to say but regardless, they are permanent character traits now. 

Margaret Cavendish's was criticised by her contemporaries 
As such, I tend to avoid people, even those I love when upset or depressed. I question things others take for granted and unless I can see a point in them, I shun societal norms, (I never fit in anyway, so why try?). My shyness also manifested as passive aggressive, meaning that I often snapped at people and was rude, although when angry was really the only time when I could stand up for myself.

I’ve come a long way since then however, I’m assertive rather than passive aggressive now, I’m confident in my abilities even if I don’t brag about them, and I am largely comfortable with my deficiencies. 

Damaris is a female with above average intelligence, yet largely derided and dismissed because of her sex, made to feel inferior and excluded by those around her who either couldn’t, or didn’t want to understand that she was capable of more than just being pretty.

Poor Damaris is just beginning the journey that I have been on for over 8 years now, and while she is brusque, thoughtless and rude at times, I hope I have imbued her with enough humanity to still be a likeable character.

In my next post, I will be looking at some of the female scientists who helped shape Damaris’ learnings, if not her personality.

  Her Saving Grace is available in kindle format on Amazon US,  Amazon UK  and  Amazon CA
You can read an excerpt here. 

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