When Marie Brennan set out to write the memoirs of a fictional scientist in a fictional world, she also wrote a non-fictional truth about women, not only in the field of science, but as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.
For decades, the month of March and especially March 8, has been dedicated to women and the awareness of the work they do in various fields and their lack of recognition as equals to men in science and politics, as well as financial, social, educational and domestic affairs.
Though fictional, the voice of Lady Trent rings true and modern readers around the world feel a kindred spirit and self recognition in many of the events that Lady Trent goes through.
Girls must be girlish
In childhood, young Isabella has a thirst for knowledge of the world around her, but unlike her brothers, she is not encouraged into an education. Instead, she is taught to be ‘a proper lady‘, and lands herself in a great deal of trouble as she dissects a dead bird to learn the mechanism of wings and when she disguises herself as a boy to go on a dragon hunt.
A disappointment to her mother, her father gives in to his daughters thirst for knowledge and tries to feed it with books, and thus Isabella becomes a self taught scholar and is initially content with this restriction in her life.
While Isabella grows up in a household with several brothers, only one of these sees her for whom she is and acknowledges her as an equal sibling. Throughout the series, only Andrew is mentioned by name among the brothers which proves to show, that not only is he the only one she established a close relationship with, that would last longer than childhood, but he was most likely the only brother to see her as anything other than, dare I say it; a girl.
All young women must marry and become mothers
As Isabella reaches the age appropriate for marriage, her mother makes all the proper arrangements for her only daughter’s entrance into society. Her father, being as subtle in his daughter’s marital prospects as he was in her education, creates a list of bachelors for Isabella to be aware of. This list is comprised, not of men who would be a suitable social and political match for the daughter of a gentleman, but of men who have libraries with books of natural sciences and might be inclined to permit(!) their wives to read these books.
Here, it is noteworthy to delve into the motivations and life structures of Isabella’s parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Hendemore are upper class aristocrats and as such, have various social constrictions upon them. Scirland, being based on Victorian England, undoubtedly has the social gender settings where fathers are responsible for sons and mothers for daughters. Therefore Mr. Hendemore doesn’t interfere with Isabella’s upbringing in public, but chooses to show his love and understanding of his daughter’s spirit in secret. Mrs. Hendemore, while not being involved in her sons upbringing and education is left with only one child out of six, who is truly her own. Where the boys belong to the realm of men, Isabella belongs to the realm of women. A realm, where Mrs. Hendemore is most likely lonely and in need of a companion.
Raising a daughter in high society is not only a matter of insuring the status of the daughter, but of the mother as well. The actions of young Isabella reflects on Mrs. Hendemore more than anyone else and it is no wonder that Mrs. Hendemore is out of her element with a daughter who, while loving and respectful, doesn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
A path has been set and followed by women for generations and while young Isabella dreams of a life as a scholar, she knows that the best she can expect for herself is to follow that very same path and prioritize being a wife, a mother and in charge of a household, and keep her academic interests as a hobby.
Little did she know, that her spirited ways would land her the friendship and marriage proposal of Jacob Camherst, who not only shared his library with his wife, but encouraged her academic interests.
Suffering the loss of an unborn child, Isabella is faced with the failure of one of the basic, feminine tasks set before her; reproduction. I write basic, since it is widely known, that reproduction is a rather common feature of the human body and the majority of mankind have reproduced successfully for millennia.
Alas, for the better part of those millennia, the outcomes of pregnancies have been considered a matter for women. And thus, the social, psychological and emotional aftermath that comes after loosing a child, has been hard on women, who were/are often left to suffer alone and expected to toughen up and move on. With reproduction being the only job for a large number of women throughout history, failing at this job is unsurprisingly a cause for depression and a sense of low worth, as well as an exclusion from other female society.
All women naturally want to be mothers
Isabella throwing herself into her studies of the sparklings and begging her husband to bring her along as an assistant on an exhibition is not only a way for her to find herself, but also a way to save her marriage.
Many couples drift apart as they suffer the loss of their children (unborn or living), and in their shared interest in academics and adventure, Isabella and Jacob grow closer and in the end, the fruits of their love results in the birth of a healthy child.
But the arrival of her son Jake is not a happy one. Her husband is dead and Isabella becomes a widow in her early twenties. The impact of Jacobs death is profound, in not only does Isabella loose her life partner and lover, but she gains a freedom, which is normally reserved for women widowed in a later age; Mrs. Isabella Camherst becomes independently wealthy and more so, independent in her own right. While young, the social status of a widow grants Isabella the ability to choose her own path.
Had Jacob survived, Isabella would most likely have come to lead a life raising children, arranging dinner parties and longing to be with her husband, as he would go on further exhibitions, leaving her and the children at home. While many women need to marry in order to gain financial stability, Isabella now has a choice to remain a widow or to remarry. With the inheritance from Jacob’s estate, she is able to live a life of her own choosing, although it may be modest by society standards.
Postnatal depression is a hormonal and emotional reality of many women, and added to the grief of loosing her husband, it’s no wonder that Isabella uses her new found independence to run away from all things that bind her sorrows, leaving her child and her home in capable hands in Scirland.
Along for the ride is another runaway woman, Miss Natalie Oscott, heiress and Isabella’s best friend. Natalie, not wanting to join the ranks of married, society women, brings scandal upon herself as she runs away to take part of a scientific exhibition with the widow Camherst and the unmarried Thomas Wilker.
On this journey, Isabella and Natalie grow a stronger bond of friendship and as they return to Scirland, Natalie moves in with Isabella in the Camherst household, as a companion to the widow and thus both women cement their independence in society; they do not need husbands. (Or any more children for that matter; another taboo facing those women, who have no interest in motherhood. Natalie doesn’t mind children and adores young Jake, but she has no plans to ever be a mother herself.)
All women must want a man of their own and have their place at home
While the subject of homosexuality is brushed upon, when Natalie reveals that she experimented on their journey abroad, neither women are lesbian. They simply have no interest in a life that involves attachment to men. As a widow, Isabella is free to pursue a career in natural history and as a spinster, Natalie is free to pursue a career as an engineer. Both female scientist and both unmarried. A stigma that has followed women through history and still remains this day; A woman must give up or at least cut down on her career, once she marries.
Even in today’s society, unmarried women are stigmatised for not following the path of their female ancestors; that of motherhood, wives and housekeepers. This is not only a stigma placed on women by men, who might be threatened by women in their fields of profession, but also by women, who might be threatened by women behaving unwomanly. Like Isabella’s mother, Mrs. Hendemore, many women are very happy on their paths and relish in their lives of loving wives and mothers, but feel threatened when other women ‘rock the boat‘ so to speak.
And alongside the happy wives and mothers, there are the unhappy wives and mothers, who chose the conventional path of feminine duties, while sacrificing their own dreams and ambitions. This taboo, deserves more light in present day media, than it currently receives. Few women dare to admit, that they regret having families of their own, due to the stigma that follows.
While it is not unheard of, that a father will leave his family to be raised my a single mother, it is highly unusual that women leave their children with the fathers, to pursue their own dreams and never return.
For some reason, men abandoning the responsibility of parenthood is not perceived as bad as women doing so. Isabella leaving toddler Jake behind with relatives, as she goes on an exhibition to the continent of Eriga, receives a downpour or criticism on her skills as a mother. Even the notion, that Eriga is unsafe for a child seems ridiculous, as children are undoubtedly born and raised there all the time. It is a highly populated continent after all.
Yet, had Jacob survived his ordeals and headed the exhibition with Tom Wilker in her place, hardly anyone would have raised a comment, to a father leaving a wife and infant child at home.
Unsurprisingly, Isabella returns to a son, who hardly knows who she is and once they are reconnected, she doesn’t want to part with him again and therefore brings him along on her next exhibition, albeit with a nanny.
Now that her child is old enough to be of some practical use and comprehensible conversation, Isabella finds herself far more capable in her role as a mother. Babies and toddlers are not for everyone.
Independent women of independent minds
Natalie Oscott remains at home for the remainder of the series, to tend to her own career and the continuation of the Flying University: an unofficial educational institution for women, as women are still not permitted into academic society.
“If the men will not teach us, we will teach each other!” have been a way of life for women across the globe, throughout millennia. Although much of female education have been passed down from mothers to daughters, rather than in ‘proper intellectual venues’ and some have even been exclusively for women. Men are notoriously known for thinking any knowledge of the menstruation cycle, lactation and childbirth is better left in the categories of feminine secrets.
Throughout her life and her career, Lady Trent is berated for being a woman, daring to take on tasks meant for men. But it is those first two books, in the set of five memoirs, that are most relevant to women today.
Isabella’s childhood as a girl doing ungirly things leaves an impression on any girl or woman, who has even been told, that something was better left for boys.
Young girls of today are still told that science is more suited for boys in the same way they are told that the colour blue is better suited for boys. It’s absolutely nonsense!
Girls should not stick with career dreams, that give them time to prioritize being mothers and wives, any more than they should wear pink because society tells them to. They should do so, because they want to, never because they feel they have to. And working mothers should not feel guilty, they should be proud.
Young women shouldn’t get married or stay in relationships as their only means of financial security. And women, be they 19 or 35, should not have children if they don’t want to.
While motherhood eventually becomes Lady Trent, she doesn’t have any more children after Jake, even once she remarries. It is not unknown that some women have a genuine dislike for children other than their own and dare I say it, even some women periodically dislike their own as well… Love them, by all means, but dislike the little ones, when they for instance dissect doves with penknives and bloody their best dresses (poor Mrs. Hendemore, really. She must have been scared out of her mind).
Fiction is an everlasting mirror image of reality, and with the voice of Lady Trent, Marie Brennan has given voice to countless of women, who have battled stigmas of society and those who still do.
The majority of men and women today want to be in lasting relationships and joint parenthood. This has nothing to do with gender, culture or sexuality, it is simply human nature. But as it has been for men throughout the ages, there is also more to life than marriage and children for women.
There is no reason to continue a ‘war on women’. Girls and women should be encouraged to pursue their dreams, regardless of those dreams landing them in science, art or parenthood. The ideal is, that they should be happy with their own choices and unthreatened by the choices of others. And we should be able to wear blue as well as pink, or even green for that matter.
The story of Lady Trent might be fictional and take place in a parallel world, but it is also a true story of many of the women in science, who fought for their rights to be heard and respected as equals by the men in their fields. A fight, which many women still have to continue today.
Men and women have come a long way since the standards of Victorian England, but we still have a long way to go before we are truly equals, in both careers and parenthood.
I for one, I’m thankful for the voice of Lady Trent in taking on topics that have long been taboo and ostracised women in societies the world over.
Lady Trent’s story is not just A Natural History of Dragons, but a true history of women.