No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 25, 2016

2016/17: The Lie Tree -- Frances Hardinge

He had been enjoying his explanation, and now she had spoilt things by knowing too much. ‘Is ... is that the right word?’ She knew it was, but swallowed hard and made her voice hesitant. ‘I ... think I heard it somewhere.’ ‘Yes.’ The doctor’s confidence slowly returned in the face of her timidity. ‘That is exactly the right word, my dear. Well done.’ [loc. 690]

Faith Sunderly is fourteen years old in 1868, and already resigned to the knowledge that -- despite her fascination with the sciences -- she will never be as important as her younger brother Howard, especially in her father's eyes.

The Sunderlys travel to Vane (a fictional Channel Island) to escape 'the barbs and trials of scandal' in Victorian Kent. Her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly has been accused of scientific fraud: Faith is indignant, her mother Myrtle stoically determined to make the best of things, her uncle Miles hoping that his brother-in-law's good name will be redeemed. Howard, luckily, is too young to mind much.

Faith believes that her father has been invited to Vane to examine some fossils, but nobody on the island seems pleased by their presence. The servants are obstructive and unhelpful; the townsfolk snub the Sunderlys; even the scientists at the 'important caves' are less than impressed by the arrival of so eminent a scientist. Indeed, there's an accident the very first time Faith visits the cave.

Increasingly paranoid, Erasmus Sunderly sets mantraps around the house, and locks himself away in his study, rebuffing Faith's offers of help and companionship. Except, one night, he enlists her help on a dangerous mission to another cave, where he's concealed a rare plant, or Tree, that he believes could be of immense importance.

The next day he is found dead.

The Lie Tree is a damning exposition, albeit in fictional form, of the insignificance of women in Victorian society and especially in scientific circles. It's a novel jammed with angry, impotent women: Myrtle who has only ever had social standing as Mrs Sunderly, Faith whose aptitude for learning has been dismissed by her family, Agatha and her gin habit, Miss Hunter the spinster. Faith befriends Paul, the curate's son: he helps her as she attempts to make sense of her father's death. Only Faith, though, has access to her father's journal: she unravels his accounts of the Tree, and of the scientific fraud he was accused of perpetrating, and eventually realises that she has made the same error of judgement as everybody else.

The novel contrasts science and religion in a number of ways: the Reverend's most famous find is a fossil nicknamed 'The New Falton Nephilim', which he believed proved the existence of angels, and his interpretation of the Tree fits into his very Christian cosmology. Yet he, like many others in the novel, is lacking in 'Christian' virtues.

Hardinge's pacing is delicate, her characterisation excellent, her ability to tug on heartstrings spot-on for a novel in which sentiment is set against Faith's angry energy and her grief. The Lie Tree is a compelling read, and an all-too-credible portrayal of the treatment of women in nineteenth-century Britain.

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