Science in Scifi: Excerpts from Wolves and Deer

Michael Faraday holds up a magnet

Here is the book blurb:

In 1832, Grace Clare works at the Royal Institution under the direction of the well-known chemist Michael Faraday. But science isn’t all she has on her mind. She learns that her birth mother was famous comic actress Dora Jordan. Grace is dangerously drawn into the tale of Dora’s mysterious, unjust death after her twenty-year relationship with the prince who now occupies the throne–a man who betrayed his life partner and mother of his children. As the only child free to do so, Grace travels to Paris for work and to view her mother’s lonely grave. Awash with the injustice of the cruel betrayal, will Grace be doomed to a tragic life of seeking revenge?

How did I come to write it?

I had published a short story about Isaac Newton that was first in print in Australia and later included in the anthology “The Female Complaint.” I wanted to write something about my favorite chemist, Michael Faraday. He was a humble guy who worked his way into fame by endearing himself to Sir Humphrey Davy. Here’s an excerpt from Wolves and Deer which she tells the story:

“Like Grace, Michael Faraday had been born common, the son of a blacksmith; she was the daughter of a merchant and a milliner. She wanted to learn science as it was more interesting, with greater opportunity than hat making, and hat making in her home town of Dref Ysbryd, Wales, would be her future if she didn’t find employment here in London. Her plan was to present him with a gift, much as he had done to his benefactor, the scientist Humphry Davy. Faraday had flattered Davy by handing him a notebook filled with Davy’s scientific lectures—perfectly transcribed and bound by Faraday’s own hand. Grace would give Faraday one of her experiments based on his work and do him one better by handing him a hat for his wife.”

As I was reading his biography I came upon a note of his correspondence with Lady Mary Fox, the illegitimate daughter of King William IV. Mary was a fan of Faraday’s who wrote him about getting tickets to his lectures and assuring him that she would help him secure a pension from the king. The entry briefly mentioned that her mother was actress Dora Jordan. I became intrigued with Dora Jordan and her untimely but convent for the Royal Family death. My story about Faraday morphed into a novel about a secret daughter of Dora Jordan who works in the Faraday lab. 

Here’s another excerpt from the novel:

“Faraday, I can envision a carriage powered by a steam engine and accompanied by a steam powered calculator giving speed and progress towards the destination.” Mathematician Charles Babbage took a bite of scone with jam as Grace snaked rubber tubing from one flask to another. Babbage and Michael Faraday, members in the Royal Society, hunched over a glass flask. It was now 1832. Faraday and Babbage, two men of science, and the maid who served as an assistant, Grace Clare, were in the basement of the Royal Institution, surrounded by jars of reagent chemicals—ether, chloroform, arsenic. Grace tried not to consider their usefulness. Working for Mr. Faraday had stabilized Grace. She’d made peace with the actress’s death and the mystery of her own birth and went a week at a time without dwelling on it. As any chemist will tell you, matter desires and moves towards stability. Certainly, Dora Jordan’s was a story as old as time, a man leaves a woman for another, the broken woman is found dead without witness, the man nowhere near. Grace was more concerned with the lack of mail from the Clares. It was April. Rain hit the windows.

“Is the latter needed? Any good driver can estimate speed and time to destination in his head,” Faraday replied. “And, where would it be mounted?”

“Calculating devices will be more reliable than humans. Everyone will use them. We are limited now with humans doing our calculations. Faraday, we need more mathematics in England. We’re lacking in mathematical minds. Our mathematical science is in deplorable shape. Where are the new, young ideas? In Paris! We need to go to Paris and return with a young mathematician.”

“One trip to Paris is enough for any Englishman, and I have been,” said Faraday. “Grace, did you say your father was French?”

“He was born in Paris but resides in Wales when not traveling.”

“Let’s send Grace. She needs a trip to Paris.” Babbage, who had recently completed a table of logarithms up to 10,8000, bit into the scone. Crumbs fell onto his silk shirt and scattered across his trousers.

Grace jabbed the end of the tube onto a hollow, glass rod. This would be a connector to help carry the nitrous oxide they were making into a gasbag. Babbage might as well have lit her on fire with the mention of Paris. Once again, she became infected with the enigma of Dora’s death. Even worse, she saw it as her duty to do something to shed truth on it. A trip to France would be a step.

“Charles, this is more about you than about Grace,” said Faraday, at forty-one, the most brilliant chemist in the British Empire. “Grace, are your connections secured?”

“Yes, Mr. Faraday.”

Grace jumped as Babbage smacked a hand on the lab bench. “True, but Faraday, see it my way. I need a mathematician. There is one in Paris who could be convinced to emigrate to London. This fellow is fresh blood, his genius unappreciated in his native country. He must be rescued before the country blows up again. Their police dislike scientists. Fear of science is sinister. He can tutor my pupils. He’ll help you, too. Electrical signals are our future, and someone needs to describe them mathematically. I’m willing to hire him to stir things up and inspire me. When will this Davy’s gas generate? I need a laugh.”

“Don’t rush things, Charles. We have adequate mathematics. It will distract you and cost too much,” said Faraday. “I’m sympathetic to revolutionaries, but the fervor is destructive. And, this isn’t Davy’s gas. Priestley discovered it.” Faraday moved a candle beneath the flask of white powder suspended from an iron rack.

Grace’s hand shook as she took a towel and wiped a glistening blob of jam from the lab bench as Babbage reached into a basket for another scone. Vapor formed above the powder as the nitrous oxide bubbled from the flask of white powder and into a flask of water, a purification step, almost a baptism.

“He’s simply in possession of the passions of youth, Faraday. I need the stimulation and assistance. This student lives in a world of complicated formulas. He solved the 350 year-old riddle of polynomials. He won’t demand outrageous salary. He’s the misguided grandson of a family friend. A Frenchman would shake things up a bit. He’s quite political. Is that one of your new rubber gasbags? It’s starting to inflate!”

Faraday, the strong-jawed chemist, sat back but kept his hand near the torch. Too much heat and it would explode. “My advice is don’t meddle in politics. Are you listening Grace? Grace, stand back. Keep safe. No need for you to get glass shards in your face. And yes, it’s my invention. Not new. I’ve been making these rubber bags for seven years.” The gas bubbled in the flask of water. The gasbag twitched as it slowly inflated.

“Agreed,” said Babbage, his face alight. “There never will be a politician or King able to comprehend science. We need to rescue the mathematician from himself.”

“Write him a sealed letter, Charles,” said Faraday, his wide mouth turning down at the edges. “There’s no cause for an expedition. Grace needs to preserve her modesty, not be gallivanting about the continent.”

Babbage’s smile drooped. “There are complications. He’s been jailed, and the letter might not go through. Let Grace deliver it. Grace has a pretty face, and her voice can melt hearts. He’ll need some persuading. The girl could use a vacation away from this cholera epidemic. Don’t you wish to get away from London for a few weeks, go to Paris? You could see France  and pay your respects to Dora Jordan, Grace. Lady Mary has told me of your mutual connection. I’ll send tulips for her grave—some cut flowers and a few bulbs. How lonely she must be there.”

“Mary should have had respects paid to her sixteen years ago.” Grace kept her voice cold but anger rose within her. “Tis the man who sits on the throne who owes her respect.

“Respects are past due. My neighbor’s maid, Mrs. Zorg, can accompany you as a chaperone. She’s mentioned having urgent business in Paris. And Grace, I’ve calculated it. There is a good chance that something miraculous will come of this trip.”

Grace gave a perfunctory curtsy as heat welled up behind her eyes. “I wish to pay my respects but need to be of use here.” She had the utmost loyalty to Faraday, who’d encouraged her to study science and taught her some himself, even though she’d been hired simply to clean up the laboratory after him. She was afraid to go to France and to open a wound that had nearly healed. Even more, she was presuming the return of the Clares soon. She’d heard from them less than she’d expected. They’d sent a white silk scarf from France and tea from Ceylon, and this was the sum total of their correspondence. She knew journeys were long and letters few, but she was growing anxious for news. Aunt Hester’d been complaining and needed to be bled with leeches on a monthly basis due to the bad air in London.

“Grace wishes to stick with science,” Mr. Faraday said. “An excellent choice. However, Grace, one does learn much from a trip abroad.” The gasbag swelled. Faraday removed the hose and plugged the spout.

“A prodigious bag of gas. Grace, hand me that towel,” said Babbage. Grace gave him her cleaning cloth. Babbage slipped the half eaten scone in the basket, put the towel over his head, leaned over the spout of the bag, and removed the plug.

He breathed in the gas. “Good. I’ll send Harry ‘round to drive you there. He’s a handsome fellow. Have a whiff, Grace. It’s all the rage. Whoa. Ha-ha.” He sat down on a stool and handed Grace the bag, pinching it at the spout.

He wiggled his fingers, and Grace sniffed the laughing gas as it rushed through the spout. It was cold—as any expanding gas—and made her dizzy and euphoric.

“Paris. ‘Tis such a beautiful idea,” she said. Mr. Faraday caught her as she fell.

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