Song of the Sea Maid opens with a young girl thinking she may have had a brother and looks back to the time they were stealing pies – just before he is kidnapped by a press gang. Left alone she tries to steal a man’s wig and is caught.
‘This is the Asylum for the Destitute Wretches of the Streets of London. I am a business associate of the founder of this institution. With any luck this will be your new home…You will do well with Matron,’ says the gentleman. ‘Good luck to you, orphan, if such you be,’ and, adjusting his wig slightly, he leaves.
The young girl does not know who she is, nor her name. She is renamed Dawnay after the gentleman who brings her to the Asylum. It was the fashion for children taken in as foundlings – even those whose names were known – to be given entirely new identities. The asylum provided shelter, food, clothing, medical care, education, and work-placements so its children were well-equipped to cope out in the world. Their education consisted of learning to read and numbers, but they were not taught to write.
‘Orphans are not to learn to write. And the idea of a girl receiving an education would never be borne…Wives who are cleverer than their husbands are unnecessary as are clever servants likewise. Thinking never cleaned a floor. Better put it out of mind.’
Dawnay, a bold and talented child, cannot put it out of her mind and whilst the rest of the inhabitants sleep, she secretly teaches herself to write, stealing books, quills and ink. The inevitable happens and she is caught. She is to be brought before the asylum’s founder and his committee for punishment. In all likelihood the workhouse.
These will be my final hours beneath this roof. By this evening, I may be in hell. Yet even this does not break me, nor bring a tear to my eye. I consider this. I do not weep because I have no fear. Something has changed in me since I taught myself to write. This is my armour and protects me from the blows life may deal me. As the sun reaches its noontime zenith in the sky, matron calls up the stairs for me to come.
Once inside the room, that is filled with luxurious food and powdered ladies, there to spectate the lottery of fallen women and their babies. The mothers are handed a cloth bag and have to pick out a ball. If it is white, their babies are accepted into the asylum, if it is black the women are shown out and the door closed upon them. A red ball means the women are on a list of reserves. The babies that have ‘won’ are sent away to wet nurses until they are four and then they are returned to live in the asylum until apprenticed.
How very hard it must be for the children to leave their wet-nurse ‘mothers’…only to discover somewhat younger than I am now, that this is not their mother, not their home, and not their life. And they are to be sent away for good to an orphanage, their real home, where their desperate mothers left them years before, the true mothers, the ones they do not remember, abandoned for a second time.
Dawnay’s luck holds up and instead of being sent to the workhouse, Markem Woods, a rich merchant offers to sponsor her education under the tutelage of his friend Stephen Appleby.
By the age of twenty three Dawnay is an anomaly, an educated founding who becomes a woman of science in a time when such things were unheard of. Woods offers her his house as her home. She will never be homeless or poor again. She has overcome her origins to become a natural philosopher.
I use my allowance to buy a compass and map of the Iberian Peninsula. I study the problems of latitude and longitude. I scribble and sketch and plan. I discover that there is an archipelago of islands off Portugal known locally as the Berlengas. They are mainly uninhabited and replete with unusual flora and fauna. I have found the object of my study.
Still of strong mind, and curious about the world beyond London, and against the conventions of the day, she persuades Woods to sponsor a trip to Lisbon so she may make a six month expedition to the Berlengas Islands.
To the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.
Written from Dawnay’s viewpoint, the book opens onto eighteenth century life in London. We witness the terrible poverty and the way orphans, and women were treated. Ultimately though, this is a feel-good novel that re-writes the terrible history of the nameless, homeless orphan. This is ‘the age of sail, orphanages, the flora and fauna of islands, and even the origins of all humankind’. Impeccably researched, at times I had to wear a peg on my nose as the scenes of filthy London were so rancidly lifelike.
And I am no aberration: there are plenty of girls and women who wish to think, to learn, to know. But it is our society and the beliefs of the men who run it that keep women from thinking, from studying and learning. Any woman can do what I have done. Any woman with the right kind of mind. And what leaps could have been made already if all the world’s women – or the poor, or the orphans, or any other powerless outcast – had been educated?
If you like stories about independent women, think Forever Amber, historical novels with a touch of romance, then this is the book for you.
In many ways this novel is the true definition of the ‘What if’ scenario. What if a poor female orphan was given an opportunity to become educated. Not to become a servant in a house, to clean fire grates, to polish, to cook or clean but a real opportunity to study, to learn, to understand the world to be taken in by a kind and caring person and not to be abused. Song of the Sea Maid is the orphan what if narrative.