Book Review: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite | F/F Romance & Scientists in Regency England
Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics follows two women, Lucy and Catherine, as they fall in love in Regency England. Lucy is an astronomer attempting to translate an important scientific text from French to English, facing discrimination as a female scientist. Catherine, on the other hand, is a talented embroidery artist and the widow of an important astronomer, attempting to carve out her own space in her big house. Both women have an interesting and distinct path of development throughout this romance novel, supportive of each other through their differences.
Science & Art in Regency England
While mostly orbiting the romantic development of the two ladies’ relationship, Waite’s story also has a heavy focus on the world of science, art, and publishing. This is a definite strength of the novel, the details of celestial discoveries, painting, and book publishing adding a layer of fascination to what would otherwise be plain romance — a genre I personally had no experience with, and would have found overwhelming on its own.
Lucy’s translation work proves interesting to read about. At first seemingly just covering her struggles with French verb tenses, it quickly changes into a question of how to make astronomy accessible to people who have no prior knowledge of science, particularly women. This framed the importance of the work she undertakes really well, her passion driving her writing from the beginning of her project right through to the final confrontation with the sexist Fellows of the Science Society.
Catherine, of course, has her own struggles. As the widow of a loud and often intimidating man obsessed with his work, she lived most of her life making herself small. She still feels his presence in the big house they used to share, and is often nervous around scientific enthusiasm, reminding herself of how dangerous it can be. This makes her initial encounter with Lucy a less than successful one — but it also allows for the raising of some interesting points. Being critical of her late husband’s work, Catherine tells Lucy of the terrible things he did when traveling the world in the name of astronomy, and how harmful it often was to the native populations of other countries. This is not a revolutionary point to make in a book, and it’s been made by many people before, but I did enjoy the judgement of British historical exploration, no matter how slight.
Character Development & Scruffy Sidekicks
A particular Goodreads reviewer pointed out their concerns that Catherine, being the initial inspiration for Lucy’s attempt at making science accessible, would forget about her artistic embroidery, and get dragged into science despite her lack of interest. I agree with this reviewer that it was delightful to follow the two women’s journey and discover that, in fact, Lucy learns to respect Catherine’s beautiful works for their own merit, and does not pressure her to become another female scientist. Catherine shows her love for Lucy’s work through her making of beautiful, space-themed gowns, and Lucy in turn is inspired by Catherine to take her own project to a new level.
The side characters were fairly interesting, and felt fleshed out without taking up too much space in the story. The painters, publishers, and fellow scientists of London read like genuinely memorable people with their own particular quirks, and they all fit oddly well into their respective industries. Those that made mistakes along the way were not caricatures, but showed an impressive amount of nuance in their behaviour and motives. Lucy’s brother was a particular favourite, alongside a scruffy man who, as we discover, is on the queer spectrum as well.
Not All That Glitters Is Gold: Erasure & Colour Blindness
One problem I had with this novel is perhaps its slightly overbearing optimism. While I am in support of positive, happy historical fiction, I have an issue with the erasure of discrimination, and found myself a bit frustrated with the author’s occasional colour blindness. In one instance that made this particularly obvious, a dark-skinned, female scientist is doubted for being a woman only, her skin colour seemingly irrelevant.
It is obviously tricky for a white author to explore the racial discrimination a dark-skinned scientist would have faced in Regency England, but the complete ignorance of her race seemed to entirely erase any struggles this character might have faced. As my partner reminded me while we were discussing this issue, white feminists are commonly accused of only calling out sexism, ignoring racism, homophobia, and other types of discrimination. The fact that the two main characters receive a lot of silent support when they are discovered in bed together, while they face sexism throughout the entire novel, makes me wonder why the author found it more important to call out the gendered discrimination, and to only touch on racism and homophobia on the surface. Lucy also seems only interested in uncovering fellow female scientists, and gives no real attention to scientists of colour.
I still believe The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics to be a wonderful romance, and an entertaining, generally delightful book. It tells a well-paced story with many facets, and explores a healthy relationship with all the right ups and downs. Catherine’s comments about the harm British travellers did in other countries are certainly refreshing. But I think its token racial diversity and ignorance of racism in the characters’ more immediate environment is its greatest flaw, and one that should be addressed.