a quiet tide Marianne Lee
New Island Books €14.95
Ellen Hutchins is not famous, at least not to the general public. She wasn’t famous in her short lifetime, either, although she did gain the attention and respect of prominent botanists the length and breadth of the British Isles, for discovering several species of moss and lichens on the Bantry peninsula, near her home. These plants still bear her name although at the time of their discovery she was too modest to agree to this. She was a remarkable, pioneering woman botanist in an age where women, like children, were preferred to be seen but not heard.
Ellen Hutchins was the second-youngest surviving child in her family and was sent to boarding school as a young girl. School was a harsh and austere place, meant to breed young ladies fit for society, or at least fit to be governesses. And that is what Ellen became. It was while she worked in the Dublin home of Dr Stokes, a keen amateur botanist, that Ellen discovered her passion for plants. Stokes was to be her mentor in the early years. Her working life was cut short, though, as she was summoned home to Ballylickey in Cork to tend to her ailing mother and her crippled older brother. This crushed any hopes she had for a possible romance with a young medical student in Trinity College, a friend of the Stokes family and himself a keen amateur botanist.
Life in Ballylickey is not easy. But, Ellen notes, it is far easier for her family than it is for the poorest tenants on the surrounding estates. In her spare time, Ellen devotes herself to cataloguing and discovering the flora in the surrounding area and coastline. She sends her notes and illustrations to Dr Stokes in Dublin, who in turn sends them on to various experts in the UK. By the age of twenty-five, Ellen has already gained considerable notoriety. To this day, her collections are held in the British Natural Museum and her watercolour paintings in Kew Gardens. Ellen’s life, though, was to remain relatively untouched by this attention. She continued to care for her mother and brother, although in poor health herself, and she also continued to work in wet, wild and boggy Atlantic conditions to fuel her passion.
Marianne Lee has written a novel true to its title. This is a quiet book. Everything about it is understated, and that is its glory. From Lee’s choice of language, immaculately heedful of its time and setting, to her ear for the more formal dialogue of the day, through to her insistence on not labouring the reader with too much detail on matters botanical, she has written a hugely accomplished debut. Historical fiction is not easy. Historical fiction based on real characters is even more difficult, yet the reader is drawn into Ellen’s life, her work and her various family crises with sympathy and interest, anxious to see if her circumstances might take a turn for the better.
Like many pioneering women before and after her, Ellen Hutchin’s considerable legacy was only to be established posthumously. But the plant species she discovered bear her name to this day and there’s an arboretum named after her in Cork. Like Hutchins herself, Marianne Lee left no stone unturned her research for this novel, but it is the supreme elegance of Lee’s pen that most impressed me. a quiet tide is one of my favourite reads so far this year.