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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Turing’

When our elder child finished his gap year in England we met him there. I’d planned a day in Bath, which I visited during college. It proved to be a wonderful day despite fairly steady rain, and one of the best things we did was visit a small, unassuming and very well done museum: The Herschel Museum of Astronomy. When they were younger, my children were both fascinated by astronomy and we’d learned briefly of brother and sister astronomers William and Caroline Herschel. Their former home on New King Street in Bath is a lovely tribute to their work together and we all enjoyed it.

When I heard that one of my favorite small presses, Cinnamon Press, had published a novel about Caroline Herschel, Double the StarsI was intrigued. And yesterday, on the last day of my holiday vacation, I sat and read it in its entirety, one of my favorite ways to get lost in a book. It’s a wonderful read by a person well versed in both science and art; Kelley Swain was poet-in-residence at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge while working on this novel. She notes in the afterword that she met with the Herschel’s descendants, one of whom even created the cover art, and from what I could tell from what (albeit little) I know about the Herschels, the novel seems true to history.

And yet, it is still a work of fiction, with certain details rearranged to create a narrative, and I suspect, bits of emotional drama inserted. The Computer Scientist and I went to see The Imitation Game this weekend, the biopic about Alan Turing (the other really interesting place we visited on our trip was Bletchley Park — well worth an outing if you are in London). We enjoyed it but mused on our way home that it seemed unlikely that Turing’s relationships with his superiors at Bletchley were so fraught, and I noted that the information about the burglary and investigation seemed inaccurate from what I could recall. I found an article in Slate when we got home which verified what we’d suspected — conflict was added to the film that didn’t exist in Turing’s actual life, and no detective in Manchester investigated him, he admitted to being gay and that was that. Also, in focusing on Turing, the filmmakers left out some important collaboration that took place in breaking Enigma and in building The Bombe — the computing machine that sped up the code-breakers’ work.

Does that matter? I mused on Facebook that I was disconcerted by the level of extra drama and the portrayal of Turing as a humorless, antisocial narcissist (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s well known portrayal of Sherlock Holmes). My cousin Sheafe noted “the movie biz believes that the story of a movie must have more drama than in anyone’s real life. The movie must have conflict in every scene, however small to be a good movie and not a boring one. Most people’s life story, even the extraordinary ones have some dull, not so cinematic moments that must be creatively altered to serve the plot/story/movie. That’s the moviegoers expectation to be amazed and overwhelmed.”

Sheafe comes from a family of actors and directors and his law practice is dedicated to entertainment law and intellectual property in the arts, including film. So he knows what he’s talking about. And I know I’m the odd one out in believing that novels and films about real people don’t have to have zingers, explosions, betrayals, or drama on every page or frame in order to entertain. But how is it that we’ve reached a point in our culture where we need to be amazed and overwhelmed nearly to a point of artifice? Why aren’t people as incredibly interesting as Caroline Herschel and Alan Turing entertaining enough without the added embellishments? I get that every day of even remarkable people’s lives aren’t interesting, but it seems to me that both of them had lives that are plenty dramatic.

But I digress. Swain’s novelization of Caroline Herschel’s life is delightful and I don’t mean to detract from that. She portrays the enormous obstacles to female intellectual life in the late eighteenth century and the freedom Caroline Herschel enjoyed in large part because she lived with her brother. And the darker side of that freedom, as in this passage, when Caroline realizes her musical career will end when she becomes her brother’s assistant astronomer, a royal posting: ” . . . locked into William’s orbit, his influence overwhelmed the trajectory of her own desires.”

Swain makes clear that Herschel’s peers — including some of the greatest scientific minds of her time — knew and valued her work, and that she herself derived great satisfaction from it. Herschel was the first woman to earn her living as a scientist, and whether the dramatic story-line in the novel about her sacrifice of personal happiness is true or not, there is no doubt that she, and most women of her time, had to sacrifice their own pursuits to the needs and preferences of the men they relied on for support and respectability. Swain does an excellent job of showing how bittersweet Herschel’s successes were; unlike many women she was lauded for her fine mind and its accomplishments, but like so many others, decisions about how and where to live, and what work to pursue, were often not entirely up to her.

Read Double the Stars. Go see The Imitation Game. But ask yourself — isn’t art just as beautiful when it is, like life, leavened with a little ordinariness? Do we really need the adrenaline rush of conflict and drama to be entertained? I’m reminded of Eddie Izzard’s comparison of American and British films. I guess I just like the A Room With A View, “I’d better go, Yes I think you better had” sort of art, myself.

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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