The fisherman sidled up to her on the quay. ‘You’re Miss Hutchins, the plant lady from Ballylickey.’
A Quiet Tide, the debut novel by Marianne Lee, takes us back in time to the early 1800s, immersing us in an intimate and compelling fictionalised account of the life of Ellen Hutchins, Ireland’s first female botanist.
After leaving boarding school, the young Ellen spends a short but transformative period of her life living in Dublin with an old friend of her brother Emanuel’s, Dr Stokes, and his family. A kind and learned man, Dr Stokes is the one who ignites and encourages her interest in botany. While on a family outing, Ellen surprises Dr Stokes by collecting some flowers that turn out to be rare and of interest; he is impressed, and her interest is piqued.
While living in Dublin, Ellen also meets her cousin Tom Taylor, a charismatic and carefree character. They immediately build up a rapport based on a common interest in botany, which swiftly develops into an easy and lively sense of companionship. Tom is to have a profound effect on her life, both emotionally and in terms of her growth as a botanist.
Just as her life is becoming rife with possibility, her older brother decides that she must return to the once grand family home in Ballylickey, a remote and rugged but beautiful coastal area in Bantry Bay, West Cork.
Although disappointed at her flourishing life in Dublin being cut short, she dutifully agrees, and returns home to take care of her ageing mother Leonora, and brother Jack, who is left unable to walk following an accident. Familial duty is a theme explored throughout the novel, something imposed by her older brother and Ellen herself, rather than those she is caring for; but as one door closes, another opens. With great determination, Ellen sets about continuing her investigation into the world of botany; and what may have begun as an unexpectedly pleasant educational passtime in Dublin becomes an obsession and life’s calling, galvanised by the richness of the botanical treasures she begins to uncover growing around her homeland.
As Ellen explores the world of plants, Lee explores the complexities contained within family histories, dynamics, duties, loyalties and betrayals. Despite, or perhaps because of, the obstacles she faces, Lee’s Ellen emerges as a quietly formidable woman, as humble as she is tenacious, as dutiful to her family as she is committed to her discoveries.
When writing historical fiction, based on a real life, the writer’s task is to combine the facts available with their creative palette; from this, they must paint a portrayal of the character rich enough to enthrall the reader, and breathe life into the story. Lee does this beautifully with her imagining of Ellen. At times demure and dutiful, as would have been expected of a woman of her time and class; at times witty and full of spirit; and at times revealing a passion instinctively pulsating from within her. Lee’s Ellen is a compelling figure, someone we warm to very quickly; we feel for her, and we feel with her.
As the novel progresses, we get rich insights into her questioning nature, and her search for meaning in life. We sense that a latent depth and strength of character begins to awaken in Dubin, and rises to full flame once exposed to this beautiful coastal area, itself pulsating with life.
She might have once described herself as placid, or passive; this had been only a kind of suspension, a preserving of energy. When necessary she could be single minded, as the green spikes that poked through the soil after months in the dark.
After the initial disappointment of having to leave Dublin, she sets out with great initiative to make something of her life in Ballylickey; carving out her role in the running of the big house, making efforts to reach out to the locals, pursuing with fervour her botanical endeavours out in nature and in her study, creating a garden of interesting and useful plants, and reviving an old boat to use on her excursions. This is a woman driven by a compulsion to make her own way.
A fierce energy had overcome her; so unrelenting, she feared it might consume her entirely.
The novel constantly reminds us how this was a time when women were expected to know their place; to have no ambition beyond marrying. We see various perspectives of women at the time; from her old mother, who quietly raised her large family in the grand rural home; to Dr Stokes’ wife Louise, who lives a busy, traditional family life in the city, but is assertive, presented almost as Dr Stokes’ equal in terms of family decisions; and Caroline, Ellen’s young school friend, who follows a traditional path, quietly marrying an older man, and assuming a dutiful life. Ellen stands in stark contrast to all these. Rather than defying expectations of the time, she doesn’t let them limit her; when her life doesn’t go this way, she looks elsewhere for fulfillment and meaning.
In one of her frank conversations with Tom, she contemplates how women have concerns that don’t affect men.
‘A woman, once judged to have acted immodestly or improperly, has no way back. Her reputation is fragile.’
Despite the general view of the time, this account surrounds Ellen with several male presences who are supportive, believe in her, and want to see her do well; from the father figure Dr Stokes to the dynamic Tom, with whom she has some beautifully profound conversations, and moments poised on the brink of tenderness. She also strikes up a wonderful exchange of letters with fellow botanists James Mackay Townsend and Dawson Turner, who introduce her to further men working in the field, all of whom will help to spread her name within the academic world. Even her own brother Jack, after some initial misgivings, seems to be won over and impressed. A passage where Jack gives her permission to have her name published in a botanical journal, crediting a discovery to her, is a pivotal moment in terms of her beginning to believe that her contributions to the world of botany could become meaningful, and recognised beyond a small circle. Yet, despite this circle of support, we still feel the inescapable limitations of the time, imposed by her gender. The fact permission is even sought is a reminder of what women of ambition at the time faced.
It’s clear Lee has gone to great lengths in her research of Ellen’s life, and of the time and places she lived. Aside from the abundance of scientific names for Ellen’s discoveries, Lee seems to take delight in detailed descriptions of interiors, descriptions of landscape, and daily urban scenes of the time. Sense of place in the novel is all important; Ellen becomes intrinsically linked to, and fueled by, this small corner of the world; there are even passages where she assimilates herself to the plants she is foraging. This same place is also embedded in her family history, and will be the cause of her family’s greatest troubles. Lee uses certain phrases and expressions which draw us back in time; she also makes reference to politics and class divisions of the time, which primarily serve as triggers to allow us further insight into the workings of Ellen’s inner mind, exploring her responses to these. Despite the historical context, Lee’s Ellen faces, and works through, her troubles in a way which could be contemporary; a woman ahead of her time, surrounded by certain men perhaps also ahead of their time.
Real letters written by Ellen, which remain accessible today, would have been one of the elements in Lee’s palette of facts, helping her to get a sense of what kind of person Ellen would have been. Letter writing would have been a way for botanists of the time to share and disseminate information, discoveries and illustrations; but the letters here gain significance beyond transmission of information; they become an outlet for Ellen’s rich and teeming inner life, which doesn’t find much reception in the isolation of Ballylickey. Ellen’s exchange of letters with Dawson, in particular, reaches a level of frankness, of trust and of intimacy. While the story largely focuses on Ellen’s narrative, we do also see through the eyes of other characters. Our omniscient narrator gives us great insights into Dawson’s family life over in England, and his own inner struggles; perhaps to emphasise the family life that Ellen might have experienced, but also to show us how her short life affected those around her in ways she probably never knew. Dawson values their exchange of letters greatly, and his reflections allow us a glimpse of Ellen through another’s eyes.
She must be practical, of the earth, literally, demonstrated by the sheer quantity of plant samples she continued to send. No delicate flower, she who grubbed around beaches, in tree roots, rock pools. Yet the poetry in her descriptions of plants elevated her beyond a mere forager. The heated prose of her letters suggested a woman of passion, of exceptional fervour and intellect.
A recurring theme in the novel is the sense of missed opportunities; for a relationship, for travel that would have furthered her investigations, for a boat trip with some visiting academics that would have allowed her to display her knowledge, and introduce her discoveries in their natural habitat. Family duties, her gender, and her health all conspire against her. Throughout her life, she is subject to ill health; once home in Ballylickey, there are times when she is too ill to go out, and her botanical pursuits have to be paused; her endeavours are characterised by an ebb and flow, like the water which she is so drawn to, and which plays such an important role in her pursuits. Even when she is unwell and cannot leave the house, her microscope is her key back out into the world. The microscope takes something tiny and facilitates a detailed view of it; just as this tiny part of the world in rural Ireland is blanketed by the microscope of Ellen’s observation, revealing its richness and diversity to she who seeks it out.
This is a beautifully layered novel, so fluidly written, shining a light on one formidable woman’s journey; quiet and contemplative yet determined and passionate, tied to family yet full of desire, and a yearning to soar. The ending is perfectly poignant and poetic. This was a novel that really stayed with me, that I thought about often once I had finished it. It should appeal widely; to people interested in historical fiction, in women who make waves, in the power of nature to inspire, in novels with psychological depth, and in stories with real heart.
A Quiet Tide (May 2020) is available directly from publishers New Island, or by supporting your local bookstore.
This is Marianne Lee’s first novel. Lee, from Co. Offaly, Ireland, has a degree in Visual Communications from the National College of Art and Design, an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, she works as a designer and copywriter, has published a selection of poetry, has self-recorded an album of music, sings Bach and paints landscapes; a rich creative background which no doubt contributes to her approach in writing prose.
Further information on the fascinating Ellen Hutchins can be found at this website dedicated to her legacy.