Illuminating Darwin

Arabella's Light

Fiction - Historical - Personage
348 Pages
Reviewed on 08/12/2023
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Author Biography

Jill George is a historical researcher focused on rebalancing history via woman’s successes from Victorian Britain and the men who supported them. Their stories inspire us to t find the light that exists in us all.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Illuminating Darwin: Arabella’s Light by Jill George is a fascinating insight into one of the unsung heroes of early scientific investigation in the mid-19th century. Arabella Buckley was not your typical vicar’s daughter; she was forthright, headstrong, and full of a desire to explore the natural world. As with all young women of the time, attending a university was out of the question. But Arabella read voraciously and was constantly poring over the latest literary output from some of the great scientists of the time. Arabella was determined to defy her mother and not marry, as all good vicars daughters should. This was more because she was secretly in love with someone who was forbidden fruit. When she was offered a position as literary assistant to the great geologist Sir Charles Lyell, she jumped at the chance. She began her career by rubbing shoulders with and actively assisting and promoting the works of some of the greatest scientists of the day.

Jill George had a fantastic character to work with in Arabella, and she did an amazing job of bringing Arabella to life for readers. She beautifully highlighted her successes and triumphs, as well as her bitter disappointments and, at times, extreme sadness, especially as her peers and loved ones passed on, leaving her alone to struggle. I particularly appreciated the realism of the political and scientific debate between the participants in this story. When Darwin first postulated the theories of evolution, there was vehement opposition to his claims, and this was best summed up by the character of Samuel Butler, Arabella's nemesis, who not only disputed Darwin’s theories but also couldn’t believe Arabella had received the opportunities she had without having committed immoral behavior. Thankfully, Arabella proved him very wrong by dint of her life’s achievements. I loved this well-researched book and can highly recommend it.

Shrabastee Chakraborty

Are you familiar with the works of, have read the theories of, or at least heard about, Charles Darwin? If I pose this question to any audience, the answer will likely be a unanimous yes. But if I ask whether someone has heard of Arabella Buckley, how many can answer in the affirmative? Starting her career as a literary assistant to Sir Charles Lyell, she later collaborated with Darwin. She authored many papers and books, conveying scientific facts with unique eloquence. Her works are legendary in disseminating scientific knowledge. Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light by Jill George is Arabella’s story.

The first impressive aspect of the novel was its delicate cadence that spoke of an earlier time. George perfectly captured the social dynamics of that period. Women’s journey in academia has always been difficult, the reasons varying from an utter lack of exposure to an erroneous assumption about their inferior acumen. In Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light, George carefully explored these aspects, highlighting a world-renowned scientist’s dilemma while acknowledging his staunchest supporter simply because she was a woman. I admired Arabella for her never-ending passion for science and writing. Her intellect, tact, and determination were commendable, and she had the kindest heart. I loved how she remained undaunted and pursued her life’s work despite facing numerous obstacles. As she juggled her passion, duties, and personal affairs, I found her to be the most inspiring character. I loved that George’s fluent storytelling made this book not merely a memoir but a wholesome novel, despite being largely based on facts with few fictionalized events. As a woman researcher of STEM, I applaud Jill George for introducing me to Arabella Buckley, one of the often-unsung heroes of biology.

Jamie Michele

Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light by Jill George tells the fictional story of Arabella Buckley, a real-life scientist, teacher, and literary assistant in Victorian England. In her twenties, Arabella is hired by Scottish scientist Sir Charles Lyell, who is known for his groundbreaking theories on climate change, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Through her own thoughts and ideas, Arabella becomes a close friend and colleague of Charles Darwin, making her the only professional female friend in his life. The book explores Arabella's personal and professional growth as she transitions from a writing assistant to an author who presents scientific ideas in accessible language. It also delves into her unique approach to romantic relationships. Jill George's organic dialogue, narrative, and attention to finer details bring Arabella's story to life.

Illuminating Darwin by Jill George personally resonated with me as an American living in England. Having walked past Sir Charles Lyell's former house and explored the gardens of Charles Darwin's family home, Down House, which is less than ten minutes from where I live, I felt a connection to Arabella's journey. While I don't share her background as a clergyman's daughter, my own father, when asked what his religion was, answered that he was an academic. Hers was a tough road and she navigated it with the persistence of a true intellect. George's storytelling skills transform Arabella from a mere character into an authentic individual. Arabella's unconventional love life, though magnetic, doesn't overshadow her remarkable achievements in George's approach. I appreciated how George balanced both aspects. This beautifully written novel by a talented author captures the essence of a brilliant mind.

K.C. Finn

Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light is a work of fiction in the historical drama, interpersonal drama, and scientific history subgenres. It is suitable for the general reading audience and was penned by author Jill George. Based on the real historical events and life of Arabella Buckley, this novelization takes us through the incredible story of a mentally gifted vicar’s daughter who becomes one of Charles Darwin’s greatest champions and a scientist and writer in her own right. But being a woman of science in Victorian England is no mean feat, and Arabella’s personal life is fraught with struggle as a result. The novel delivers an incredible life story filled with jealousy, heartache, and authenticity at all costs.

Author Jill George uncovers and celebrates a fantastic and inspiring figure in this intimate and heartfelt portrayal of Arabella Buckley’s life and works. One of the features I especially enjoyed about this novel was its balance between uplifting the historical attitude toward women at the time and the modern sensibility of how incredible Arabella was with her trailblazing attitude and determination. I found the way that the novel winds around the narratives of other prominent historical figures of the time to be especially engaging, giving us glimpses of the likes of Butler, Darwin, Lyell, and other “great men” of science, but also the endless teams of supporters and assistants without whom they would have achieved very little. Overall, Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light is a highly recommended read for its intricate historical detail and celebratory ethos, as well as being a fantastic piece of personal drama.

Asher Syed

Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light by Jill George is a historical fiction novel revolving around Arabella Buckley, a twenty-four-year-old vicar's daughter who secures a position as a literary assistant to renowned geologist Charles Lyell in 1840s London. Despite prevailing beliefs that women are inferior, Buckley impresses influential scientists like Charles Darwin with her scientific abilities. Their friendship blossoms into collaboration as Buckley writes books popularizing Darwin's groundbreaking theories. She overcomes societal challenges and becomes a prominent scientific writer, promoting the acceptance of evolution and natural selection. However, Buckley faces personal struggles, including a complicated love affair and interference from critics. Despite these obstacles, she persists, publishing numerous scientific books, and championing the importance of science for over three decades.

Somewhere behind me in the spaces I cannot physically see, after reading Illuminating Darwin by Jill George, I can hear my mother-in-law whispering about there always being “a woman behind the man.” Darwin had his own ideas and theories and I'm not going to try to assert that they were not entirely his own, but what is evident is that the research and recording did come down to the dedication and strength of conviction and character of other people. In this case, it is Arabella Buckley and, through Darwin's own musings in George's novel, he clearly reflects on his appreciation for his wife, Emma, and acknowledges the valuable assistance of women in his work. I love that Arabella has a mind and will of her own despite the confines of the time, and this extends to her love life. Her respect for Darwin is clear when she is discussing views on women in science, and expressing her intention to support and influence Darwin's future endeavors, even when he is being threatened by those who oppose him. George writes Arabella as a likable woman who is not perfect but has no intention of being anyone but herself. Through excellent writing and thought-provoking dialogue, Arabella's own story is illuminated. Very highly recommended.