Priya Sharma’s “After Mary” is set in the mid-1800s and is the story a scientist with dreams of greatness who lives alone in his country house with only his assistant, Isobel, and servant Myles. Then his friend comes to the house and leaves a copy of Frankenstein, which changes everything.
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“Isobel, it’s vital that you stay in your room today,” Daniel tells me.
Myles looms over me once Daniel’s gone.
“You heard him,” he growls. Myles hates that I call the master Daniel. “I’ll beat you if I so much as catch a glimpse of you.”
Myles is nervous. He’s cleaned the dining room and fussed about what to cook for weeks. Visitors are rare.
I can’t help myself, despite Myles’ threat. On hearing the horse’s hooves clattering into the yard, I ran up here to the laboratory and hid behind the screen where I can peep out between the panels. An hour passes and I nearly doze off when there’s the rush of excited feet on the stairs and the pair of them burst in.
“Your own laboratory! It’s marvellous.”
Daniel puffs up with pride. John Hastings features large in Daniel’s reminiscences of university life.
“Fournier’s Whirligig! This must have cost you a fortune.” John leans down to inspect the delicate weights and counterweights, the arm that whirls when the machine’s in motion. Vials can be attached to each end, their glass pinched at the waist to create dual chambers. The arm spins so fast that they becomes a blur.
“There are only five in the whole of Europe.” Daniel doesn’t mention the arguments with Myles over the expense of this mechanical marvel.
My Lord, Myles had said, we need to repair the roof before winter.
Don’t bother me with such trifles. Just do as you’re told. Sell off more land, if need be.
I listen as Daniel and John debate the latest papers from London.
“I’ve missed you.” Daniel claps a hand on John’s shoulder.
“And I you.” John stops at the cabinet where Daniel keeps the raw materials for his work in gleaming glassware, each jar bearing a neat label.
“A baby’s shoe? What are you working on?”
“I need its essence.”
I inventoried this collection. A flask of withered flowers, a tarnished war medal, a curl of hair tied with ribbon and suchlike.
“What’s all this for?”
“I promise that I’ll tell you once I get some results. It’s something important.”
John Hastings stares at a wedding ring as he rattles it around in its container. Daniel doesn’t seem to notice that John doesn’t look so impressed anymore.
“And you, John? What now that you have your degree?”
John Hastings tucks his thumbs in his pockets.
“I’ve been appointed Professor Meisen’s assistant.”
“Congratulations.” Daniel sounds pained.
“Come back with me and we’ll petition the university to readmit you.”
“We could try. Say you’d seen the errors of your ways.” Hasty, misjudged words.
“My work’s beyond their narrow minds.”
“Your flaw is that you always question your betters. It will limit your advancement.”
“And you never question them, which will curtail yours.”
John refuses to rise to the jibe.
“You’re brilliant, Daniel, a genius but you know how these men are. They don’t want to be surpassed by their students. A little humility will help you rise. Let them temper your passion with reason. There are limits to science.”
“I’ll not be limited.”
“I must be frank or I’d be no true friend. I’m worried about you. These random things that you call ‘materials,’” he waves at the cabinet. “You neglect your duties. You are fortunate to have Myles, but he’s a single servant. He can’t manage to keep a house like this in order. And you both look half-starved.”
“My work requires financing. It takes sacrifice to be great.”
“And a dose of good English commonsense. You must run your estate so that it generates an income. You have a duty to your tenants.”
“Who’s a milliner’s son to lecture me about my responsibilities?”
“I’m no lord, but I will be a good friend to you and not take offence. I speak from concern.” John takes a package from his pocket and hands it to Daniel. “I thought of you when I read this.”
Daniel unwraps the volume and reads the title, “Frankenstein.”
“It’s a novel by Mary Shelley.”
“I’ve no time for fiction by women.”
“Mary Shelley has a daring, radical mind. It’s a cautionary tale about the responsibility of science that you’d do well to heed.”
Daniel tosses the book onto the desk. “I plan on changing the world. You’ll regret your doubt. You’re no longer welcome here.”
“Come now, shake my hand. I don’t want us to part like this.”
Daniel’s hands stay by his sides. “Get yourself gone.”
They both leave, one not looking at the other. John’s pale and Daniel’s colour is high, as it always is when he’s in a rage. Once their footfall has receded I put the book in my pocket.
“I’ve brought you some food.”
I put the tray down beside Daniel. John Hastings was right. He’s more gaunt than I had noticed before.
“Porridge and cold beef?”
He laughs and laughs. A rare sight. He stops to wipe the tears from his eyes.
“Oh, Isobel,” he says and starts to laugh again.
I’m pleased that I’ve made him happy, if only for a moment.
“He’s taken Titan’s saddle to be mended.”
Titan hates me. When I try to stroke him, he bucks and kicks and won’t let me near.
Myles doesn’t like me either.
“Isobel, why did you do this?” Daniel points to the flask in front of him.
It’s usual for me to set up his experiments. He’s curious rather than cross. His brown eyes are tinged with green.
“To filter out the sediment.”
“What did you use?”
“Four layers of boiled muslin. Was that wrong?”
“No, it’s excellent. You’re a great help.” He gets up and goes to the window. “I’m not making progress though. Perhaps I should ask Bremmen to readmit me.”
“Where is Bremmen?”
“Across the sea.”
“That far?” I would look it up in the atlas except it’s been sold. “Would I come, too?”
“Good God, no. Women aren’t permitted.” His voice fades. He’s going somewhere I can’t follow. “If only I could make this work.”
“Perhaps I’d be taken seriously in Paris.”
I don’t know where that is either or if women are allowed. I must be cunning if I’m to keep him.
“No one will understand the magnitude of your ambitions”
He looks at me as if seeing me afresh. It gives me hope. I press on, “No one understands you.” No one but me. “And why share the glory?”
“You have faith. I’d do well to follow your example. If this works I’ll be as powerful as God. I’ll hold the secret that moves the universe.”
Invigorated, Daniel seizes me by the waist and swings me around. I feel weightless.
“Oh, Isobel, you’re a treasure.”
I’m flying, as if I’m attached to the whirligig, separating out into my component parts. I feel the pressure of Daniel’s hands on me, long after he’s gone.
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