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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Magic, science and history

I'm reading A Discovery of Witches: A Novel by Deborah Harkness ...

... historian of science and medicine, specializing in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries Harkness has published two works of history, John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature (1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007) .... Deborah Harkness is a professor of history at the University of Southern California.

I've just started the novel but like it so far. It begins in Oxford, at the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe ...

- Entrance to the Library, with the coats-of-arms of several Oxford colleges

... where the main character finds an old manuscript by celebrated English antiquary, politician, officer of arms, astrologer and student of alchemy, Elias Ashmole (of Ashmolean Museum fame).

Here's a bit from a review of the book in the Los Angeles Times ...

Deborah Harkness' 'A Discovery of Witches' started with airport bookstores

[...] "People believed that the supernatural and the natural existed, intermingled. We think of ourselves as having very little in common with people in 1558. And yet there were walls of this stuff. What if 16th century people were right, and the supernatural and natural coexisted? How would that play out? It started out almost like a kind of logic problem."

The result of her inquiry is her first novel, "A Discovery of Witches," which starts out in a contemporary England in which witches, vampires, daemons and humans fight for good light in Oxford University's libraries and even sometimes attend the same yoga class. Humans know about these creatures but keep their distance: There's an uneasy detente, with stereotypes, wariness and even bigotry in the mix.

But mostly, life goes on, until the novel's scholarly protagonist and primary narrator, Diana Bishop, comes across an elusive medieval document, long thought lost, which might hold the secrets of eternal life. And Diana attracts not only the attention of a host of pesky creatures but the dark eyes of a brilliant and terrifying vampire whose quiet charisma she works hard to resist.

The subject of intense interest by publishers worldwide at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, "A Discovery of Witches" is now, two months after publication, already in its seventh printing. Entertainment Weekly's Karen Valby calls it "a thoroughly grown-up novel packed with gorgeous historical detail" and "a gutsy, brainy heroine to match." It's also become a New York Times bestseller, debuting at No. 2.

And though comparison to Meyer's vampire novels and the misty-spired fantasy England of the Harry Potter books are inevitable, Harkness has not — for the last two decades or so — read much fiction written after the death of John Milton. Instead, the novel comes directly out of her work as a historian. She studies the transition from the superstitious Middle Ages to the rational, science-loving Enlightenment, which moved to banish the supernatural from its worldview. (Her novel's protagonist describes her era as "the age when astrology and witch-hunts yielded to Newton and universal laws.") ....


Anonymous David Smith said...


Beware of learning anything from fiction. Fiction's purpose is to entertain, not to get it right.


6:33 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi David,

It's just fun when fiction and non-fiction intersect. My college boyfriend used to talk about the Bodleian Library after he spent a summer in Oxford, so it's interesting to read about it in fiction. Of course, when he described it, there weren't any vampires in the stacks, as tere are in this novel :)

6:58 PM  
Anonymous David Smith said...




7:08 PM  
Anonymous Paul Martin said...

"We think of ourselves as having very little in common with people in 1558."

I'm often struck by the opposite - how much we have in common with them, the recent rapture craze being an example.

7:05 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

I think we do have most everything in common with past people -- all the basic human stuff.

10:25 PM  
Anonymous ynotawoody said...

Should one be so inclined to look for common threads in the writings of All Souls College alumni. One might gain a better understanding of the colleges ideological underpinnings. Don't we just love a good mystery?

9:11 PM  

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