Bi Book Club: The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics

By Siobhan Ball

December 12, 2020



Photo credit: Unsplash/ Nastya Dulhiier

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite is a bi/lesbian Regency romance featuring science, scandal, and a theme of rising hope.

Lucy Muchelny is a gifted astronomer in a period where women's scientific discoveries are mediated through their husbands and fathers, their contributions to their own work are dismissed as nothing but slight assistance and secretarial work. She's also a lesbian, heartbroken by the marriage of her ex-girlfriend to a childhood friend, and recently orphaned, with a brother completely uninterested in continuing her and their father's work. The situation becomes untenable when he announces his intention to sell the telescope and find her a husband, just before taking off for a painting holiday in the country. A chance letter from an old colleague of her father's, apparently unaware the old man is dead, leads Lucy to make the completely rash decision of taking off for London all alone, in the hopes that the famous Countess of Moth will take her on as a protégé, letting her continue her work and avoid the hell of 19th-century marriage all at once.

The Countess of Moth, daughter of a famous female naturalist and widow to another, married in haste, assuming her husband would show her the same love and respect that her father showed her mother. Instead, she got a tyrant who saw her as a secretary-cum-lab assistant, an emotional punching bag, and a source of funding for all of his horribly colonial missions of discovery. Forced to sell off her parents' estate and lower her ambitions more and more, Catherine found her husband's death both a relief and a disaster. Without Henry to dictate how her days should be, she had trouble working out how to fill them. Though she has taken a lover in the two years since her husband's death, she's discovered that men, even when you're not married to them, are far more trouble than they're worth, and spends most of her time with The Polite Science Society, living in Henry's unfairly beloved shadow.

When Lucy first turns up, letter in hand and wanting to bid for the Society's newest project, the English translation of a great astronomical work, Catherine is dubious but willing to house the younger woman and introduce her to the Society. However, when the men of the Society openly laugh at Lucy and grant the job to an under-qualified relation of a benefactor instead, Catherine is incensed, and filled with a resolve she hasn't felt in years. If the men of the Society think women can offer nothing of substance to science then she will give them exactly that, and withdraw her share of the funding for the project to finance a rival translation produced by Lucy.

What begins as a business partnership and tentative friendship slowly unfurls into a deep, warm, and powerful romance between the two women. Catherine is deeply scarred by her marriage and subsequent affair, and while she knows that as a woman Lucy lacks the social and legal powers to abuse her in the same ways, it still takes work to get past her reservations and trust another person on such an intimate level. Lucy has her own fears of abandonment and of losing control over her own life as a woman without independent means, and these fears combine to briefly drive a wedge between them. They resolve that wedge however and do so in a way that feels entirely real and emotionally authentic.

The book's thorough exploration of the ways that women were marginalized in both science and the arts, as well as the work Waite does to avoid presenting one discipline as superior to the other, is deeply satisfying. Beyond Lucy and Catherine's relationship the novel is also a love letter to women's creativity and intellect, and to the women who fought passionately to do their work and advance in their fields even when they knew they'd be written out of their own discoveries in the end. There's a bit of wish fulfillment in how successful Lucy and Catherine are at expanding accessibility and recognition for women, but that's hardly a bad thing, especially in a romance novel. Sometimes we all need the catharsis of seeing things come out right for a change, even if our inner cynic says it wouldn't happen that way in real life.

The visceral catharsis of several of Lucy's victories, as well as the vindication felt when she finds and makes lists of so many forgotten female scientists, is truly satisfying. Similarly, Lucy's validation of Catherine as an artist, and how it lets Catherine admit to herself that she doesn't actually care for science and that this isn't some moral failing on her part, is a gentle catharsis for anyone who was made to feel lesser, or even that they were betraying feminism somehow, for making the same choice. That it seems to let Lucy let go of her own, somewhat understandable, resentment of the arts is another lovely example of how the two women grow together and help each other grow.

In terms of bisexuality, Catherine is a delight. While Lucy has always been aware of her sexuality, Catherine's was subsumed under compulsory heterosexuality, and it's not until Lucy and their growing attraction to each other that she recognizes her desire for women as what it is— and that it's always been there simmering under the surface. There's a particularly delightful moment where Lucy realizes Catherine had been in love with another woman in the past, and that Catherine herself hadn't realized — a scene instantly recognizable to anyone who has later looked back on the intense same-gender friendships prior they had prior to coming out and wondered how on earth they didn't see this about themselves sooner.

The book isn't without its problems, however. While Waite did include two excellent characters of color she also made the baffling decision to make Catherine's lady's maid a woman of color without giving her a character arc of her own, existing in the book only to further her employer's interests. Similarly, while it was refreshing that Lucy's treacherous ex-lover wasn't the evil bisexual archetype who abandons her faithful lesbian for a man, Waite's characterization of Priscilla as shallow and treacherous for making a marriage of convenience in a time period where women had very little choice in the matter sits wrong. That Priscilla later proves to actually be shallow and treacherous for reasons other than her marriage doesn't do much to rectify this as it seems to place a survival decision on the same level as emotional abuse and actual infidelity. Despite this, The Lady's Guide To Celestial Mechanics is a truly amazing book and I can't wait to read the sequel.


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