I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.
This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.
Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.
And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.
The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.
And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.
Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.
Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.
We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”
Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)