Hiding in Plain Sight – Marie Benedict’s Her Hidden Genius
BY KATE BRAITHWAITE
Marie Benedict is keeping a list. It’s a list of historical women whose stories deserve to be told, and the latest to step out into the limelight courtesy of Benedict’s fictional talents is scientist Rosalind Franklin. Franklin, born in London in 1920, studied natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge, and became a research chemist and expert X-ray crystallographer.
“I’d been aware of Rosalind Franklin,” Benedict explains, “and thought I knew something of her struggles and her legacy; certainly she was on my list. But then, when my dear friend who is an ER physician read the important book The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, she gained a new understanding of the importance of Rosalind’s scientific work in the scope of genetics overall as well as the sacrifice she made to do that crucial research — and shared that with me. Suddenly Rosalind’s story became much more nuanced and critical that I’d previously understood, and now, with her later research on viruses and RNA serving as such an important foundation for our modern-day understanding of COVID and the preparation of vaccines, I am so glad I chose her.”
The resulting novel, Her Hidden Genius (Sourcebooks, January 2022), blends fascinating science with biographical insight—no easy feat to pull off. “I am not a scientist,” says Benedict. “As with my books about several other historical female scientists—such as Mileva Maric Einstein and Hedy Lamarr—I try to immerse myself in the historical underpinnings of the science of that time. In the case of Her Hidden Genius, I was also fortunate in that I have a brilliant, dear friend with a doctorate in chemistry who gave it a read for me to make sure I got it generally right.”
As much as Her Hidden Genius is a story of a remarkable woman and scientist, it’s also a testament to the challenges Franklin faced as a woman in the 20th century. Her contributions to the world of DNA research, for example, went unrecognized during her lifetime, and it’s due to the men around her that Franklin was largely missing from accepted history, even while, in Benedict’s words, “hiding in plain sight.”
She explains, “I found myself to have mixed feelings about the men in the novel, who are all fictional depictions, of course. On one hand, Rosalind had to contend with Maurice Wilkins and James Watson, who were powerful and upsetting forces in her life, and on the other, she had wonderfully supportive men in her life, such as her assistant Raymond Gosling at King’s College and her incredible team at Birkbeck College, particularly Aaron Klug. That said, even some of the men with whom Rosalind struggled seem to have changed over time, and she was able to establish positive relationships with them—such as Francis Crick and even James Watson to some extent—and I tried to capture that as well.”
It’s Benedict’s hope that readers of Her Hidden Genius will not only understand Rosalind Franklin’s role in current advances in genetics, but also reconsider the way they perceive women everywhere. “I think the allure of biographical fiction is that it allows the reader to follow the main characters into their thoughts and into those areas of their lives that a biography cannot follow. And, because it is indeed fiction—even if it’s grounded in historical research—the reader sometimes comes away with a fuller sense of the characters’ lives. Even if it is the author’s version of those lives.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently, The Girl Puzzle, a story of Nellie Bly and is a US editor for the Historical Novels Review.