Under The Microscope
London 1677. Ezzabell Chetwood supports her husband Ambrose by painting botanical specimens to support research he hopes to publish with the Royal Society, then in its infancy. To Ezzabell’s initial resentment, Ambrose finds a younger woman, Thomasin, to act as his wife’s companion at their home in Chelsea, then a rural area. The two women fall in love, Ambrose dies, and Ezzabell attempts to continue his work and manage her own finances, leaving her vulnerable to the underhanded dealings of resentful, powerful men and to accusations of witchcraft and unnatural practices.
Finney has great material and has researched her book thoroughly. Ezzabell’s associates Henry Oldenburg, Lady Ranelagh, and her brother Robert Boyne are historical figures. Some of Finney’s descriptions, for example of paints, dyes, and experiments, are extraordinarily vivid and detailed, although they do not always advance the plot and thus sometimes read as padding, slowing the pace.
It is a great pity that this book is marred throughout by grammatically incomplete sentences such as: ‘His agitation visibly growing.’ ‘His stubble grazing along my face.’ There is an attempt at a contemporary voice that comes across as labored and wordy (for instance, ‘our fondling interludes yet once more to be of harried execution’ and ‘no longer willing to be in dialogue’), jarring with more recent expressions like ‘plonked’. ‘May of’ appears in place of ‘may have’ and spelling howlers include flare for flair, whisp for wisp, faired for fared, alter for altar, and glutinous for gluttonous. The pace picks up towards the end with Ezzabell’s arrest and trial on a capital charge, but for this reader the battle through the undergrowth to get to that point was at times tiring.