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Jill George
Illuminating Darwin: Arabella's Light
Jill George, author

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

Young Arabella Buckley secures a coveted role as a literary assistant to the renowned geologist Sir Charles Lyell. As Arabella's scientific prowess grows, she captures the attention of the influential minds of her time, including the enigmatic Charles Darwin himself. Despite prevailing notions of female inferiority, Arabella's talents transcend gender barriers, forging a unique friendship and collaboration with Darwin. Together, they revolutionized the scientific world by translating Darwin's groundbreaking theories into captivating books that unravel the mysteries of science for all to understand. Yet, while her work life soars, Arabella's personal life is far from smooth sailing. A clandestine affair with a married doctor, a move to the countryside bringing unforeseen challenges, and a bitter rival all seek to undermine her life and her work. Undeterred, Arabella's resilience drives her forward after suffering profound losses Will she find the strength to discover herself, pioneer her own path, and complete her life's mission?
“May I ask a question about Origin, sirs?” asks Arabella Buckley, early in this inspired and inspiring novel from George (author of The Light Among Us.) Buckley’s interlocutors, Charles Darwin himself and the geologist Charles Lyell, consent to entertaining an inquiry from Buckley, the “literary secretary” of Lyell. Her question jolts them both: “How do we use the properties of natural selection to explain that which could be termed collaborative or sacrificial behavior of one creature towards another?” From there, Buckley is invited into a lifelong colloquy—and friendship—with these great minds of her age, minds that, eventually, she would do much to illuminate to the public. George’s novel imagines the life of one of the first great communicators of science, as Buckley writes clear, inviting books, literally, so. They invite the public—and children—to understand concepts like natural selection.

Of course, a woman in Victorian England venturing as a writer “into the gullet of science” stirred controversy. George crafts scenes of novelist Samuel Butler upbraiding Buckley (“You are a woman of no real education”) and of Buckley’s own mother suggesting that perhaps she should write under a pseudonym. (Touchingly, Buckley’s vicar father proves awed by his daughter’s correspondence with Darwin.) Throughout, George weaves history, fiction, and science into a compelling narrative, excerpting the real Buckley’s books and letters, while exploring her relationships (she’s fallen for an older, married doctor) and enthusiasm (her interest in spiritualism brings her to a marvelously described séance with a personal connection).

The novel’s drama, though, tends to be heady, the story of a woman engaging with ideas that are shaking the world—and finding a way to explicate and even in some ways clarify them. Buckley’s writings emphasize, as the initial question suggests, the collaborative aspects of natural selection. George, too, excels at illumination, conjuring Buckleys life in polished, appealing prose that moves quickly while honoring the Victorians’ plummy verbosity. Extensive backmatter is engaging. Readers who love science and trailblazing women will revel.

Takeaway:Stimulating novel of the woman who explained Darwin to the world.

Comparable Titles: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, Sara Sheridan’s The Fair Botanists.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A-
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A


A courageous Englishwoman in the 19th century pursues her love of sicence in George's historical novel based on the life of writer and educator Arabella Buckley...Although the dialogue and some of the situations are fictionalized, several characters are based on real historical figures, including Lyell (and, of course, Darwin).  The novel's main strength lies in George's ability to immerse the readers in 19th-century England with rich descriptions in natural, first-person narration...

An often compelling story that combines science, history, and defiance of societal norms.  

Received Kirkus Award & Accolade:  Get It Verdict