31 May 2018

Review: The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill

Hardcover, 374 pages
Published 2007 (originally 1924)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2017
Women's Suffrage Literature, Volume VI: The Call
by Edith Ayrton Zangwill
[B]old as it sounded, Professor Smee went on to say he was going to correct one of Sir William Leveridge's statements. Had they ever heard of the carter to whom another man said, "That there's a nice horse o' yourn. What be his name?" "His name?" the carter replied. "Why, he be a she and his name be Betsy." Now Sir William had spoken of a Mr. Winfield's work. "Like the carter," Professor Smee announced with a smile, "I say that this gentleman is a lady and his name is Miss Winfield. As Miss Winfield is here to-night, perhaps she will tell us something about her experiments." (23)
Ursula Winfield is 23 years old, upper middle class, and devoted to one thing: chemistry. The Call is a 1924 novel about a young female chemist, one who attends meetings of the Chemical Society, does experiments in a spare bedroom, and presents at meetings of the British Association despite pressure from her mother to marry and what we might now call "microaggressions" from her fellow (all male) scientists. It's a delightful novel-- the best part is when Ursula finally discovers a man to which she's attracted, and who is attracted to her. It's not all chemistry and romance, though: Ursula must also fend off the advances of an older, married scientist (in what Maroula Joannou has argued is a direct refutation of H. G. Wells's Ann Veronica), becomes a badass suffragette hunger-striker, and researches countermeasures to German chemical weaponry during the Great War.

Zangwill's mother was a physician, and the account of what it was like for a woman in science in the nineteen-aughts rings true for me; heck, it rings true with some elements of being a woman in science today. I don't know how many women of science there were in fiction in the 1920s, but in the nineteenth century they're an absolute rarity, and they're usually villains, too, so my continuing interest in the scientist in literature means I was very much fascinated by the depiction of Ursula here, especially as to how science interacted with her social and political lives. But it's not just academically interesting; it's got some good jokes and there's even a lab bench makeout scene!

One thing to definitely complain about: the book's original 1924 publication is an absolute rarity. Bookfinder identifies no copies for sale on the Internet, and Worldcat shows holdings in just eight libraries worldwide. I got it from interlibrary loan in a 2007 edition from Routledge, included as volume six of a reprint title called Women's Suffrage Literature. Only, for some reason, the six-volume set has a cover price of $1,850! And the book hasn't even been typset; it's just a (sometimes poor) facsimile of the 1924 edition. What the hell can that $308 per volume even be going toward? You could print-on-demand this thing for much, much less. Routledge really does take advantage of the academic library market.

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