On Starlit Seas is Sara Sheridan's fictionalised account of the journey from Brazil to London made by celebrated writer and historian Maria Graham. The novel opens with Maria working on an equation to measure earthquakes - an equation that male scientists of the day would ignore entirely (purely because she was a woman).
But this story is not the main part of the novel. Maria is on the way to deliver her manuscripts to her publisher John Murray in London and finds passage on the Bittersweet, captained by Captain Henderson, who is involved in smuggling chocolate. Chocolate is a very important part of this novel and plays a role in Maria and the Captain's developing friendship
'[Henderson] talked about cacao, describing its outlandish appearance, the cracking of the pods when they were ripe, and how the beans might be roasted and winnowed, the nibs removed. Maria fetched her sketches from the Brazilian Highlands and..... they pored over them as he identified the wild and cultivated cacao and she showed him the most unusual flowers she had come across during her stay.'
Will Maria be able to help Henderson become more of a gentleman and a more honest trader? Will she let their growing love win out over the obvious unsuitability of their match? Will Maria's work ever become accepted by the male scientists and writers of the day?
Maria Graham is a woman of significant achievements who we should know more about and one of the great things about this book is the (fictionalised) light it shines onto her life. The novel is an excellent evocation of a time when it was difficult for women to break into the men's worlds of adventure, literature and science. It's also an adventure story and a beautifully told tale of impossible love held back by the complicated etiquette of the day.
Last week I went along to hear Sara talk about this book with Gail Brydon from Just Be Botanicals at the National Library of Scotland. It was fascinating to hear Sara talk about some of the background to the book and how she used the John Murray archives at the library in her research. The book features chocolate so there was a chance after the reading to sample some of the Just Be Botanical chocolate range!
On Starlit Seas by Sara Sheridan published by Black and White Publishing.
You may also be interested in my review of Sara's earlier novel The Secret Mandarin which I posted here.