038 - The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics
Lucy Mulcheney just watched her lover marry a man. And she didn’t even spare her a glance during the entire ceremony. Now her brother is threatening to sell their father’s telescope because it’s not like people hire female astronomers. Just when she’s not sure what to do with her life, she notices a letter from the Countess of Moth who needs assistance. Lucy takes her chances in London, finding Catherine St. Day is not only an attractive woman but also a staunch supporter of Lucy and her work. Working on a new astronomy translation though is not all that’s in the cards. They need to fight the misogyny of the scientific community and explore the attraction that arises between them. Come explore the world through the eyes of Olivia Waite in “ The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics.” **A constellation of SPOILERS**
Support the show and pick up your copy of The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite, here!
Want to listen to a certain segment? Here is our outline this week:
0:00 - 11:04: Intro/Author/History Facts
11:04 - 12:08: Tropes
12:08 - 41:29: Synopsis
41:29 - 44:22: Parlour
44:22 - 01:07:03: General Discussion
Learn more about all the events that The Big Gay Fiction Podcast is putting on for Pride Month by visiting their website, here!
We are now including our synopses as a semi-transcription of the episode in our blog posts. You can learn more about how we compose these by reading this article. As a reminder though, our synopses are FULL of spoilers. Read ahead at your own risk :)
The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics Synopsis
Lucy Muchelney, the daughter of recently deceased Astronomer Albert Muchelney, is currently at the wedding of her former lover Priscilla.
While this would be a sad day no matter what, the day is an extra break in Lucy’s heart because Pris never even told her she was getting married. Lucy found out when the banns were read at church.
When she confronted Pris about the new banns she got a very clinical answer about not wanting to end up alone.
You aren’t alone. You have me.” “I know,” Pris said, “but Lucy, I can’t marry you. My grandmother’s trust only becomes mine upon marriage. I have to think about how I am going to live.”
As she sits in the church watching the ceremony, Lucy is looking for any hint that Pris is as heartbroken as she is, but Pris never even looks her way, despite her being in the front row.
Lucy’s life is further complicated when she arrives home from the wedding with her brother telling her they should just sell their father’s telescope. Despite the fact that Lucy had played a major part in all of their father’s major calculations in the last few years.
The late Albert Muchelney might have been the name best known to the world, but it was his daughter’s gift for mathematics that had fleshed out his astronomical theories with positive proof.
Completely at a loss of what to do without Pris and with her brother threatening to take away her ability for astronomical research, Lucy comes across a letter from the Countess of Moth.
The Countess of Moth was an avid correspondent with Lucy’s father on behalf of her astronomer husband. They had traveled all around the world, sending data sheets collected on their travels to Lucy and her father to add into their calculations. However, since her husband’s death, the need for correspondence had also died.
The letter contains her condolences and asks if Lucy might have any recommendations on who would be willing to undertake the challenge of translating the first Volume in M. Oleron’s Mechanique celeste into English.
Lucy at first is disappointed to have missed the opportunity to be involved with an undertaking of such magnitude. Afterall she knows the importance of Oleron’s work.
But the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes that she is in fact the best person to undertake the task. Afterall she worked closely with her father for years. She understands and can compute the maths. Plus, she happens to be fluent in French.
Lucy was going to translate Oléron. If she could persuade the countess to agree to it.
In London, Catherine St. Day is trying to figure out what to do with her time. She feels she needs some kind of vocation. While she may have traveled the world with her husband, she was most cast in the role of secretary and general helpmate. Their marriage was not the happiest, as George’s main passion was trying to make a name for himself in the field of Astronomy. This passion took them around the world on his quest but he could be volatile if he felt Catherine was not helping him as she should.
Really, she was so glad not to have to be a wife anymore. She just wished the duties required of a widow were a little more clear-cut, that’s all. It was doing her no good to linger at the crossroads. She wanted to be moving; she just didn’t know which path was the correct one.
Enter Lucy, who has placed herself on Catherine’s doorstep and is requesting her to put her name forward with the Polite Science Society who is financing the translation of Oleron for their fellows.
Catherine is hesitant to offer Lucy her support. Afterall Lucy is untried in this type of environment. And while she knows there are women who help the men of the society, no woman has been at the forefront of a project.
Lucy seeing this tells her if she will not help her, she’ll go to the President of the Society and speak to him directly.
Now Catherine sees something in Lucy she is very familiar with, the girl is ambitious.
You couldn’t reason with ambition. All you could do was moderate the damage it did. Try to get ahead of it, imagine problems before they started, smooth out the road for the impractical person with their gaze on the heavens.
So seeing this trend, Catherine relents and allows Lucy to stay with her until the society meets for dinner at the end of the week. She will present Lucy as a candidate there but Lucy should be prepared for everyone to question her aptitude for the position.
In the meantime Lucy and Catherine take up residence together and both women are intrigued by the other. Lucy has always known she’s preferred women to men. Her brother Stephen is an artist, and therefore she has met men and women who prefer their own gender.
Catherine on the other hand has only felt similarly once, and has always repressed that line of thought. Afterall she was married for over a dozen years and always remained faithful to her husband. Even after he stopped sharing his bed with her.
Catherine is also very cautious of Lucy because she is very similar to her late husband and he let ambition for greatness in the sciences rule his life. He was more often than not unpleasant and that has made Catherine much more apprehensive about being involved with someone of a similar bent.
Catherine is having lots of internal dialogue and Lucy is beginning her translation of Oleron to bring to the dinner. It is just at its beginning stages but Lucy does not feel right about it. It needs something more. Looking at Catherine, Lucy has an inspiration.
Her project crystallized in an instant: Lucy wasn’t going to merely translate Oléron’s words from French into English. She was going to make Oléron’s importance apparent to everyone, astronomers and amateurs alike. She was going to write an introduction to astronomy for Lady Moth.
She believes that the discord and distrust in Catherine to Lucy as an astronomer stems from her lack of understanding on the subject. Since this work is meant to be a complete work of astronomy to date, it makes sense to have the translation not only be for scholars who can understand the maths but also for it to be for anyone who wishes to know and understand the subject.
The night of the dinner comes and everything is going well until it is time for them to name those who are to undertake the translation. One is Mr. Frampton, a brilliant mathematician, who was brought in by Mr. Hawley, the president of the society. His mother was from Santa Dominica (need to double check that) and so it seems there is some type of progressive attitude at the table.
The other is Mr. Wilby, the nephew of another prominent member of the club. He hasn’t done really anything and you immediately know he’s not going to be helpful in this book. He is there and will always be there based on his family, not on his own merits.
Catherine is at the dinner because she is putting up half the money for the translation. She’s hoping this will give Lucy the added weight in her favor.
Now as you can imagine when Catherine puts Lucy forward, it is immediately scoffed but it is then taken further. Mr. Wilby says truly the most awful thing (as a scientist - barf), which we’re including because you need to be as offended by the patriarchal nonsense as we were. Quote:
Mr. Wilby leaned forward. “But let us go about it scientifically,” he said, his expression eager as a puppy on a new scent. “We must start not with assumptions, but with the fundamental questions. Several points need to be clearly determined at the outset: first, whether women are capable of astronomy; second, whether they would offer any particular benefit to astronomy; third, whether astronomy would be of any use or benefit to women; fourth, whether it would harm the needs of mankind to encourage women to put their efforts toward the sciences rather than the continuation of the species.” Mr. Chattenden nodded. “That is a proper scientific line of enquiry, Mr. Wilby.” Aunt Kelmarsh looked nauseated. Miss Muchelney reeled back as though she’d been slapped.
When Catherine protests that Mr. Wilby is questioning far more than Lucy’s qualifications for doing the translation, we are hit with this gem by the president himself.
“My dear countess: you must know you are being unreasonable.” While Catherine choked on shock and outrage, he turned to Miss Muchelney, putting a hand on her wrist and gripping it with earnest entreaty. “Please do not think I disparage your eagerness to help, my dear girl—it is only that as men of science, we must uphold certain standards if our work is to be accorded its proper value in the community. You understand, of course.”
After this Catherine as calm and collected as can be informs the entire dinner that due to this opinion of the society, she is withdrawing her financial support. She and Lucy leave with dignity but once they reach the carriage Catherine shows her fury.
“I had expected them to grapple with you about mathematical formulas or how you interpreted your French verb tenses. They have those sorts of arguments constantly. I thought they might question your expertise, yes. I never thought they might question your existence!”
Catherine then tells Lucy that she will finance her translation and take over all printing costs herself. This just means they better do it quickly in order to make sure that it is done before the society finishes their translation.
For two weeks Lucy diligently begins her translation. Catherine and she are “orbiting each other like a double star” so not a whole lot happens.
However, once Lucy finishes the Introduction, she asks Catherine to take a look. Explaining that she expanded the text so that anyone who was interested would be able to understand a bit of the more complex theories.
Catherine thinks the idea is very kind but once she starts reading, she is amazed. Lucy has managed to open up the world to her in a way she never knew possible. And her earlier, more intimate, thoughts regarding Lucy return fully.
Falling in love with a genius was a daunting thought. At once, Catherine brought herself to heel. Nobody had said anything about love. And anyway Lucy didn’t want a lover.
After this revelation, Lucy and Catherine receive an invitation to have tea with Aunt Kelmarsh. A great friend of Catherine’s mother and also a witness to that awful society dinner.
At tea, Catherine finds out a fact of life she has missed during her childhood. Aunt Kelmarsh was her mother’s lover. She had married, twice, but in between Catherine’s mother claimed her heart.
So Catherine now has time to think about the fact that women can, in fact, fall in love with other women. And she also decides she wishes to pursue this with Lucy, who she knows has had a female lover in the past.
Catherine was going to have to go about this carefully. One step at a time. Inviting, rather than pursuing. Always leaving Lucy the chance to retreat, or reject. It would sting, but that was nothing. Catherine valued Lucy’s freedom in this as much as her own. I want more; I understand if you don’t.
Lucy on the other hand has been entertaining these thoughts and knows that Catherine is not quiet there yet.
It ought to have been agonizing, living and working in close quarters alongside a woman so beautiful and yet so unattainable. But Lucy’s heart, newly mended, was prepared to bask in any sensation that was not the sharp pain of loss—so unrequited fascination for her benefactress came not as a trial, but rather as a pleasurable seasoning to any day’s difficult work.
Now Catherine is really skilled at embroidery. In fact, she often sits in the library with Lucy and just embroiders while Lucy works.
To begin her idea of pursuing Lucy, she sets out to make her a beautiful shawl. It is themed around the universe and features comets and tiny glass beaded stars.
She gives it to Lucy and Lucy is amazed at the gift. She asks Catherine about her skill and she informs her that her mother taught her much of what she knows.
This conversation, the viewing of a sampler book, and a page that reminds Lucy of things seen and said at Aunt Kelmarsh’s house turns a light switch on for Lucy. Is Catherine trying to seduce her?
So she asks Catherine if she can kiss her. “Please” is the response.
Instant chemistry my friends! However, Lucy knows this is new territory for Catherine so leaves it at that.
At dinner, Lucy wears her new shawl and Catherine is inspired and courageous. She invites Lucy to view her own embroidery sampler. It’s in her room.
The sampler is beautiful and chronicles all of Catherine’s trips abroad. Lucy is amazed and they speak a little more about what it is they are pursuing. Lucy kisses Catherine again but when she takes it a step further, Catherine seems shocked and not in a good way.
“It wasn’t too fast for me—but perhaps it was too fast for you?” Catherine fought to loosen the tangled knots of her feelings, then huffed in frustration. “I don’t know.” Lucy took Catherine’s hands, gently rubbing them between her own. “Then we stop.”
And they do stop. Lucy tells Catherine they can go at whatever pace she prefers. There is no right or wrong.
Lucy is diligent in taking it slow. Even when she gets Catherine down to her chemise and stockings, it takes two more nights to get everything off.
However, once they are skin to skin, there is no more slowing down. And we have encounter number 1, with both ladies getting their orgasm.
A bit later, the ladies end up at tea with Mr. Frampton. Turns out that he has parted ways with Mr. Wilby and is no longer working on the translation. Mr. Wilby’s uncle took up the mantle of financing the thing after Catherine pulled her funds, so Mr. Hawley sided with Mr. Wilby in all matters of interpretation. That was the final straw for Frampton.
After hearing this news Lucy is furious on Mr. Frampton’s behalf.
Lucy managed to keep her temper until Mr. Frampton had departed, whereupon she set down her teacup with a vicious click and began pacing the length of the parlor. “How dare Mr. Hawley presume to know what’s best for everyone!” she cried. “How dare he think that science should be limited by his own stunted imagination!”
This is also a boon because it means that the society translation will be late, meaning Lucy can easily get hers published first.
Catherine and Lucy later attend the Royal Art Exhibition in order to meet up with Lucy’s brother and his friends. While there Stephen tells Catherine that he would love for Lucy to marry is friend Peter Violet. Catherine is a bit taken aback. Part of the reason she liked the idea of getting involved with Lucy was that Lucy could not marry her. (Her late husband really ruined her to the whole institution) She never imagined that Lucy might choose to marry and leave her.
Luckily they do discuss this concern and Lucy simply stats:
“Why would I go anywhere?” she whispered, her mouth hot against Catherine’s temple. “Everything I want is right here, because you are here.”
This leads us to encounter number 2.
The next day they go to Griffin’s to talk to them about publishing the translation. They see Mrs. Griffin and talk business with her husband. Turns out Catherine is a shrewd negotiator and makes sure Lucy will see a good portion of any profits from the book.
Lucy then solves a household problem by suggesting to Catherine Eliza (the butler’s daughter) be sent to the publisher for an apprenticeship since she excels at drawing and it would be a better future for her.
Shortly after their trip to Griffin’s, Lucy gets a note from Mr. Hawley asking her to tea. Both ladies hope it is for an apology but assume there is a catch.
There is. Lucy goes for tea and after receiving a lukewarm apology is asked to come help Mr. Wilby with the translation. Or more accurately have the society publish her translation and they’ll put Wilby’s name on it. Oh and she will not be invited to be a member of the society.
Lucy walks out saying if Mr. Hawley wishes to give her a fellowship, he knows where to reach her.
When she returns to Catherine, she tells the whole story. Catherine was very anxious to hear how it all went and is proud that Lucy was able to stand her ground. This also leads to a heartfelt I love you from both women.
Finally the time has come and Lucy’s translation of mechanic celeste has debuted. To great success! It is the talk of the town.
Because Lucy opted to sign it L. Muchelney, it is a great scandal when it comes out she is a woman. How does this information come out? Why her very helpful brother of course!
Stephen had sold the world a false image of Lucy, and he had done it for money and fame. And so the wider world learned that L. Muchelney was a woman, and an unmarried one at that.
Now people do not shun her work, but it does cause a lot of drama so she and Catherine opt to visit her home in Lyme for a month and get away from it all.
The trip to Lyme is very restorative but it does bring about one little hitch. Catherine meets Pris and instead of reassuring her of Lucy’s affections, it does give her a bit of pause.
The biggests takeaway is that Lucy urges Catherine to think of herself as an artist. Her embroidery is an art in and of itself. Catherine should embrace it. Catherine takes this to heart and then says maybe she should approach Griffin’s about a pattern book. She inferred that they could use something original.
After a month and Lyme, the pair return to London and begin life again. Catherine is putting together sketches for a pattern book and Lucy is becoming a bit more independent.
Some of those noble scions who’d approved Lucy’s book had not minded to learn it was the work of a woman, and had issued invitations to tea or to certain interesting lectures around the city—so Lucy was growing a small social circle of her own in town, quite separate from the gentleman naturalists, eccentrics, and dilettantes who made up the bulk of the Society’s ranks.
The wrench comes in the form of Stephen Mulcheney. He comes to apologize to Lucy. He realizes he was being an ass and should not have shown the portrait. He was just thinking about the money, in part to help his sister not be at the mercy of others. Having a patron is a necessity but there are also inherent problems to the relationship.
“The worst patrons—they prey on desperation,” her brother said. “Your safety lies in being able to walk away.”
And while Lucy does not think Catherine is this type of person, it does give her something to mull over.
Catherine senese this change in Lucy but is unsure where it came from. Is she losing Lucy?
This worry is then exacerbated by the fact that Pris writes to Lucy saying they should meet for tea, since she’s in London for a short time.
Catherine accidentally opened the letter. She had been opening letters from unknown persons to weed out hate mail and forgot that Pris’s married name was Winlock.
However, she realizes her error immediately but still reads the letter.
Now she is convinced Lucy will go back to Pris. Lucy does not help anything by reading the letter and telling Catherine that Pris had written in code to express her love.
This is where our lovers challenge comes in. They cannot get married. There is no assurance that the other person has to stay.
You could never sit back and let the official pieces of paper do the work for you, oh no: you had to choose the other person over and over again, every time. What’s worse, you had to trust them to choose you. It was horribly frightening—as though you started every day by reminding your heart to keep beating.
Lucy tells Catherine that she is going to meet with Pris, to nip her hopes in the bud. However, Catherine is not sure if this is the outcome and steels herself for the fact that Lucy will be leaving her house with her former lover.
While Lucy is meeting with Pris, Catherine goes to Griffin’s to present her pattern book. It is met with great success and they are even interested in some of the more “fantastical” sketches.
Catherine is floored:
She ought to have paid more attention to her own self before now. She ought to have allowed herself to want things.
However, wanting led to one thing she never expected
She hadn’t quite known how, until Lucy. But she’d wanted Lucy, and wanting Lucy had led to wanting everything else.
On the other side of town, Lucy is busy telling Pris that she is through with her. Pris is not taking it. She does not like to be thwarted.
However, Lucy is adamant that what they had is over and she has moved on.
When Catherine returns she is relieved to see Lucy has not left, but the unsaid words between them are driving them apart.
WHY CAN’T PEOPLE JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER!?!?
Lucy tries to talk about it but it’s a poor job and they basically break up.
“I value my choices,” Lucy countered. “And I value people who respect them. Stephen never did, Pris never did —nobody, really.” She stopped, and turned to face the countess. “Until you. You trusted me to find my own way, even if where I was going didn’t look likely or even possible to get to.” Something warm trickled in and washed away some of the hurt. “And now you’re forging a new path of your own. Different from mine.”
Lucy leaves for the night to go to a lecture on after this basic breakup when something causes a stir.
While she walking to her friend Mr. Edwards’s lab, she notices a bunch of people smirking and whispering behind her back.
It turns out Mr. Wilby, endorsed by Mr. Hawley, has published an opinion piece on how Lucy has just signed her name to her father’s work.
She is outraged but Mr. Frampton (the guy who walked out on the translation - he’s an ally) tells her he’s been in communication with Oleron and believes there is a way out of this mess.
He’s convinced Mr. Hawley to invite Lucy and Oleron to the annual Society Symposium to debate the translation.
Lucy is shocked and very concerned by Mr. Frampton believes it will all work out. He has a hunch but it’s too early to tell her more
He sighed. “If I am right, it puts Oléron in a position that is at best awkward, at worst horribly vulnerable, with respect to the Society. They’ve already done most of the harm they can to you—I am trying to help correct that, without opening anyone else up to similar abuse. It is a very fine line to have to walk, I admit.”
Lucy heads back to Catherine’s place and she is on a mission. A mission to look for all the female scientists the society has pushed aside for decades.
Catherine, hearing the noise in the library goes to investigate.
She finds Lucy who tells her about the Mr. Wilby’s letter, Mr. Frampton’s supposed solution, and her discovery that women have been trying to be recognized by the Polite Society in their archives.
“I remember what you wrote,” Catherine said. “Nothing in the universe stands alone. Everything is connected— in real, mathematical, provable ways—across the span of the entire cosmos. As long as we live, we influence one another. You and these women you’ve rediscovered . . . but also you and me.
Yes. This is what reunites our lovers together. And it does indeed lead to make up sex and encounter #3.
Okay the last bit of the book goes quickly.
Lucy spends the months leading to the symposium studying everything Oleron speaks about in the mechanic celeste.
Catherine reaches out to find every living woman who was dismissed by the society and to discover what they are doing.
The night of Symposium arrives. Lucy and Catherine arrive at the venue to find Mr. Frampton with a dark skinned lady. Genevieve Marie Oleron.
Lucy checks her own bias for a second.
she was flooded with chagrin at one simple, telling fact: the possibility of Oléron being anything other than a white-skinned man had quite simply not occurred to her
Dinner commences and then the debate happens. Mr. Hawley is forced to introduce a woman who was granted honorary status as fellow in the membership (obviously before they knew she was a woman)
Lucy stands her ground and is even floored when it turns out that Oleron found an error in her own work after reading Lucy’s translation.
Lucy’s work is vindicated and after the “debate” she meets again with Mr. Hawley who asks a very important question.
“Do you intend to put your name forward for Fellowship in the Society?” Lucy nodded, holding his gaze. “Will I have your support?” “My dear girl,” Mr. Hawley began in his usual chastising tone, then seemed to catch himself. “You will,” he said instead. His lips twisted up, but when his eyes met hers again, his gaze was clear and steady. “Though I may argue against many of your conclusions.” “Have I ever demanded you shouldn’t?” Lucy countered.
The next day, Lucy is still running off the high of the night before. However there is a looming question, what is she going to do next?
Catherine has the answer. But it means the two of them will be tied together permanently.
After contacting all the women who were looked over by the polite society and noting that many of them are still pursuing their line of study, she proposes they do scientific publishings to show the world what these women do. Griffin’s will do the publishing but Catherine and Lucy will be the ones putting it together.
For once, Lucy wasn’t the one crying—because she was too blissfully, incredibly happy to cry. “Catherine,” she breathed. “Ask me truly.” Catherine looked up, her face shining with hope and love and joy. “I am asking you to stay with me for the rest of our lives. I am asking you to join me in making this world a better place, insofar as we are able. We cannot stand up in a church and make vows—but we can stand up, publicly, and declare that we are important. Together.”