In 2017, when Hilary Mantel was midway through her Wolf Hall trilogy, she remarked that “historical fiction comes out of greed for experience. Violent curiosity drives us on, takes us far from our time, far from our shore, and often beyond our compass.” Anyone venturing into Andrea Barrett’s fictional project of the past thirty years will recognize this greed in her work, a restlessness coursing beneath her assured and unruffled prose. Over four short story collections—beginning with Ship Fever (1996), which won the National Book Award—and two historical novels, Barrett has rootled through nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, pre–World War I tuberculosis treatments, fossil and specimen hunting, typhoid and the Irish famine, early aviation, women in science, and the endlessly rich provinces of scientific discovery and rivalry.
Once Barrett fastens on a subject, she tends to return to it in later stories, creating a web of recurrent characters and surprising narrative links. An orphan of the Irish famine, Ned, from the novella “Ship Fever,” returns as a ship’s cook in The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), for example, and eventually shapes an American life for himself in the story “The Cure,” from Servants of the Map (2002). Barrett’s stories advance plotlines from earlier work, but not always in chronological order. She seems to move intuitively through her fictional world, turning to whichever character or situation has built up the most psychic energy. Adored figures drop away, perhaps forever. But then a half-forgotten name surfaces, a puzzle is solved. These “quiet linkages,” as she has called them, feel like running into a friend by chance on the street, and give a sense that the characters’ lives continue between books. This museum comes alive at night.
Barrett’s new book, Natural History, is more tightly focused than earlier collections, a cycle consisting of five stories and a novella set mostly in one village in upstate New York from the 1860s to the present, among the members of a few families. Several familiar characters return, including the “present-day” Rose Marburg, a former scientist encountered in stories in Ship Fever and Servants of the Map, allowing us to trace the reverberations of earlier events and choices. For the first time, Barrett has included family trees in an appendix, diagramming the ways her many characters connect over generations.
Natural History could as aptly be called Henrietta’s Book, since the first three stories expand on the life of an indefatigable amateur naturalist and small-town high school science teacher named Henrietta Atkins, who previously appeared in “The Investigators” and “The Island,” collected in Barrett’s last book, Archangel (2013). Born before the Civil War and surviving into the Prohibition era—Barrett is often fuzzy on death dates, perhaps to leave her options open for later revival—Henrietta outgrows an awkward, pinched girlhood, receives a scholarship for teacher training at Oswego, and returns home to Crooked Lake to embark on an inspired four-decade teaching career. In a stranger’s eyes, she’s merely “slim and brisk,” but one of her students describes her as “the person who’d taught him who he was.”
Crooked Lake—a cluster of houses and wineries beside a Y-shaped lake, with a sprinkling of optimistic light industry, such as an early “aeroplane” factory—is modeled on Hammondsport in central New York State; Barrett used the town’s real name in earlier books. In the world of her fiction, powerful winery families, such as the Durands, control the area, though their influence seems mostly benign. (Later, when the wineries begin to close, housing developments eat up the surrounding woods and farmland.) Considering the religious revivals of the early to mid-nineteenth century that had so recently swept through the region, one might expect religion to feature heavily in town life, but it is barely mentioned except as an inward struggle toward accepting Darwin’s theories of natural selection. In Henrietta’s day, the village has an irrepressible inventive energy: the younger generation at the wineries responds to Prohibition by devising at-home winemaking kits to sell (a legal loophole).
This archetypal American setting (recalling Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, Faulkner’s Jefferson, Mississippi) is large and undefined enough to easily generate new characters and connections but small enough that most residents can be invited to the Durands’ holiday open house.
Only a few neighbors are mildly scandalized by Henrietta trapping moths at night for her Young Lepidopterists Club or tucking her skirt into her belt to wade into a pond in search of the blind cave fish she has stocked there as part of her own experiment. (Henrietta’s skirts “betrayed deep and unladylike pockets inserted along the seams.”) She publishes her findings in horticultural bulletins and elsewhere—today we might call her a “citizen scientist”—but much of her collecting and cataloging is on behalf of her flashier friend Daphne Bannister, who writes field guides for middle-class, often female readers newly hungry for natural history. (Less glamorously, under a pen name, Daphne also writes cookbooks that help pay her bills.)
Henrietta is so driven to learn, to collect, to teach that she has room for only a single powerful romantic dalliance on an island holiday, as recounted in the opening story, “Wonders of the Shore.” Afterward, she remains unmarried by choice, a beloved oddball aunt to her sister’s five daughters and a mentor to three generations of Crooked Lake youth. Had she been born a hundred years later, like her great-great-niece Rose Marburg, she would have had more opportunities, but Rose (as we later learn) abandons a successful university research career for a quieter life like Henrietta’s, teaching in Crooked Lake.
Barrett’s real quarry is the inner world—Henrietta’s avid, practical mind, for example, the way she rarely reflects on her renunciation of love and marriage—rather than a crystalline reconstruction of the past. But she uses just enough of the conventions of historical fiction to transport us convincingly back in time. It matters more to her that a female character has only one good dress than where the hemline falls. (A single warped ladies’ boot from the 1840s resurfaces playfully in several stories, redolent of childhood memories, of loss, or of tenacious survival, depending on the context.)
Barrett favors characters with at least one foot in the sciences, often naturalists or researchers, but also doctors, adventurers, herbal healers, and an unheralded array of female illustrators, collectors, popularizers, schoolteachers, devoted sisters and wives, and amateurs who advance the work of male scientists. Great names arise—especially Darwin and, in stories set in the early twentieth century, Einstein. Both men fractured the scientific world; Barrett’s characters have to grasp their theories, pick a side, contend with the radical changes they wrought. Although she sometimes brings in historical figures as characters, she favors the little-known—or fallen idols, like Linnaeus in old age, after a series of strokes, in the story “The English Pupil,” from Ship Fever: “His mind, which had once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly.”
Henrietta embodies the sunlit aspect of Barrett’s naturalist/explorer characters, as opposed to the embittered wretches who sometimes appear in her work, like the thwarted scholar-naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells in The Voyage of the Narwhal or the downtrodden young geneticist Sam Cornelius in a story in Archangel, who burns with jealousy of his mentor’s other apprentice. Perhaps because they take opposition for granted, Barrett’s women tend not to stew in their grievances. They need money and some degree of independence and they get on with it. Rarely are they rescued by marriage.
Barrett was raised on Cape Cod in what she has called “a very unintellectual” family—her father would chase her outside if he spotted her reading—and earned a biology degree from Union College in Schenectady, New York. She made a panicked retreat from a graduate zoology program, realizing she was too shy and inexperienced to teach, and went on to study medieval history.* A variety of unrelated jobs followed, some of which, like her stint at a box factory, have worked their way into her books. She wrote four accomplished realistic novels before venturing into historical fiction. Continuities can be found: her debut, Lucid Stars (1988), for example, features a young woman obsessed with astronomy, whose unplanned pregnancy and early marriage more or less cork her ambitions, which are then uncorked in midlife. The protagonist of The Middle Kingdom (1991) marries a lake ecologist and helps with his research.
From anyone else, these books would not read as apprentice work. (Barrett has joked that the main difference between them and her historical fiction is that she has readers now.) But the early novels use language differently and reach for different effects. Her fourth novel, The Forms of Water (1993)—which centers on a spontaneous road trip back to the site of family land in Massachusetts intentionally submerged in the 1930s during construction of a reservoir—tacks, not always successfully, between emotional tones, at one point recounting the horrific wartime memories of an American monk in China before returning to chatty, semi-comic present-day scenes, stuffed with detail. We know what everyone at the lunch table orders.
By contrast, the more distant past offers something of a dreamscape for Barrett. She moves through it with deliberation, probing each possibility. Nothing feels rushed or accidental. She strips back dialogue and figurative language in favor of a languid flow that manages to embody the sensibilities of the past without imitating Victorian prose. A little Jamesian qualification is given parenthetically, sometimes, or a Woolfian aside, e.g., “Daphne, across the hall, crackled the page of a book just enough to signal that she was awake if Henrietta wanted to talk, but busy if Henrietta needed her privacy.” This measured prose carries Barrett into multiple minds and breaks open for occasional lyric flights.
“Wonders of the Shore” opens with apparent simplicity: a brief description of an old book by that name, published in 1889: “Coiled snails frame the ‘Wonder’ while sea anemones frame the ‘Shore.’ Actually it is attractive, in a sober, subtle way. Someone labored over that design.” The book’s author is Daphne Bannister; in her preface, she thanks, among others, Celia Thaxter and Miss Henrietta Atkins. We are told that Celia Thaxter (an actual historical figure—a poet of the period) is “easy to trace,” but the denizens of Crooked Lake know Daphne mostly as “Henrietta’s friend.” The transition to Henrietta’s story is so swift and organic—a mere nudge from the present to the 1880s—that the reader could easily miss the two transitional lines that establish the frame and, perhaps, the narrator: “One of Henrietta’s relatives, Rose Marburg, inherited the book, but for a long time Rose didn’t look at it.” Then Rose disappears for 150 pages.
When she returns, in the title novella at the end of the book, we learn she has been writing about her great-great-aunt Henrietta. But writing what? Writing the stories in Natural History? The frame—startling so late in the book—effectively creates a double narrative. We revisit what we know of lovable, yearning Henrietta, the impressions we formed on first reading “Wonders of the Shore” and the other Henrietta stories, now refracted through Rose’s stories, Rose’s yearning.
“The Regimental History,” an account of Henrietta’s Civil War childhood, is also about the raw materials of history: the preservation or loss of papers, or their agonizing brevity or vagueness. Eyewitness accounts conflict, or are not written down in time. Memories blur with retelling. Lies become codified. Ten-year-old Henrietta babysits for the Deverell family; Mr. Deverell’s brothers, Vic and Izzy, are with the Union Army in Virginia, and Henrietta used to help organize their letters as they arrived, trying to establish a calendar so the family could trace the regiment’s movements. Vic’s terse letters are no good, but Izzy’s are richly descriptive, and he begins to take shape in her mind. She sometimes serves as scribe for Mr. Deverell, whose hands are tired by his long days in the family pottery. When Izzy notices the unfamiliar pencil script in his brother’s letter, he sends a greeting—“Hello to you, if you are reading this!”—sparking a crush in Henrietta. After a long silence, conflicting news arrives. Are the men alive or dead? The most recent letter seems positive: Izzy is in the hospital.
Neighbors who’d come by to offer the Deverells condolences (Henrietta retreated when they came, she took Bernard and went out back, behind the kiln and the stacks of wood, where she made him a little doll with a walnut for a head and willow twigs for limbs) left with the news of this miracle: Izzy’s survival meant that not one of their own had died during what, as the weeks passed, they were told had been a terrible defeat.
In this packed but somehow not overcrowded sentence, we get an atmospheric glimpse of a vanished era—the wood fires and improvised toys of Henrietta’s childhood—and a sense of Henrietta’s kindness and quick thinking, but also of the rumors and fears afflicting the villagers in the absence of reliable news. Maimed survivors eventually wander home. Worse follows—published accounts that paint the local men as cowards: “to make the men from other units sound better, as if they weren’t running as well.” The veterans pin their hopes of redemption on a regimental history that fails to materialize—or, rather, remains only material, only crumbling papers and relics and conflicting bulletins gathered in mouse-specked boxes at the Avoca Town Library. Decades later, when a veteran’s sister devises a narrative from these papers, will it bear much resemblance to their memories?
In a 2015 essay in Agni, Barrett explored Woolf’s influence on her work, especially what she learned through successive readings of The Years (1937) at different stages of her development as a writer. Barrett’s most Woolf-influenced story is probably “Rare Bird,” from Ship Fever, in which two curious, educated Englishwomen of the mid-eighteenth century discover their affinity and escape together from a society that has no use for their minds. It suggests Chloe and Olivia from the imaginary novel of female friendship, discovered by the narrator of A Room of One’s Own (“Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together”) and even evokes the magical winter scenes of Orlando set amid the Great Frost of 1608–1609, a historical event during which Londoners set up a Frost Fair on the frozen Thames, skating and eating pies until the ice broke and swept people away. The friends in “Rare Bird” meet each other for the first time on London Bridge, watching floes course past below. For them, the breaking ice brings a new world.
But Barrett doesn’t mention this story or any of her several thematic borrowings from Woolf. What most strikes her is that she and Woolf have grappled with the same problem:
Is it possible to write subtle, allusive fiction set in the past in which history is not merely backdrop—in which the characters retain the full complexity of their inner lives and aren’t forced to act simply as witnesses to key events, and in which plots predetermined by the incidents of history don’t overwhelm considerations of language and form?
From Woolf, Barrett learned the art of omission, especially the time skips and intuitive leaps that allow her to drop any thread that doesn’t serve her story and nimbly pick it up later. This movement also mimics human thought, darting between memory and immediate perception—another bequest from Woolf.
“Natural History,” an elegiac novella about female friendship, is set mostly in August 2018 but reaches back over the previous fifty years; it is one of Barrett’s most complex stories, and has a valedictory quality, suggesting a farewell to Henrietta and to certain strands of the Crooked Lake stories. A wide enough gap exists between earlier stories of Henrietta’s generation and the sad, motherless childhood of Rose and Bianca Marburg in the 1960s that stories about the sisters can sometimes feel only loosely attached to the larger chronicle. They move into different emotional terrain. But “Natural History” presents a dizzying set of parallels with earlier stories and relationships.
At the beginning, Rose Marburg reunites at her forest cabin with her old friend Deirdre Banks, a scientist nearing the end of a distinguished career investigating the protein ubiquitin. Deirdre has come to the nearby Silver Lake Gathering, an annual event for biochemists, to be honored. Thirty years have passed since her last visit to Silver Lake with Rose:
Each time a different topic but always amazing talks, wild arguments, unexpected collaborations springing up among researchers sprawled on the large flat rock beside the lake or playing badminton poorly.
When they were young, Rose reflects, observers might have bet on her rather than Deirdre, but Rose abruptly left the laboratory in her mid-twenties, just as she was achieving recognition, to teach high school science in Crooked Lake and to write about women in science, including her ancestor, Henrietta Atkins. “When I started teaching,” Rose recalls,
standing in classrooms where Henrietta herself had stood while diagramming a bat or a bee, I had sometimes felt myself dissolving in a way that delighted me. Me, my sister, my mother; her mother and father and their parents; my mother’s aunts and their aunt; the friends and neighbors and lovers and enemies of all those people, over so many years. Little molecules combining, as needed, into something larger, separating again when the tasks were complete.
There could hardly be a more succinct statement of Barrett’s artistic intentions.
Rose stayed at the high school for twenty-five years, and when it closed, she moved to her cabin to live, though she maintained a self-imposed exile from Silver Lake. Deirdre talks her into returning, at least to visit—an awkward evening that nonetheless leads Rose to think again about her switchback path through life. When Deirdre leaves, Rose returns to her biography of Henrietta, suddenly able to see the buried connections between Henrietta and herself: “It seems I only tell the truth when I’m talking about someone else.”
This recalls the book’s epigraph, from Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House: “There were some advantages about being a writer of histories. The desk was a shelter one could hide behind, it was a hole one could creep into.” Rose decides to write a version of her story—hers and Deirdre’s—and slips into a fictionalized tale of Rosalind and Dee, leaving the reader to ricochet between mirrors. Which parts of Rose’s story are “true” within Barrett’s fictional world, and how do they illuminate what we think we know?
Aside from a few experiments with alternating point of view and the first-person plural, Barrett tends not to complicate her fiction with unusual techniques. Something about Rose seems to elicit shifting perspectives and narrative doubt, though. She is the Crooked Lake character whose life choices—fleeing a career in science to eventually become a writer—parallel Barrett’s own to some extent; her uncertainties about her own motives may reflect the author’s. (“The desk was a shelter one could hide behind.”) But sending a wobble through the final pages of a book is also a way of not ending it. As Barrett seems to remind us, the story could always be told differently.
She did go back to teaching, though: she has taught for many years in the MFA writing program at Warren Wilson College, in Asheville, North Carolina, and has coedited two books with Peter Turchi, the former director of the program: The Story Behind the Story (2004) and A Kite in the Wind (2011). ↩