Goodness this was the most boring and plotless book I've read in such a long while. The beginning was rather intriguing with Dawnay (a nameless street urchin to begin with) losing her brother to press-ganging sailors and finding herself in an orphanage. Sadly, the story continues at a snail's pace as we have to sit and listen to Dawnay telling us about every single little thing she does at the orphanage, most of which could be conveyed in one sentence alone; I felt as if they author was treating me as being a little ignorant at this point. If the book had begun 70 pages in, with the use of flashbacks or conversations to Dawnay's past, perhaps it could have found itself more.
The writing style was also rather cumbersome. I do dislike first person narrative rather intensely, so perhaps this has clouded my judgement slightly, but Dawnay's tone of voice never changes throughout her life, despite it starting when she is approximately three years old. She is always so intelligent and curious and hot-headed, from childhood to adulthood and it never changes. It's also written in an odd sort of present tense, which made it feel too distant for me to really get a grip on the (very slim) happenings. There is an attempt to write in the old style, but I can't help but think it would have been rather beautiful if written in third-person past tense. Having said that, writing is nothing but experimentation and I cannot fault the author for trying. If we did not try where would we be?
I actually found the plot to be eventually quite interesting. However, for only three or so pages was there anything particularly adventurous happening, wherein previously we were simply being relayed certain things and feelings by Dawnay, and none of it worth particularly anything at all. It is simply a following of her life and though there is a possibility of it becoming great, it only ends in something as mundane as her narrative.
The caves that Dawnay finds were thought-provoking, as was the fact that she was determined to be a female scientist in a time when this was utterly (but not completely) unheard of. However, the constant barrage of reminders of how ill-treated women were in this time was so utterly demoralising and Dawnay's inability to even pretend to be an Elizabethan woman made the whole book disjointed. I also wish to speak of the ending, because I found it to be utterly infuriating. Dawnay becomes an accidental mother and a make-shift wife and instead of pursuing her dreams of being perhaps the first female scientist to make an exceptional contribution to the world she retires to a quiet place to work quietly. I find this kind of Feminist approach extremely upsetting, because there is an underlying tone that women are mothers and wives first and everything else second. This is utterly banal and I dislike it intensely: woman are mothers and everything else all at once and the fact that she did not push her findings to be published in her own name (or even under a male pseudonym?) was completely detrimental to the whole tone and point of the novel. All her life Dawnay had been pushing the boundaries set down by men and women as to what women can and cannot do and when the time comes for her to be something exceptional she backs out. I found that to be entirely contradictory and, in a word, pathetic.
I lost all respect I may have gained for Dawnay at that point.
The rest of the characters felt only as that: characters for Dawnay to interact with. Without them her life would probably have turned out exactly the same. I cannot fathom the point of the book as, as a historical novel, it barely represents anything extraordinary that we do not already know. As a book for escapism there was little world-building and, although it isn't difficult to imagine the caves and 18th Century England that Dawnay traverses, there is little else to spark the imagination further.
There are some references to books in the comments at the end that helped shape the book and they seemed interesting as further reading, but I cannot find anything else positive to speak of.