Author Profile: Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel is a writer of popular science books, and also play/s as well. I first came across her work, believe it or not, through TV. Some years ago, I came across a TV movie/drama called Longitude, starring Sir Micheal Gambon (Dumbledore the second 🙂 ) and Jeremy Irons, based on the development of the marine chronometer, which revolutionised navigation on the seas, since for the first time, sailors could calculate the longitude with some degree of certainty. I really enjoyed the programme (the subject and how it was made), and looking it up, I realised this was a book (based on one, that is). And some time later, when I bought the book and read it, I loved it.


The book tells us the story of John Harrison, a self-educated carpenter and clock-maker who invented the marine chronometer. Apart from the struggles that Harrison faced in perfecting his instrument, a process that took him many years, the book also tells of how he had to also struggle with the Board of Longitude, particularly Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, astronomer royal, to prove the merit of his invention and claim the prize offered for the resolution of the problem. This of course, did leave me with a fairly negative opinion about Rev. Nevil Makelyne, which only changed to something more positive when I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

John Harrison and Rev. Nevil Maskelyne

Source: (Harrison) By Philippe Joseph Tassaert (1732-1803)After Thomas King († circa 1796 date QS:P,+1796-00-00T00:00:00Z/9,P1480,Q5727902) [1767 painting] ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; (Maskelyne)By Edward Scriven, 1775-1841, printer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, having liked the book so much, I began to look into the author and her other works. Born in 1947, Sobel was a freelance science writer and columnist with several publications (including Harvard Magazine, Science Digest, and the New Yorker) for over two decades, and turned full time author of books after the publication and success of Longitude. To date, she has authored seven books (plus the Illustrated Longitude), of which I’ve read two and have a third waiting on my TBR. All her books deal with science or science-related themes, exploring them from the point of view of people connected with it (or people connected with people connected with it), and sometimes particular incidents/events that influenced in a sense, history (not just of science).

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel


And that brings me to the book by her I picked up next, A More Perfect Heaven. This one is all about Nicholas Copernicus and his theory that revolutionised our understanding of the universe, that is heliocentrism or that it is the sun that is the centre of our planetary system. This book doesn’t as such deal with how he came to his finding, but instead with the German mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus who travelled to Poland, met Copernicus and somehow convinced him to publish his theory. The book is also different from Longitude in the sense that it is written in three parts, the second of which is in the form of a play in two acts that tries to imagine the time the Rheticus spent there, before taking us back into discussing the aftermath of this event, the publication of Copernicus’ book, its different versions, and impact. The play I think has also been published separately but I’m not sure whether this has anything in addition to what appears in the book.



The Bloomsbury ed (that I have) and a Close-up of Copernicus

Source for the Portrait: By Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

sun stood still.jpg

This was another book that I really enjoyed so I decided to look up yet another of her books, published before this one, Galileo’s Daughter. This one is all about Galileo of course, but also about his relationship with his daughter, Maria Celeste who has taken the veil, based in the over a hundred surviving letters that Maria Celeste wrote to her father (which were published separately in Letters to Father, translated and annotated by Sobel). The book takes us between their two contrasting lives and the world that they lived in. This one I only acquired a copy of sometime ago and it is waiting to be read. Complete with pictures and diagrams, this is looking to be a fascinating read, as Longitude was, and as was A More Perfect Heaven.

Image source (Maria Celeste): Wellcome Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her other books include The Planets (2006), which paints a portrait of the solar system using various sources, from mythology to history, fiction, and poetry. This covers all “nine” planets, before poor Pluto got the axe. And her latest work, The Glass Universe (2016),somewhat on the lines of Hidden Figures, tells of the women who worked in Harvard College Observatory between the late 1800s and early 1900s, taken on for their ability to work carefully, and at lower pay than their male counterparts.


While I haven’t read very many of Sobel’s books so far, I have really enjoyed the ones that I did read, and am  really looking forward to reading more. For any reader who enjoys history, history of science, or popular science, you are sure to enjoy one or more of her writings.

Have you read any of her books? Which one/ones and what did you think of them? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources: Goodreads/ book blurbs

Dava Sobel’s site:



Author Profile: Emily Eden

Emily Eden (1797-1869) is an author I might never have ‘discovered’ had it not been for a photo sent to me by a book friend of one of her bookshelves–and it wasn’t for the books on it that she’d sent it (but the knick-knacks). Anyway, since I have to look at all the books in bookshelf pictures, I looked at this one too and a Virago ed to two of Emily Eden’s books caught my eye. I found that these were available in public domain so downloaded and read them, and loved them. Later I discovered that these are the only works of fiction that Eden wrote but they are wonderful reads and well worth a visit.


The Author

Image source:  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eden belonged to an aristocratic family, the daughter of William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, and sister of George Eden, who was Governor-General in India between 1835 and 1842. In 1837, George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, undertook a two-and-a-half year tour in the northern provinces of the country with a twelve-thousand-strong entourage, with hundreds of camels, horses, and elephants, accompanied by his sisters. (Incidentally George Eden did not have the most successful stint as Governor General, complications in Afghanistan bringing about his downfall. Return of a King  (2012) by William Dalrymple goes into this part of history, and is another book I want to read sometime.)


George Eden

Image Source: by Susanna Hoe, Derek Roebuck (1999). The Taking of Hong Kong: Charles and Clara Elliot in China Waters. Curzon Press. p. 105. ISBN 0700711457. (Online: Google Books), Public Domain,

Anyway, back to the point, as a result, Emily spent time in India, where she travelled with her sister Fanny, and her letters describing her time there including descriptions of local colour, ceremonies, as well as political developments. Some of her letters are available in public domain through project gutenberg. Up the Country is one volume of her letters where she describes her time in the country, and this one’s on my TBR, and I am very much looking forward to reading it. Here’s what Goodreads has to say about this:

With an unfailing eye for the eccentric and picturesque, Emily Eden describes in her delightful letters the extraordinary experiences encountered in life on the road in early eighteenth-century India.

But what really made me choose her as the ‘author’ to write about this month were her two works of fiction. The Semi-detached House (1859) and the Semi-attached Couple (1860). The Semi-attached Couple (written in 1829 but published much later) is the story of the Douglases and their titled neighbours the Eskdales. Two of the Eskadale girls have married well, and the third Lady Helen has accepted Lord Teviot but feels the latter is ill-tempered while her fiancé finds her a little too attached to her own family (which is the reason behind his attitude). The marriage goes through but misunderstandings increase, and bring things to breaking point until fate intervenes. Other characters, Helen’s friend, Miss Mary Forrester, and Helen’s brother, Lord Beaufort have their own share of misunderstandings, and as the story progresses we see whether and how these clear up. While the overall tone and writing of the book is humorous and witty, the theme is the more serious of the two books, dealing with breakdown of relationships because of misunderstandings (and lack of communication) and a little because of age (Lady Helen is very young) as well. A New York Times review  describes it in these words:

It is a sophisticated psychological drama played out in pleasant country houses, at dinners, on visits, through letters, in witty dialogue and with clever commentary.

–Phyllis Rose, ‘Taking up Where Jane Austen Left Off’ (1982)

Still overall this was a read that I enjoyed a lot and which left me feeling more pleased than sad or upset. The characters are likeable, and Mrs Douglas (who fancies everyone but herself is unhappy and morose) and Lady Portmore (who likes to think every man in the Kingdom admires and blindly follows her), in particular, rather entertaining.


Semi attached and Semi dettached.jpg

Virago book cover

The Semi-detached House, which also in a way carries on with the themes of misunderstandings and first impressions (First Impressions was the initial title of Pride and Prejudice, wasn’t it?) but in a much more light-hearted tone and setting than the former. In this one, Lady Blanche Chester moves into a semi-detached house by the sea with her sister while her husband, Arthur, Lord Chester is away on diplomatic work. Lady Blanche is dreading her neighbours, the Hopkinsons who she believes would be odious.

“They call themselves Hopkinson,” continued Aunt Sarah coolly.

“I knew it,” said Blanche triumphantly. “I felt certain their name would be either Tomkinson or Hopkinson-I was not sure which-but I thought the chances were in favour of Hop rather than Tom.”

–Emily Eden, The Semi-attached House

On the other side, the Hopkinsons, who have heard rumours that Lord Chester’s mistress is moving into the other side of the house, are horrified. But the misunderstandings are soon set to rights with Blanche discovering that the Hopkinsons may look like she’d expected but are actually old acquaintances of her husband and very nice, genteel people, while the latter discover the truth. Blanche is kind-hearted, but a hypochondriac and given to an exaggerated imagination, which ensures that there are more such confusions and misapprehensions along the way in this fun story which also has its share of romance.

 “My dear child! what is the matter?”

“All sorts of things, Aunt Sarah. In the first place, I am very ill-Aileen has sent for Dr. Ayscough. Now, just hear my cough.”

“A failure, I think,” said Aunt Sarah, “an attempt at a cough rather than the thing itself.”

–Emily Eden, The Semi-attached House

Emily Eden is often recommended for fans of Jane Austen, and one can see shades of her characters, for instances Mr Bennett in Mr Douglas (and in his observations, though these aren’t as caustic as the former’s). Her writing and witty observations once again make one think of Austen. That she admired Austen is clear since she mentions this in the Semi-attached Couple, besides also mentioning Pride and Prejudice, through characters in the book.

Besides her writing, Eden also had another talent–painting/drawing–this I only discovered while looking her up to write this post. She captured portraits of various rulers, and also of more ‘common’ people she encountered in India, published as a book Portraits of the Princes and People of India. While last month’s ‘author’, Henry Cecil, fit into my reading theme of Lawyers and Books, I thought I’d write about Eden even if she didn’t fit the theme of  Kings and Queens, but she seems to have managed to do even that, through her artistic talents and portraits of the many kings that she made. Here are some samples of her work.


Raja Hindu Rao

Image Source:By Emily Eden (British Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

shere singh

The Maharaja Shere Singh

By Eden, Emily [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

L0021825 A zemindar or farmer and a puthan a famous wrestler

A Zemindar or Farmer of the Upper Provinces and a Puthan, a famous westler

Image Source: By Emily Eden after: Lowes Cato Dickinson ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Ranjit Singh

Image Source: By emily eden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I started writing this post, I wasn’t sure if I’ll have very much to say. I chose to write about Eden because I’d enjoyed her books but there were only two that I could write about. But writing this has helped me discover so much more about her–author, traveller, artist, and historical figure, and a very interesting person.

If you haven’t read her books so far, do try them (they’re in public domain, her books have also been published by Virago). I certainly am going to revisit them, and also read her letters from India (though I don’t expect these to be very PC). After learning so much about her I know they will be interesting to read. When I do, I certainly will post my review here.


Eden, Emily:

Emily Eden on wikipedia:

George Eden on wikipedia:,_1st_Earl_of_Auckland

‘Emily Eden’s Memoirs from a Strange Land’:

Author Profile: Henry Cecil


I first came across Henry Cecil, or Henry Cecil Leon, as his full name is, in a bookshop I used to shop at some years ago, when I laid my eyes on what seemed like really fun covers (sort of like Wodehouse books). When I asked about them, I was told that they were humorous fiction related to the law (which makes him the perfect choice for this month’s theme). So of course, I had to try one, and the one I picked was Ways and Means. Ways and Means is a collection of four stories featuring the somewhat likeable cons/tricksters Basil Merridew and Nicholas Drewe who use the subtleties of the law to their advantage (including a slander action against their “neighbours”), making fair sums in the process. Their pretty wives are also very much part of the plan, well some of their plans, anyway. In one of the stories, they even “start” an art movement “the Gropists”. These were fun stories, but while I enjoyed them I didn’t absolutely love them. (I was still glad I read this one first because it made my reading of another Cecil title, Unlawful Occasions, some years later, much more fun than it would have been had I not read this one―I won’t say why for that will spoil it for you).


But when I found Cecil’s books in another shop, I was interested enough to try another and that’s where I found Daughters-in-Law which is my favourite of all his books I’ve read so far. This is the story of Mr Justice Coombe, who has twin daughters Prunella and Jane who follow in his footsteps and join the law, Prunella becoming a barrister and Jane a solicitor. Jane and Prunella fall in love with the sons of Major Claude Buttonstep but the major hates lawyers. But when the Major gets into a dispute with a rather annoying new neighbour, Mr Trotter, all over a lawn mower which he had lent the latter, and has to go to court, much hilarity ensues. The rest of the story is of course about how things play out when they reach court, whether the Major gets back his lawn mower, and whether Jane and Prunella can marry their sweethearts. This one turned out to be such good fun that it led me to look up and read more Cecil.

Henry Cecil was born in 1902, in a not very well-off family, but his parents gave their children good educations (and he did well by them too giving them the gift of a car and chauffeur, which made them very happy. In 1923, he was called to the bar, and in 1949 became a county court judge. It was on his experiences in court that he based his various books. He has written (I hope I counted correctly) 28 books of fiction which include novels and short story collections, as well as some non-fiction (wikipedia has a list: (I’ve read 10 of these so far, and an 11th is on my TBR, which I will be reading this month) He was inspired to write fiction in a sense by Richard Gordon’s doctor books, which made him want to do something similar for the law (this I read in his autobiography, Just Within the Law (1975), which I was lucky enough to find in my university library some years ago), and when you read his books, you see that he mostly certainly did! (The picture below is also from the autobio, and I had taken it back when I read it (2012) to send to a friend who also enjoys his books.)

Henry Cecil

The plots of his stories involve mostly the subtleties of and loopholes in the law which his characters are happy to take advantage of, leading to some very amusing situations indeed. Themes range from blackmail and defamation to adoption and even murder (on quite a few occasions actually), though while some of the books have an element of mystery, one can’t really describe them at mysteries. One that is very different is the Buttercup Spell which involves a whole lot of people (a judge included) being affected by buttercup pollen which make them love their fellow beings, and lead to some rather strange and crazy situations. This quote from the Sunday Times at the back of one of the books I have, reminded me a little of what is said of Wodehouse as well: “The Secret of Mr Cecil’s success lies in his continuing to do superbly what everyone knows he can do well.”


His books include standalone titles as well as some series. One in particular is the Roger Thursby series which comprises Brothers-in-Law, Friends at Court, and Sober as a Judge which traces the journey of Roger Thursby, a twenty-four-year old who is just called to the bar, and at least, initially, bumbles his way through court, and a little bit in personal life too. The second book sees him as a QC while in the third, as the title shows, Thursby becomes a judge. Brothers-in-Law, the first in the series was according to Wodehouse, “the best Henry Cecil”, yet! (Though different, this book is kind of like Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, if one wanted a comparison.)

Another series of sorts is formed by the books No Bail for the Judge and According to the Evidence. No Bail for the Judge sees a highly respected judge Mr Justice Prout accused of the murder of a prostitute. He would clear himself, only he doesn’t remember a thing of what happened on that fateful day. His daughter Elizabeth enlists the help of a gentleman-burglar Ambrose Low to help clear his name. In According to the Evidence, one Alec Morland is on trial for murdering a serial killer, and his fiancé Jane approaches Ambrose, now married to Elizabeth Prout, to do what he did for his father-in-law in the first one. But in this one, things are different, for Morland has taken the law into his own hands.


Gentlemen-crooks appear in more than one of Cecil’s books, but so does another type of character, the exasperating witness in court, and none is more so than Colonel Brain. Col. Brain is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who appears in at least four of Cecil’s books (these aren’t a series as such, but he is a recurring character, as is the drunken and somewhat similarly exasperating lawyer Mr Tewkesbury)―No Bail for the Judge, According to the Evidence, Natural Causes (where he is quite benign compared to his other appearances), and Independent Witness among them. He appears mostly (always?) in the role of a witness, either one who has genuinely witnessed the incident in question or whose help is enlisted (for instance by Ambrose Low), though Brain is no crook and if he is “enlisted”, it is without his knowledge which means the results are not always predictable (landing people into some trouble as well). I have honestly never encountered a comparable character in any other book I read (let alone real life), and as Cecil’s books are based on his real-life experiences, one can only imagine what the real Col Brain, or if based on more than one person, what those people must have been like. Here’s a sample of his evidence from According to the Evidence (1954):

Colonel Brain, said the judge….“you are being asked a perfectly simple question. Will you kindly answer it?”

“Of course, my Lord”, said the colonel. “I understand that’s what I’m here for.”

“I’m glad you realize that at last,” said the judge.

“Oh-my Lord,” said the colonel, “I’ve realized it all the time.”

“Very well then. Answer the question.”

“Yes, my Lord―when I know what it is.”

The judge said nothing for several seconds, while he looked keenly at the witness.

“Are you telling me,” he said eventually, “that you don’t know what the question is?”

“Not in advance my Lord. D’you mean you want me to guess what it is, my Lord?”

“I mean nothing of the kind. Do you mean to tell me you were a colonel in the Army?”

“A lieutenant-colonel, my Lord. If I’d known that was the question, I’d have answered a long time ago.”

“It was not the question.”

“I’m sorry, my Lord. Shouldn’t I have answered it then?”

And so it goes. You get the picture I’m sure and this isn’t even the best of the lot but just one I remembered and picked up to share. And if he seems merely funny at this point, wait till you get a full dose, you may want to tear your hair, just as the judges very often want to do. Mr Tewkesbury can be somewhat similar sometimes (not always). From Daughters-in-Law (1961):

“Very well, then. What questions did you ask my client at the first interview to see if he had a good cause of action?”

“May I look at my notes?”

“Certainly, if they were made at the time.”

Jane handed some papers to the usher who handed them on to Mr Tewkesbury. He gazed at them for some little time.

“Is that what you want?” asked Mr Bone.

“It’s what I’ve got,” said Mr Tewkesbury. “I can’t say I particularly want them.”

Interesting plots with some twists along the way, some likeable characters and some infuriating ones, twists and turns of the law, but always a smile and many a time, plenty of laughs is what you’ll get from Cecil’s books. So if you haven’t read him yet, do. It’ll be great fun.