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Historical Novels

Opium, advanced mathematics, and no simpering

Not Yet Drown'd
By Peg Kingman
Norton, 428 pp., $24.95

The Indian Clerk
By David Leavitt
Bloomsbury, 485 pp., $24.95

The Sound of Butterflies
By Rachael King
Morrow, 338 pp., $24.95

"It certainly is a factual age," one of the characters in Peg Kingman's first novel, "Not Yet Drown'd," observes of the mid-19th century. Another agrees that "we rely upon facts for their virile power to reinforce - or else to contradict - the seductive eloquence of beauty." If you hear echoes of Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind ("Now, what I want is Facts") you know what to expect: the rational man humbled by the power of (invariably female) sympathy and intuition. In the wrong hands it is dreary stuff. Think of all the simpering heroines you have detested, the ones effortlessly reeling in the pathetic hero whose big head is lumbered with all those silly "facts."

Writers of historical novels, however, can have it both ways. In the name of authenticity, they can indulge themselves in the very facts that are, according to their triumphant heroines, irrelevant. Kingman does this with disarming frankness. Instead of pussyfooting about, inserting slivers of 19th-century science, engineering, or politics into the narrative's natural crevices, she carves out a generous space every so often and plunks down a hefty chunk of knowledge. We learn a lot - about steam propellers, navigation, Indian art, bagpipes, opium, tapestries, windmills, silk making, paint, Hinduism, tea, syphilis, you name it. At the same time, Kingman tells a swashbuckler of a story.

In 1822, Catherine MacDonald, a young widow, sails to India, where her twin brother has reportedly died in the previous year's monsoon. Catherine, however, senses that Sandy is alive, and a parcel delivered by a mysterious Indian maidservant reinforces her hope. The heroine's Indian sojourn is also a flight from a nasty Southern belle who wants to take custody of Catherine's stepdaughter, a strange child initially rescued from said belle by a slave girl who ends up joining the India-bound entourage. This crew also includes the mysterious maidservant and Catherine's would-be suitor, Mr. Fleming, who knows everything about tea. Don't fret over these details. You're in competent hands, and Kingman's flashes of wit enliven an engaging yarn. (During their sea voyage through the tropics, for example, Catherine notes, "Even the breeze that still puffed the sails was hot and singularly unrefreshing, a breeze of a type never even conceived of in Scotland.")

While Kingman's characters often behave as predictably as the various machines she describes, the opposite is true of the complex, introspective mathematicians populating David Leavitt's latest novel, "The Indian Clerk." There is nothing mechanical in Leavitt's elusive portrait of G. H. Hardy, the great English mathematician, or of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, whom Hardy brought over to Cambridge in 1913. Each emerges gradually; Hardy as a cautiously left-wing, cautiously homosexual academic whose circle contains such figures as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Maynard Keynes; Ramanujan as a confused product of English colonialism and Indian tradition whose extraordinary mind transcends both. Through this unlikely friendship, Leavitt portrays Cambridge in the last idyllic summer before World War I and the upheavals that war causes even in that rarefied world.

"The Indian Clerk" opens in 1936, when Hardy receives an honorary degree at Harvard and begins his lecture on Ramanujan by saying, "The difficulty for me then is not that I do not know enough about him, but that I know and feel too much." With that word "feel" the mathematician surprises himself as much as his audience, and the novel returns to 1913, a time when Hardy could still declare that "life, for any true mathematician, is not the thing, but the thing that interferes" and that "proof was what connected you to the truth."

Those certainties are shaken by Ramanujan, a clerk at a Madras bank whose first, unsolicited letter to Hardy, his hero, includes "nine dense pages of mathematics" but who is bored by proofs and believes that his formulae are written by a Hindu deity. The novel's lighter moments occur when small, gray England - the ruler of Ramanujan's subcontinent - attempts to make him feel at home; his first hosts, for example, present in his honor vegetarian monstrosities and "curry - which is soupy and yellowish, bobbing with bits of unidentifiable vegetables."

The humor, like everything else in the novel, is muted. This is a quiet interior world of ruminations, equations, tea trays, and faded carpets in which any disruption - sex, anger - is all the more shocking. Much happens, of course, chiefly the war, which materializes dreadfully in Cambridge when hundreds of wounded soldiers are billeted there. Hardy's subsequent affair with one of them is reminiscent of episodes in Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy (Leavitt acknowledges his debt to Barker's research), but Hardy and even the minor characters around him are so finely drawn that no single act or relationship defines them. "Whenever you seem to be getting close to seeing the whole in all its lovely symmetry," Hardy reflects, "mathematics throws you a ball you can't hit. . . . You cannot cheat there. You will always be caught out." Life, by contrast, leaves the summing up to memory and conscience; Leavitt's rich novel convinces us that it could not be otherwise.

If psychological depth, artistic skill, and academic rigor distinguish "The Indian Clerk," then "The Sound of Butterflies," Rachael King's first novel, might be regarded as light relief, if it didn't take itself so seriously. The opening is promising: Thomas Edgar returns to London from a scientific expedition in the Amazon mute and unresponsive to his lovely young wife. Dread, however, is soon replaced by half-baked action. The plot stumbles through the jungle, characters quickly turn into Conrad cut-outs, and dialogue rapidly deteriorates. (One lady cautions another, "It's all about discretion." In 1904? No way!) King eventually reveals the abomination that caused Thomas's catatonia, but by the time he snapped out of it I had nodded off.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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