The Philosophical Transactions of Maria van Leeuwenhoek, Antoni's Dochter
What inspired this book?
It all started with my son's bad case of head lice in third grade, two troubling comments in Clifford Dobell's biography of Leeuwenhoek, and a moment of profound recognition and resonance when I began reading Leeuwenhoek's own letters.
As a boy, my son's head was a thicket of unruly red curls that, it was revealed at school, harbored an astonishing number of blood-seeking insects and some shy winged ones that swooped away as soon as they were exposed. He was promptly shorn and Kwelled weekly, but I pulled out an old microscope in order to double check that any remaining egg cases were blasted. I kept this up for months. This sparked an interest in microscopy and led us to the local Judah Street branch of the San Francisco Public Library and to Dobell's biography,Antony Van Leeuwenhoek and His "Little Animals."
The first troubling comment that caught my attention was in a footnote about whether Leeuwenhoek's second wife could possibly have been a bluestocking. Dobell wrote, dismissively, "it seems to me unlikely that women were less dependent on their male relatives and friends 250 years ago than they are today." I still have the Xerox where I have prominently starred this. I think the word dependent is what made me pause. Was that the word women then, and now, would choose to describe their social positioning?
The other comment was intended to be more laudatory and concerned Maria van Leeuwenhoek herself: Maria van Leeuwenhoek was no 'scientist' but she was a good daughter. . . She kept house when her father was at work, she kept himself when he was weak, and she housed his body when he was dead. She will not be forgotten while her father is remembered.
I felt then, and I still feel, haunted by that epitaph. I can't imagine a worse one.
But Leeuwenhoek wasn't Dobell, and when I began reading Leeuwenhoek's own letters I felt, as many do, that I knew him.
What was it about Antoni van Leeuwenhoek that spoke to you?
At the same time that I began reading Leeuwenhoek's collected letters, I was also reading Francis Cole's Early Theories of Sexual Generation. I was fascinated by the idea that Leeuwenhoek had been half right when he insisted that sperm were central to the mystery of generation, and that the resolving power of the microscope did not improve for 150 years, so there was no way of disproving his theories. Or Regnier de Graaf's theories about the centrality of the female egg either. And that these theories tended to follow religious lines, Catholics being more persuaded by the ovulists, Protestants by the animalculists. Indeed, it wasn't the resolving power of the microscope but new concepts that ultimately changed our understanding of sexual generation.
But it was when I began reading Leeuwenhoek's letters that an emotional subtext began to emerge that provided a poignant sense of urgency. In one of his first letters to the Learned Gentlemen, Leeuwenhoek describes a louse feeding on his arm, then pausing, like a baby at the breast. The description brought a whole world in with it, and a personality that was surprisingly maternal. What was it like to make a discovery that had so much personal implication? Leeuwenhoek's first marriage had been fertile—and filled with loss: Three sons and a daughter died at birth or by the age of two. Why was his second marriage barren?
Now, when I open Leeuwenhoek's letters, what continues to intrigue me is how his descriptions of what he saw under his lenses open a window onto his daily life because he uses the world he knows to describe the amazing one opening up to him under the microscope. We, centuries later, find the one he took for granted to be as fantastic in its own way as the one under the lens.
The pain of Leeuwenhoek's social positioning also spoke to me. Apprenticed at sixteen, he was primarily self-taught. His abilities were obvious enough to those around him that he received civic appointments in Delft—sheriff's chamberlain, surveyor, and wine gauger, for example—but he spoke only one language, NetherDutch, so his whole life he was barred from the direct communications between the learned, which were conducted in Latin, French, or English. He who so much needed to see accurately that he created lenses with strengths specific to each specimen, had to let others translate his words into languages that walled him out. Education as well as language distanced him. Class too. There is always a sense of condescension in visitors' descriptions of encounters with Leeuwenhoek. He is a curiosity, not an equal. Even when the learned visited to see the marvels pinned behind his glasses, they saw the man himself through a diminishing lens. He can't have been unaware of that. He was in his daily life intensely aware of status. And he knew his own worth—and the worth of what he was doing. So that social pain didn't stop him. He had these truths that he knew with his whole being. He had this amazing world that he couldn't keep from sharing with a prophet's passion.
Above everything, what I love about Leeuwenhoek is that he was honest. Leeuwenhoek had a wonderful transparence that speaks to the artist and seeker in me. It is a quality that made him vulnerable, difficult, socally maladroit at times—and wonderfully trustworthy. Leeuwenhoek could be gruff and self-important in his daily life, but when he wrote, much of that fell away. He didn't lie to others and he didn't lie to himself. He never confused what he wished to see with what he actually saw, no matter how deeply he wanted to see it, a stance that required equal parts faith and humility, and an understanding of his all-consuming curiosity, his science, as a calling. What he wanted more than anything in the world was to have someone see with him, share with him the amazing mystery and wonder he felt at these newly discovered manifestations of Our Creator's best intentions. Would I have felt that way discovering that my mouth teemed with live creatures? He never doubted that what he saw under his lenses was infused with the holy and he kept inviting himself, and us, to that place where ego falls away and something much larger and gracious takes its place. Ultimately, his dialogue was not with the Learned Gentlemen but with God.
What was it about his daughter Maria that spoke to you?
Like Leeuwenhoek, Maria's social positioning spoke to me. That terrible epitaph! I just couldn't buy that she didn't have her own take on these dramatic events that were going on around her. How could any woman not? From the very beginning, I felt she was standing right behind the words I read, and I kept peering through them, trying to see clearly, wondering what she was feeling during all these events, what she saw in these stories still being told about her father and her life many centuries later. I was also interested in a life that was so deeply shaped by random but consequential discoveries rather than exclusively by character. Where did its coherence come from? At one point my working title was Forces Majeures, those unforeseen, overwhelming events that are out of our control and breach all our expectations and our social contracts. Thinking about Maria's natural arc of maturation, these discoveries were coming at the most inopportune, life-churning times—from her father's marriage in her adolescence to his discovery of sperm in her twenties to his discovery of parthenogenesis in aphids as she neared forty. What this meant to me was that Maria was constantly having to choose which social contracts she would honor and which ones she would not. What troubled me was that her choices, their intelligence, the character and good faith and love involved in them, still remained, centuries later, invisible to those who so assiduously documented her father's life. I wanted to know her reasoning.
Because I wanted to share the world of Maria—and Antoni—their experience of being alive, all the partiality and promise of that state. All the yearning. Elation. Not knowing. Loss. And the squirmy stuff. What do you make of a father who is racing up to have sex with his wife so he can take the ejaculate over to his microscope? Who gathers semen from dogs and rabbits and roosters—and calls you, a virgin, up to view the animals writhing inside it as one of God's great miracles? Are you free to refuse? How do you explain this to the women who come to your draper's shop? To the learned and curious men you escort up to your father's study? To the men who might consider marrying you?
What about all that research?
In the several years I was immersed in researching and writing this book, I experienced everything that I learned about the daily life and science of seventeenth century Holland as tantalizing. I was fascinated by the implications of what I read, imaginative as well as intellectual, although I could not have told you why. It was as if what I was looking for was just out of sight or reach, just the other side of consciousness, no matter how much I read. I was looking for the spaces in the historic record, the shadows these facts cast. I was looking for my story, the one I could feel was in there, that I needed in a way I couldn't explain or justify, that was as obsessive in its way as Leeuwenhoek's own investigations.
I felt that this story couldn't contradict anything I was learning, that it had to take place in whatever breathing room I could find in the record men had left behind. I wanted my story to be possible, you see. Really possible. Back then. For her. Within all the very real constraints, internal and external, of the time. Because that would mean that despite whatever constraints I was feeling as a woman now, in the 1980s, there were equally incontrovertible spaces, breathing spaces, possible, really possible, for me. Ones that did not require intellectual concubinage. Ones that allowed me to feel as intensely as I thought, think as intensely as I felt. Ones that didn't require that we divorce knowledge from who created it or from its emotional and social impact. Ones that allowed those who experienced the full force of that impact to respond with love and loyalty and genuine independence of mind.
Why so long to publish?
Writing the book, single-mindedly seeing it from conception to completion, felt very intimate, liberating and empowering to me. Explaining the book, or justifying it, did not. I had written it because there was something I really needed to learn, to know, that I could not know in any other way. That drive felt very different from, if not antithetical to, the rewards of publishing as they were at that time presented to me.
I believe one reason I was attracted to this story was that Leeuwenhoek lived at a point when science, because of its adoption of the experimental method, was beginning to democratize so men like Leeuwenhoek with good minds and strong disciplines of observation could occasionally find entry. But at the same time science was considered an art, a personal, unremunerated passion practiced by inspired amateurs, while art in seventeenth century Holland was understood as commerce. At the time I was writing this novel, fresh out of graduate school and unclear what path my creative life would take, science of course was now a well-established profession, the competition for research dollars a major focus of all its practitioners, and with the development of degree programs creative writing was fast following suit, writing increasingly considered primarily as a stairstep to tenure. That didn't feel quite right for me, although writing itself felt like an absolute necessity. So this question of why one would dedicate oneself to an activity that didn't necessarily promise social recognition or economic rewards was as alive to me as it was to Leeuwenhoek. Still is—and I feel it always should be because when we lose touch of that reason we lose something vital to our soul.
Thirty years and a number of books later, I felt I could be an adequate caretaker of Maria's story. Because we now publish books, we have the freedom to make an expansive and beautiful book to house Maria's story, and we have the freedom to share it in ways that feel in line with the original creative drive.
Maria's story is as timely now as it was thirty years or three centuries ago. We still live in a complicated, war-torn world constantly exposed to new discoveries. We still live in a world of theories that have huge personal impact and gender implications and may only be half right, theories that can turn our private worlds upside down and silence and disempower us. We still struggle with independence of mind and loyalty, with knowledge we carry inside us that can't be seen or verified—or ignored. We must still, each of us, make our own meaning. And we still yearn to be heard and understood, to have those individual meanings, so arduously won, add to our common existence.
Why the images?
I have used images in all the books we've published through our press because they say something that words cannot and they invite us into a state of enchantment. In this book in particular they play an important role. I've always loved Dutch art of the Golden Age for its meticulous realism. But when I went to photograph it, I was interested in what happened when it was shot in ways that made it feel photographic but impressionistic, an interestingly anachronistic effect, bringing these centuries old paintings into our modern sensibilities. I also wanted to explore the distinctiveness of vision and its partiality, where images can't be brought into perfect focus, evoke a sense of space and mood, a yearning for something close but forever out of reach. I loved that when exploring Leeuwenhoek's image through glass, the distortions played out as emotions, the wildly various emotions of the perceiver, providing me, once again, with a sense of Maria standing beside me, urging me to see as she might see. With feeling.