Important to state it from the outset: you can’t talk about Sarah Tolmie’s new book—an accomplished speculative history of the seventeenth-century scientist Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek’s domestic life, milieu, and early career in natural philosophy—without also talking about the late, great, and greatly missed, Ursula K. Le Guin.
The Little Animals is dedicated to Le Guin (for whom Tolmie wrote a Rhysling award-winning elegy, “Ursula Le Guin in the Underworld.”) Tolmie’s novel is a tremendous pleasure to read all by itself. In a few places, the weave of its fictions rubs uneasily over the rock of historical indeterminacy, but in the main, it’s simply, subtly, terrific. And it’s even more rewarding when experienced as an intertextual work, substantially shaped and driven by intimate dialogue with Le Guin’s canon. The older writer’s peripatetic, knowledge-seeking protagonists, her intergalactic diplomats and harbor-hopping wizards, serve as a restless and informative backdrop for the geographically restricted setting of The Little Animals. With them in mind, you begin to understand how much is being done—always—within the landlocked Dutch city of Delft, where Leeuwenhoek lives with his wife, Barbara, and their single surviving daughter, Marieke. In Delft too, as in Le Guin’s Ekumen and Earthsea, lonely journeys are undertaken for the sake of new information and new ways to apply one’s findings. Here too, by venturing inside of the natural world, a tenacious and skillful individual may discover a life’s work so enormous it beggars description.
Tomie quickly establishes that Leeuwenhoek is a busy man, a successful draper and bureaucrat, whose respectable career has earned him room for the pursuit of a non-utilitarian hobby. When he’s not attending to his other obligations, he pursues private studies in microscopy with the help of his own hand-manufactured glass magnifying lenses. And he thinks he might be getting somewhere with them: possibly somewhere no one else has been before. He has seen animalcules, lively “little animals,” through his lenses. They inhabit, for instance, the water from a flower-vase he keeps in his house, and he is coming to believe they may, in fact, be everywhere: undetected, teeming, mysterious, alive. “Inside everything we see,” he thinks, “everything we touch, [a] world opens, vaster than the abyss; there is no need to sail off perilously in ships to find it” (p. 8). Although the immediate referent of Leeuwenhoek’s “ships” is the powerful, globe-spanning trading fleet of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, one of the intertextual referents must surely be the ship Lookfar, faithful vessel of Le Guin’s most famous peril-seeking wizard, Ged of Earthsea. In an instant, Tolmie tells us both that this will not be a novel about magic in the traditional SF/F sense of the word, and that it will still be a novel about wonders.
Despite Leeuwenhoek’s successes in microscopy, when the book opens he is still finding it difficult to set meaningful time aside for his studies. As yet, the animalcules mean nothing in the busy, profit-driven Dutch Republic. Antoni’s natural-historical fixations are something of a burden for his already burdened wife, Barbara, whom he is vividly aware of as a person whose private sufferings he cannot functionally lessen, although he and she enjoy a companionable domestic life. The city itself, and its commercial spaces, sometimes seems intent on thwarting him wholly. When we first meet Leeuwenhoek he is trying to buy geese at a poultry market, in order to secure a good supply of writing quills for scientific notetaking. The effort involves “toiling across [a city] square, trying to avoid bites from enraged geese,” as well as an encounter with another delaying element, the penniless painter Johannes Vermeer (p. 2). Nothing is easily achieved; none of Leeuwenhoek’s unofficial pursuits, his still incommunicable discoveries, can make themselves felt in this world. But his ability to assert his own growing achievement, to clear the way for his investigations and build some community around them, is about to receive a powerful boost from an unexpected source.
This source, known only as “the goose girl,” will challenge him, and the narrative itself, to accommodate her nature and steer clear of the many cruelties that could easily result from her encounter with rule-driven, surveillance-oriented Dutch urban society. An orphan, she is initially non-verbal and is clearly depicted at times as neuroatypical. Once she begins to speak, she says what she means regardless of social context, and the content of her conversation is often radical and unsettling. About halfway through the book, for instance, she rattles the improvident perfectionist Vermeer by casually questioning Dutch portraiture’s anthropocentric conventions and making him look at his own art anew (pp. 165-8). Her interrogation of the painter flows (we learn) from the fact that she does not experience the same identity-distinction between herself and other living creatures that neurotypical people do. She participates in the feelings and thoughts of the animals in her vicinity. In consequence, the goose-girl’s beautifully healthy, well-cared-for geese follow her “like adoring subjects,” even in the chaos of the poultry market where Leeuwenhoek first sees them. And when Leeuwenhoek buys her geese she simply assumes she will go with him, to care for her charges.
Once the goose-girl arrives in Antoni’s household, things become simultaneously more possible for him and more difficult. The girl’s unusual rapport with the geese means she can pluck quills from the living birds, which offers him an unconventional way out of the marketplace’s bloody bargain with animal cruelty. (Thus, immediately, her presence increases the range of imaginable human decisions: a process that Tolmie, like Le Guin, is driven to consider and model for her readers.) Antoni wants to be kind, and he is capable of extending his own capacities in this area with the help of his wife. Once he and Barbara realize the goose-girl has nowhere else to go, in their world at least, they override the objections of their other servants in order to provide her with room and board. But she is a disturbing presence, unheimlich and eerie, and Leeuwenhoek is constantly of two minds about the wisdom of keeping her around. This continues to be true even, or especially, once it becomes clear that she, like him, believes in the omnipresent existence of animalcules too small to be seen with the naked eye. She claims to be able to hear them and detect their emotions.
Here is part of Leeuwenhoek’s reaction to her claim—a claim that reinforces, for him, the fact that his personal findings could be publicly construed as the product of a deluded mind:
Such thoughts give him vertigo. They make him fear that he is living through a monstrous time, in which infinity is creeping into everything. Occasionally he has looked through the artificial eye of the microscope and has had to clutch the table for fear of falling in...Likewise he has looked at the sky, that space above the terrestrial sphere that has suddenly, horribly expanded into unguessable distances filled with huge masses, and felt himself shooting unfathomably upward. Such are the perils of the lens-maker.
Does the goose girl hear the stars singing, as well?
He should just send her away. (p.18)
His ambivalence is important and will increase to dangerous levels as the goose-girl’s behaviors, advice, and extra-human perceptions begin both to complicate Leeuwenhoek’s domestic life and contribute materially to his attempts to learn more about the “little animals” under his lenses. She advises him to study blood with his microscope. He discovers blood-cells, which he later—in solid Dutch mercantile fashion—helps develop into a textile pattern and launches for sale with the help of a business conglomerate. (Is the goose-girl a partner? A collaborator? Should he pay her? She cares nothing for money.) Later, she notes strange qualities in the fetus developing in Barbara’s womb and immediately relays this fact to the frightened, expectant mother. Leeuwenhoek comes home to find his wife “in a pitiable state. It is his fault ... it is that damnable girl. Why does he keep her around?” (p. 219) It’s not clear, for much of the book, that the goose-girl’s well-being and Leeuwenhoek’s decency are going to survive their meeting and unlikely collaboration.
This is important material. I was both impressed and kept on the edge of my seat by Tolmie’s development of it, particularly when the book emphasizes the ease with which someone “respectable” like Leeuwenhoek could choose to erase the goose-girl, rather than converse with her; or when The Little Animals depicts with fine exactness the restricted nature of the goose-girl’s influence and power. She can, and does, save her own flock from the worst abuses of the marketplace, but this is partly because it appears to everyone else that she owns the geese. When she encounters other at-risk animals, like the broken-down cart-horse Falada, she also encounters the limits of her ability to work against early-modern cultural probability. Tolmie shows us that property laws, then as now, have fatal force.
Despite some of the careful thresholds and limitations that The Little Animals sets around the goose-girl’s powers, at times I was frustrated by her over-convenient deployment as a plot device. “It’s is like having an oracle in [my] courtyard,” Leeuwenhoek says of her, to another character who’s recently been flummoxed by her abilities (p. 122). She’s a little more than that. Oracles are notoriously hard to corral and get plain sense out of, viz. Aeneid 6; in terms of literary style they tend toward the fragmented, the gnomic, the difficult-of-translation. You should have to wrestle with what an oracle is saying, and sometimes they may mislead you, either deliberately or out of genuine lack of control over their material. Not so the goose-girl, who tells Leeuwenhoek pretty straight-out that infected blood causes plague (pp. 24-25), and tells Vermeer to his face that his manner of painting is incomplete and biased (p. 168), and predicts the likely fate of Antoni and Barbara’s new baby in clear and simple terms (pp. 317-18). It’s never hard to understand and apply the content of her conversation; it’s only difficult to believe it if you live in the seventeenth century. As such, she is less an oracle than a direct information-line through to our contemporary knowledge of microbiology and the mechanisms of infection, our appreciation of non-anthropocentric art, our awareness of the genetic origin of certain congenital diseases. Tolmie is such a skillful writer that this setup doesn’t flatten the story out too much. But, unavoidably, I think it does in places.
Elsewhere and throughout, however, The Little Animals is full of inimitable characters who plot and bargain and collaborate and argue their way into the verge of a new world; the world that will, eventually, contain formal, reconfirmed knowledge of Leeuwenhoek’s beautiful, weird, alarmingly lively discoveries. One of these characters is Philip De Witt, a colorblind draughtsman recruited by Antoni to make useable drawings of the “little animals” for both scientific correspondence and textile-production. Philip’s first encounter with the animalcules in a sample of well-water, viewed under one of Leeuwenhoek’s lenses, is rendered as follows:
“My God, my God, my God, that thing, what is it—hup, what, now it’s gone—what, there it is again, it’s covered with hairs or legs or something—Jesus, it’s the size of a carthorse, wait, no, it can’t be—” He takes his eyes away from the viewer to glare at the tiny vial. Then he looks back into the viewer. “Master Leeuwenhoek,” he says, “this is incredible. It is a miracle.” (p. 95)
Leeuwenhoek’s understanding yet pragmatic response, “I find it so, myself ... Could you draw what you saw?” gets at the pure, pleasurable efficiency with which Tolmie has defined her version of the society these men inhabit. She shows us that it is both tremblingly receptive to the mysterious and determined to pin it down for further use. Miracles exist, now, can you draw them? Knowledge must be reproducible, verifiable; if it is so, then associations and businesses can be built around it. Both Philip and Leeuwenhoek, in Tolmie’s wily and funny depiction of them, are galvanized by the idea of the human institutions that may be built and sustained by clear and communicable evidence of the existence of the animalcules. They are aware of their aesthetic response to the microscopic creatures, and to other substances viewed under strong magnification; simultaneously, always, they are aware that what they are looking at is both wonderful and marketable. This strikes me, for one, as hewing very close to historical truth.
A great deal of the narrative excitement of the latter part of the book emerges from the professional partnership between these two men. Antoni and Philip, together, draw in other individuals whose businesses and ambitions are located in Delft, and persuade them (thanks to love, or duty, or a nose for profit—sometimes all three) to support the work of advancing public knowledge of Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries. I enjoyed everything about Tolmie’s depiction of the meetings and machinations involved; she deftly (Delftly?) depicts the tricky process of nudging individual temperaments into either contractual or emotional agreement. I also enjoyed her sub-plot involving the early-modern sex-work industry in Delft, which intersects with Leeuwenhoek’s enterprise via his search for financing, and fits into the book thematically on account of scientists’ and sex-workers’ shared interest in the search for highly specific and replicable results!
I enjoyed less, but admired more, the ways in which Tolmie never loses track of the people whose lives will not be altered for the better by such dealings, such improvements and profits. The goose-girl cannot stay in Delft forever, and her story is not responsive to commercial flourishing. Johannes Vermeer will change his art, but will not survive to enjoy its triumph. And Antoni and Barbara’s private sorrows are not lessened by the success of his discoveries. Though Leeuwenhoek stands close to understanding what may produce the terrors of disease, there is nothing he can do about them. There will be little anyone can do about them for centuries to come. Confirmation of the existence of the “little animals” has increased the sum of human knowledge, without decreasing the vulnerability of the human animal by even a microscopic amount. A less skillful author might have ended the book on a note of triumph, congruent with our sense of the now-recognized magnitude of Leeuwenhoek’s achievement as the “Father of Microbiology.” But displaying a narrative wisdom similar to that of her forebear, Le Guin, Tolmie ends the book where we feel it most: in a changed world where wonder bears within itself a living freight of grief.