Author Marie Benedict brings a brilliant but forgotten female scientist's story out of the shadows
In the forthcoming novel Her Hidden Genius, the writer casts new light on the woman who discovered the double helix of DNA.
Marie Benedict has made a career of shedding light on women whose achievements have often languished in the shadows of history. She's given voice to everyone from Hedy Lamarr to Agatha Christie, but for the subject of her next novel, Her Hidden Genius, she's chosen a woman whose accomplishments were not only obscured but stolen.
British scientist Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix of DNA, only to have her breakthrough misappropriated by male Nobel Prize winners James D. Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. Benedict's novel tells Franklin's story through her eyes, delving into her romantic entanglements, personal and professional deceptions, and inner life.
Below, EW offers an exclusive first look at the double-helix-inspired cover for Her Hidden Genius. We also called up Benedict to talk about her research process, why she felt compelled to write about Franklin, and her determination to "fill in the gaps."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've written about STEM heroes, actresses, and authors. What made you decide on Rosalind Franklin for your next book?
MARIE BENEDICT: Of all the women I have written about, I feel like in many ways Rosalind Franklin's story is the least known. Franklin was a brilliant scientist in her own right — a physical chemist — and rose to discover the structure of DNA through laborious investigation with X-ray crystallography. She made such an enormous impact. Her legacy is so vast that she seemed like the perfect fit.
As I dug deeper into her story, I realized there were so many other layers to it. It's the story of a young woman in a romance, and she has a really important relationship with a fellow scientist in the beginning of the book. It's a story of a woman who's really trying to make her own way in a very male-dominated field, where women scientists and their contributions are often marginalized. But in some circles, Rosalind has become really iconic in her own right.
Did you feel her story was more tragic than someone like Agatha Christie, who lived in the presence of her success for decades, or Hedy Lamarr, who also had a long life but wasn't recognized for her scientific achievements?
Absolutely. There were so many elements of Rosalind's story, which were more lamentable than some of the other women. Rosalind Franklin died when she was a young woman, and her death is encompassed in the book. She not only made this enormous contribution to our understanding of DNA structure, which led to our deep and wide understanding of genetics, but she also made huge contributions in the realm of understanding viruses. They were cut short because of her early death.
But something about her early death really propelled me to write the story. While we can't know for sure — I write fiction and can fill in the gaps, but I do try to stay true to the facts and logic — as part of her work with X-ray crystallography, she exposed herself to X-rays. That really intense exposure may well have triggered her cancer. When I learned she had died at a very young age, from something that could have been tied to her work to uncover the structure of DNA, I was more compelled, because I felt almost as though she had sacrificed her very life to make the contribution for which we should all feel quite indebted.
Was there something that really surprised you about her in your research? Maybe a common misconception?
She is starting to become more known in scientific circles, and the reason her name is known at all is really interesting — it's tied to misperceptions. Rosalind actually made the bulk of the discoveries James Watson and Francis Crick took, along with Maurice Wilkins, and used to write the paper that ultimately won them the Nobel Prize for DNA. That information was taken without her knowledge or permission. Several years later, Watson wrote a biography called The Double Helix, for which he became very famous, in which he recounted how they went about discovering the structure of DNA. He depicted Rosalind Franklin as this sullen, dark, unhelpful woman, the quintessential unhappy woman scientist.
For anyone who knew Rosalind, she was definitely passionate and could be feisty, but she was a wonderful, generous person and not at all like what Watson had depicted in the book. That depiction sparked a biography in response by a good friend of hers to set the story straight. It was a call to look at her through a different light. My book is a follow-up. In that story, she's trying to write Rosalind back into the narrative, and I'm taking that to another level. I'm trying to not just write her back into the historical narrative, but also really illuminate her and make her come alive again.
You're writing about real historical figures but in a work of fiction. How does that unfold for you?
I'm always attracted to original source material. I want letters and journals [written] in the person's own hand. For women, that's not always available. After I do that initial research into the original source material, I cast my net wider, looking for secondary source material. Then I create what is almost the architecture of the story. All that data and research form the foundation, the pillars and the roof. But there are always gaps between those pillars that the research can't illuminate. It can't tell us the answers. It's in those areas that the fiction comes in. But that fiction is a logical extrapolation of what the research does tell us. It's my version of this woman and her life. But I feel such a strong sense of responsibility to these women. I hope my fictional version of them really honors the truth of their lives.
The friend who wrote the response biography, Anne Sayre, took the research material she had amassed over several years while writing that book and gave it to a scientific library. I was able to access all those letters and interviews she did with all the people who were alive during that time period. She wrote this biography decades ago, so it was quite close in time to Rosalind's death, and [offered] a huge wealth of information that gave me a snapshot into real-life people, especially Rosalind. I came to know Rosalind not just as a scientist, but as a woman, a friend, a lover, and a colleague in a way I never would have otherwise. That is very, very rare in writing books like these.
Do you feel historical fiction can, in some ways, give us a more complete picture of people than the stuff in historical records?
That is exactly how I feel. Especially when you're talking about historical women, as opposed to men, the record is often extremely limited. It's only recently that women's stories, documents, research, and papers were really considered worthy of keeping. Not to mention, women, especially women from the past, were forced to present themselves in a certain way to society and the world around them, because of societal preconceptions about what women could and should be. Our understanding of the full person — the private woman, the authentic woman — those pieces of her are not only lost but very often undiscovered. I feel like good historical fiction gives us a glimpse into the lives they really did have. I write fiction, but I'm fleshing out their worlds. I am hoping to get it right and see the woman as she really was, her exterior and interior self, her positive features and her flaws. It's those things that turn us into women that leave vast and wide legacies.
I love the DNA helix effect of the shading on the cover. Where did that idea come from?
It's so unique. The way they took those symbols and interpreted them for this cover is genius. The way in which the double helix, which is evident on one half and then suggested on the other half, and the way in which they use an X-ray image of the woman on the cover, it's so brilliant.
Why choose blue and pink for the colors?
I know they wanted to do something very color-saturated. There's nothing subtle about [these colors]. They're bold, which is an allusion to Rosalind herself. One of the many things that was unique about Rosalind was the fact that, unlike a lot of women scientists of her time, she really broke the mold in how she interacted with the world. She was unapologetic about her intellect. She was not afraid to voice her opinions or disagree with people. That struck some of her fellow scientists the wrong way. And so I imagined that when they chose these really vivid colors, they were almost giving a nod to Rosalind and her bold energy. Everywhere Rosalind Franklin went, she left a wave in her wake.
Her Hidden Genius is out Jan. 25, 2022.
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