I would normally begin with the fact that the name Lady Isabella Trent is known to every schoolchild and adult of the slightest education, but such assumptions have gotten me into trouble before here at the S&F Herald. While it’s possible that some villagers in far off corners of the world, or even in quiet corners of our own Scirland, have not heard of the life and times of the foremost studier of dragons, I would expect most of our readers to be familiar with her and her work. Breaking conventions of her time in regards to her sex, Lady Isabella Trent’s more salacious and popular accounts of her adventures have no doubt gotten many young boarding school readers into trouble for possessing and passing around. To say nothing of askance looks from one’s social peers to find such volumes on their bookshelf.
It is fitting that Lady Trent would honor the seminal book that set her on her career, Richard Edgeworth’s A Natural History of Dragons, and grace her own first volume of her memoirs with the same name. I can think of few, if any, other researchers into Dragons with the authority and background to make such an homage in title possible.
A Natural History of Dragons is something more concise, rigorous and formal–it is a memoir of the beginning of her life and career. Isabella’s childhood and early fascination with dragons is winningly and convincingly drawn. While this is a memoir, and not an autobiography, I feel confident that much of what the Lady Trent describes, from growing up and preserving her first Sparkling, to her first marriage, to Jacob Camherst, and the expedition to Vystrana that fills the majority of the book has the ring of truth. Vystrana is still a wild, distant land even now, and especially, then. Her adventures, then, when she heads upriver on the expedition with her husband is as much travelogue and slice-of-life as an exploration into the nature of the dragons of that region. She also captures the scientific endeavor so very well, showing the process of discovery of basic facts about dragons and their lifestyle that you, the reader, take for granted now.
And the illustrations! The long years that Lady Trent has spent in honing the craft of pencil sketches is wonderfully reproduced here. Indeed, I do wonder at the gift of her mind, to reproduce images of dragons and places that she has not seen in many years, working from memory as well as carefully prepared sketches from long ago to do so. The art in this volume is as transportive to the reader as the words.
Some readers may note that Lady Isabella Trent, now elderly, does write in the formal and sometimes florid style of her youth. Forgive her for that, dear readers. It is a wonderful immersion into that slice of our history and culture to have the memoir written in an archaic and stylized manner. It is not common in chapter books to include short word summaries in the header of the events, but when I reached Chapter Twelve and was greeted with “The Feast of The Reception – New Vystrani words – Draconean architecture and inscriptions – Something unexpected in the grass – Something even more unexpected belowground”, I became excited and eager to read ahead, into the night. Readers of this column will of course recall my enthusiastic response to Hines and Lynch’s seminal volume on Draconean architecture earlier this year.
The next volume in Lady Trent’s Memoirs, The Tropic of Serpents, promises to continue to relate Lady Trent’s adventures and how she accomplished her groundbreaking research into Dragons. From the perspective of a definitive retrospective on her life and career, as well as the painstakingly accumulated knowledge on this subject, I look forward to reading (and admiring the illustrations) of the next volume with the same pleasure as I did this first.
Correspondent for The S&F Herald