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For nearly 100 years, 19th-century scientists and naturalists were baffled by the platypus.
The classification of the native Australian animal became one of the century’s biggest scientific controversies. Was it a furry reptile or a mammal-bird? Or was it a hoax?
This historical enigma inspired the latest fiction novel, The Naturalist’s Daughter ,by Australian author Tea Cooper.
“They (some English naturalists) thought it was a duck’s bill sewn on to the body of a beaver or an otter,” Cooper says.
The debate flared in 1799, says Cooper, when Australian governor John Hunter observed an Aboriginal spear a “small amphibious animal of the mole kind” and sent the preserved skin to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon Tyne.
The former teacher and journalist was foraging through journals when she discovered a gap in history, sparking her imagination and cementing the plot for her fourth book, published by HQ, a Harlequin imprint.
“It said an unknown source had sent a platypus pelt to (English naturalist, explorer and botanist) Sir Joseph Banks prior to official records crediting Australian Governor John Hunter’s (discovery).
“That sparked the plot because I wondered what happened to the original pelt and who had sent it and why they weren’t recognised.
“That’s where Charles Winton (a character in the book) came from, I created a fictional character to basically plug the hole.”
The Naturalist’s Daughter is a captivating piece of fiction loosely based on this historical turn of events.
It tells the story of two women, a century apart, who are drawn into the mystery of the platypus’s classification.
In 1808, young Rose Winton wants nothing more than to work alongside her father, an eminent naturalist working on a ground-breaking study of the mammal from their town of Agnes Banks, New South Wales.
Charles Winton was mentored by Sir Joseph Banks and has a passage booked to present his findings from the local breeding ground to Banks in London. When her father is unable to take the trip and sends Rose to the prestigious Royal Society in England, what she discovers will change the lives of future generations.
One hundred years later, Tamsin Alleyn was sent to Wollombi in the Hunter Valley to collect a sketchbook donated by a recluse to the library she worked at in Sydney. But when she gets there, she discovers there is more to the book and more than one interested party. Can she find the book’s true provenance as the mystery becomes more intricate?
Cooper lives in a stone cottage on 40 hectares of bushland just outside the village of Wollombi.
“I’m totally spoilt,” she says of the environment she gets to write from.
“I am actually doing what I’ve always wanted to do, finally.”
When she isn’t writing, Cooper can be found haunting the local museum or chatting to the locals, who she says provide her with a never-ending source of inspiration.
“I suppose with every book, there is a right way and a wrong way to tell a story and this one couldn’t be told any other way,” she says of the two-pronged structure.
“I look for historical signposts then I aim to put the two together – the stories and the facts. I like it to be as historically correct as I can, but I do tamper with it occasionally, which I admit at the end.”
Cooper is also the best-selling author of
The Horse Thief, The Cedar Cutter and The Currency Lass.
The Naturalist’s Daughter by Tea Cooper, $29.99, is published by HQ. Available now in bookstores.