“When I think of all I tried to create in this world, your mind is the one unqualified success.”
For Daniela Messo, math prodigy and heroine of The Fiery Alphabet, Diane Lefer’s sweeping and illuminating new historical novel, these words are a fond memory of a father’s admiration. But they are also a kind of warning, for Daniela and her father live in eighteenth-century Rome, where female intellectuals confront suspicion and far worse threats from religious authorities and society at large.
The novel movingly describes Daniela’s efforts to persist and occasionally thrive in the face of such threats, and to shrewdly rebel against the limits they impose on her. It also allows readers to share Daniela’s journey, both intellectual and literal, toward a greater understanding of herself and of the larger world. Along the way she discovers that while her active mind puts her in danger, it can also be a saving grace.
Early in her life, Daniela would seem to have little to fear from religious authorities—in particular, those from the Catholic Church. She has come in for praise from Pope Benedict XIV, who rewarded her mathematical talents with congratulations and gifts. But upon Benedict’s death a less open-minded pope sends a cardinal to Daniela’s home, his aims being to find fault in her abilities rather than to praise them.
When she quickly solves a challenging math problem that the cardinal has posed to her, he all but accuses her of being a witch, with devastating consequences: immediately, Daniela’s father, Don Michele Messo, suffers a stroke, apparently because of the new dangers he sees ahead for his daughter. And in attempts to shield Daniela from such dangers, Fiammetta, a servant who has raised Daniela since her mother’s death, forbids her from leaving the confines of her home. In this way the walls of the Messo estate imprison Daniela as much as protect her.
This all starts to change when Guiseppe Balsamo, “a stranger, a Sicilian, without introductions or name,” shows up at the estate and asks for access to Don Michele’s library. He believes that Daniela and her father have hidden away the writings of “the Spanish Hebrew … a man of visions … of secrets, knowledge of the unknowable.” Balsamo says to Daniela, “This is the house he came to, and you are the last of his line.” All this is news to Daniela, and she is equally skeptical of and fascinated by Balsamo and his claims. Despite her doubts she finds herself falling in love with him and seeing him as a means of escape from her physical and intellectual confines in Rome.
Balsamo is based on the real-life Guiseppe Balsamo, a.k.a., Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, who is said to have traveled throughout Europe in the eighteenth century, gaining many followers through his proclaimed powers as an alchemist and healer. Such claims allowed him to separate several of his followers from their wealth. In The Fiery Alphabet, Daniela, after persuading Balsamo to include her in his travels, assists him with his scams. Of their crimes, she observes: “I do not feel guilty. There is justice in what we do, robbing the people who think they hold the world fast in their hands. They would rob me of what is more important than money—laughter and freedom—if they could.”
Lefer convincingly portrays the charms of a scoundrel and even of the scams. (Her depiction of Balsamo may remind some readers of whip-smart con artist Irving Rosenfeld, played so ably by Christian Bale in the new film “American Hustle.”) In one especially funny scene, a prince gives Balsamo and Daniela five jewels in exchange for the pledge that they will help him give birth to up to seventy-seven homunculi, who can then act as his servants. The prince need not couple with a female, Balsamo claims; the only requirement is that he ingest five bowls of beans a day. You can imagine the result.
Daniela’s travels with Balsamo aren’t all about the con, however. The new freedoms she experiences on the road, as well as her conflicts with Balsamo (essentially, he is drawn to the spiritual and she to the worldly and rational), lead her to new understandings of who she is and what she wants. They also help set the course of a journey she will make—without Balsamo—east and into the Ottoman Empire, where there are new mysteries to explore. Along the way she seeks to make the most of whatever freedoms she can manage to grasp, on her own terms.
By interweaving actual and imagined histories, Lefer shows how blurred the line between the two can sometimes be. At the same time she sheds light on the very real risks faced by women intellectuals of Daniela’s time—risks that, unfortunately, persist in various ways to this day. As Lefer explained in an interview with Eliza Gale, “Daniela’s story is pertinent today because, after all these centuries, the conflict between science and faith isn’t settled. We are also seeing a horrific backlash against women’s rights. In some countries, it’s taken particularly violent form, but women are under attack in many ways here in the U.S. as well.”
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Historical fiction, especially stories set in the Age of Enlightenment
• The history of Judaism (especially Jewish mysticism/Cabala), Catholicism, and Islam
• Stories about smart and charming con artists (think “American Hustle”)
• Tales of journeys or quests