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Mary Somerville

BURNTISLAND lies pleasantly on the northern slope of the Firth of Forth—a place of easy retreat in summer-time for the busy citizens of Edinburgh. Its Links, or commons, sweep away in a long line down the coast, with great patches of furze, that here and there, in due season, gladden the eye with gleams of bright colour. The pressure of modern life has hardly improved it, save perhaps in the matter of tourist accommodation. The railway now disturbs the quiet of the Links, and lines of new houses have sprung up here and there, while picturesque old cottages have disappeared. But some eighty years ago it must have been a very desirable spot to dwell in. Aberdour woods lie not far off; there are other attractive spots within a short walk, notwithstanding that trees are scarce; and Edinburgh, seen across a silver strip of firth —seeming far withdrawn if the sun's heat has brought a misty glow into the atmosphere— tells of easy access to a great centre, and, by curious suggestion, adds to the repose and serenity of the little watering-place.

It was here that one of the most remarkable women of this century spent her strangely inquiring girlhood, meeting with little sympathy where her nature most deeply craved it, her greedy instincts undivined by those nearly related to her ; but still forming herself, all unconsciously, amidst backward circumstances, for the doing of a great work. Mary Somerville owed much to Mary Fairfax—the little girl who wandered all alone by the beach collecting shells, or played among the furze on the Links, or attended to her birds and pets, reflecting all the while on the oddities of character she met with, the sternness of the creed she had been taught at the kirk and the "catechizings," and longing for something she knew not what, which neither her home—-which was a right good one—nor her school had as yet supplied to her; while she would stand gazing for hours, on clear cold nights, at her window watching the stars, whose mysteries she was one day to render clear to others. In these days, to be able to read and write and cast up accounts was deemed even by the elite as fair education for a woman, and not otherwise did Mary Fairfax's parents view it. How she gradually got light from the most unexpected points, and, quietly availing herself of it, was ready for the next piece of good fortune that befell her, is only equalled in interest by the sedate satisfaction which she found in the performance of the ordinary duties of her lot. Her life is in this way all of one piece —hearty, homely, patient, yet aspiring;—the "rights of woman," as claiming to study what is not usually regarded as lying within a woman's sphere, if there be true taste and capacity, and the utmost faithfulness to domestic duties, completely reconciled in it. She was born in December, 1780, and was the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, who had shown rare capacity in several engagements, and who, for his decision in the action off Camperdown under Admiral Duncan, received the honour of knighthood. He was truly but unobtrusively religious. Once, in a severe storm in Yarmouth Roads, having done all that was possible for the safety of the ship, he went to bed. "His cabin door did not shut closely, from the rolling of the ship, and the man who was sentry that night told my mother afterwards, that when he saw my father on his knees praying, he thought it would soon be all over with him; then seeing him go to bed and fall asleep, he felt no more fear." During Fairfax's absence at sea Burntisland was the permanent place of abode for his wife and children. The deep hold which the quaint, kindly ways of the primitive people took upon little Mary's memory, and the affectionate manner in which she records them in her journal, show how much her imagination must have been touched by the details of her daily girlish life. She naively tells us how ladies still span their own flax; how the passing bell was rung at any death; how penny-weddings were common affairs among the poorer orders; how men and old women of the lower classes smoked tobacco in short pipes, and even young ladies took snuff; and how gaberlunzies, with blue coat and tin badge, still wandered from door to door begging, and carrying with them gossip and news. This gives us a suggestive glimpse:—

"My mother taught me to read the Bible, and to say my prayers morning and evening; otherwise she allowed me to grow up a wild creature. When I was seven or eight years old I began to be useful, for I pulled the fruit for preserving; shelled the peas and beans, fed the poultry, and looked after the dairy, for we kept a cow."

She had no dolls nor companions; but this perhaps only left her more free to develop a faculty for sharp observation of nature. She watched the flight of the swallows and other birds, recording that strings of wild geese were common in autumn. "I was amused on one occasion," she writes, "to see the clumsy, tame, fat geese which were feeding on the Links rise in a body and try to follow the wild ones." When she was between eight and nine her father returned from sea, and, shocked at finding her "such a savage," set himself to instruct her in reading ; but so untoward was he, that the books which were then a penance to her, she never afterwards reopened. But much as her father's

tuition had tried her, Miss Primrose's school at Musselburgh, to which she was now sent, was more trying to her still. It seems to have been conducted on the narrowest and primmest of old educational principles. The girls were kept in perpetual restraint: put in stays and steel busks and rods to improve the figure; and in this constrained state, had to prepare their lessons—the chief of which was to learn by heart a page of Johnson's Dictionary!

Twelve months were spent at this school without much result (and small wonder!). Mrs. Somerville acknowledges that when she returned she could not write a simple note, and got herself into a scrape by writing to her brother in Edinburgh that she had sent him a bank-knot (note) to buy some things for her. Now she enjoyed her freedom more than ever, wandering on the beach, collecting and observing.

"There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal-mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves ; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository......With the exception of dulse and tangle, I knew the names of none of the seaweeds, though I was well acquainted with and admired many of these beautiful plants. I also watched the crabs, live shells, jelly-fish, and various marine animals, all of which were objects of curiosity and amusement to me in my lonely life.,.....The bed of a stream or burn at Aberdour, I remember, was thickly covered with the freshwater mussel, which I knew often contained pearls: but I did not like to kill the creatures to get the pearls."

So here the scientific instinct has fairly dawned. She observes and draws her own inferences as to life-records, as Hugh Miller and many others have done, and nourishes a mute wonder as to causes, which she has no words to utter. When the bad weather comes, and she is compelled to stay indoors, she steals time from her sampler-sewing and her domestic duties, now resumed and increased, to read Shakespere and other books of the small collection in the house—probably with a vague hope that she may meet with some solution of the problems that have presented themselves to her mind. This reading is disapproved of, and she is sent to learn plain needlework, and has the house-linen given into her charge. "We had a large stock, much of it very beautiful, for the Scotch ladies at the time were very proud of their napery; but they no longer sent it to Holland to be bleached, as had once been the custom." Among the books was a copy of Mrs. Chapone's "Letters to Young Women," which she found time to pore over, in spite of the disapprobation, and she resolved to follow the course there recommended. She had found a pair of globes in the house, and, at her own request, was taught their use by Mr. Reed, the village schoolmaster, and would fain have added Latin and navigation. From her bedroom window that opened to the south she spent many hours at night studying the stars by the aid of the celestial globe.

When she was about thirteen she removed with her mother to Edinburgh for the winter, where she got lessons in writing, and on the pianoforte; but one of the chief events in her early life was a visit paid shortly after to her uncle, Dr. Somerville, at the manse of Jedburgh—a friend who approved of her thirst for knowledge, and was glad to aid her.

"He assured me," she says, "contrary to my fears, that in ancient times many women—some of them of the highest rank in England-—had been very elegant scholars, and that he would read Virgil with me if I would come to his study for an hour or two every morning before breakfast, which I gladly did. I never was happier in my life than during the months I spent at Jedburgh. My aunt was a charming companion—witty, full of anecdote, and had read more than most women of her day, especially Shakespere, who was her favourite author."

After another winter spent in Edinburgh, devoted mainly to dancing and deportment, she returned to Burntisland, and there one day, when a young lady was showing her a book of fashions, she was struck "by seeing in it strange-looking lines mixed with letters, chiefly X's and Y's. Her friend could not enlighten her further than by telling her that it was algebra—a sort of arithmetic. Now she set herself to find out about algebra, by searching all the books in the house; and great was her disappointment when Robertson's "Navigation," which had at first raised her hopes, failed to satisfy her. There was no one she could ask, and she was miserable. " I was often very sad and forlorn," she writes; "not a hand held out to help me."

While attending lessons at drawing with Mr. Nasmyth in Edinburgh, she first distinctly heard from him of "Euclid" as "the foundation, not only of perspective, but of astronomy and all mechanical science." But, in her circumstances, she knew not how to procure the books, and it was not till she had returned once more to Burntisland that she managed to get them, and some primary instruction also from Mr. Craw, a tutor employed for her younger brother. "I asked Mr. Craw to hear me demonstrate a few problems in the first book of ' Euclid,' and then I continued the study alone with courage and assiduity, knowing I was on the right road." The share in the household work, mending her own clothes, painting, practising music, and other things, took up her whole day, and she sat up late reading "Euclid." The servants, however, told her mother that in this way she wasted the candles, and they were instructed to take away her candle as soon as she was in bed. "I had already, however, gone through the first four books of "Euclid," and now I was thrown on my memory, which I exercised by beginning at the first book, and demonstrating in my mind a certain number of problems every night till I could go through the whole."

Next winter, when in Edinburgh, Mr. Nasmyth was greatly struck by her progress in painting; and she was highly praised for her pictures by so acute a critic as Dr. Hugh Blair. Now she saw something of society, going out to balls and parties in her sedan chair, unattended by a man-servant, as ladies generally were then, "as our household consisted of two maid-servants'only." She returned to Burntisland in the spring, and in this way she alternated between 'the two places, always "as we kept early hours, rising at daybreak, and, after dressing, wrapped in a blanket from my bed, on account of the excessive cold—having no fire at that hour—reading algebra or the classics till breakfast-time." So matters went on until 1804, when she was married to her cousin, Mr. Samuel Greig, Russian Consul, and went to live in London.

"I was alone the whole of the day in London," she says, "so I continued my mathematical and other pursuits, but under great disadvantages; for, although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met with no sympathy whatever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind. I also took lessons in French, and learnt to speak it so as to be understood."

After three years of married life, she returned to Burntisland a widow, with two boys, the youngest of whom died there very shortly. She rose early and resumed her studies. She was now familiar with plane and spherical trigonometry, conic sections, and Ferguson's Astronomy. Newton's "Prin-cipia " was attempted, but found too difficult. Mathematical science was low in Great Britain then; but she was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Professor Wallace, of Edinburgh, who exchanged notes with her, and helped her especially in the purchase of a good mathematical library. She had now the means, and pursued her studies systematically, disregarding the advice and offensive criticism of many of her own friends and family. "They expected me to entertain and keep gay house for them, and in that they were disappointed. As I was quite independent, I did not care for their criticism. A great part of the day was occupied with my children 5 in the evening I worked, played piquet with my father, or played at the piano, sometimes with violin accompaniment."

During these five years of widowhood much progress had been made and a foundation was laid for solid scientific work; but the realisation of this was delayed for a time through her marriage, in 1812, to her cousin, William Somerville, a son of Dr. Somerville, of Jedburgh. He had been a surgeon in the army, and had seen much of service and adventure. For a time they were not permanently settled, and lived during summer at Jedburgh, where they saw a good deal of Sir Walter Scott and his family, and the society which was gathered round them at Abbots-ford. But on Mr. Somerville being appointed, in 1816, a member of the Army Medical Board, it was necessary that they should reside in London, whither they went. The acquaintance of the Herschels and many other people of note, which she now made, was a source of much pleasure: and during a tour on the Continent, undertaken the first summer after their marriage, they carried letters of introduction to such men as Arago, Biot, Cuvier, and La Place, with whom she had scientific talk which stimulated her. An attack of illness prevented her from returning at the time fixed, and the tour was prolonged by their going into Italy, which afforded her some of the most interesting reminiscences.

On her return her children required much attention; and she devoted a good deal of time to minerals, of which she and her husband had made a fine collection. Their house more and more became the resort of people of eminence—Dr. Wollaston, Buck-land, Babbage, and many more. She was one of the very first to whom Wollaston communicated his discovery of the seven dark lines crossing the solar spectrum, out of which has come such wonderful knowledge as to the substances of the globe. For literary friends she had often as guests Sydney Smith, Maria Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie, and Mrs. Opie.

The death of a little daughter was a severe trial to her. Closely following on this came her husband's appointment as physician to Chelsea Hospital, which led them to change their abode to that district. That her children might not undergo the mortifications she had experienced through ignorance of modern languages, she was assiduous in teaching them, and in attending to her household, which probably it was that led Miss Edgeworth to speak of her thus:— "She draws beautifully; and while her head is among the stars, her feet are firm upon the earth."

As the children could now be left in charge of others, another continental tour was undertaken. Brussels, Bonn, and the chief points of interest in Holland were visited, and acquaintance made with many men and women of note, among others Madame de Stael.

Shortly after her return her husband received a letter which, she says, surprised her beyond expression. It was from Lord Brougham, intimating a "design he had formed against Mrs. Somerville." The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge had just been instituted, and he wished her to co-operate, adding these words:—

"I assure you I speak without any flattery, when I say that of the two subjects which I find it most difficult to see the chance of executing, there is one, which, unless Mrs. Somerville will undertake, none else can, and it must be left undone, though about the most interesting of the whole [list of subjects proposed], I mean an account of the Mecanique Celeste; the other is an account of the Principia, which I have some hopes of at Cambridge."

After much thought and further pressure, Mrs. Somerville, with characteristic modesty and good sense, agreed to try on condition. "I am afraid," she said, "that I am incapable of such a task; but as you both wish it so much, I shall do my very best upon condition of secresy, and that if I fail the manuscript shall be put in the fire." Her own condition of secresy added a good deal to her difficulties. She writes:—

"I rose early, and made such arrangements with regard to my children and family affairs, that I had time to write afterwards; not, however, without many interruptions. A man can always command his time under the plea of business, a woman is not allowed any such excuse. At Chelsea I was always supposed to be at home, and as my friends and acquaintances came so far out of their way on purpose to see me, it would have been unkind and ungenerous not to receive them. Nevertheless, I was sometimes annoyed, when in the midst of a difficult problem some one would enter and say, 'I have come to spend a few hours with you.' However, I learnt by habit to leave a subject and resume it again at once, like putting a mark into a book I might be reading ; this was the more necessary as there was no fireplace in my little room, and I had to write in the drawing-room in winter. Frequently I hid my papers as the bell announced a visitor, lest any one should discover my secret."

The work, which was done among such distractions as these, was at length finished and sent to Lord Brougham, and was speedily declared by all competent judges to be a masterpiece alike in point of knowledge, clearness of arrangement, and simplicity of style. Sir John Herschel wrote: "What a pity La Place has not lived to see this illustration of his great work! You will only, I fear, give too strong a stimulus to the study of abstract science by this performance." It was at once introduced into the course of studies at Cambridge, and sold largely; its author was elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and of many other learned bodies; and a pension was granted her from the Civil List by Sir Robert Peel.

The author meanwhile was only finding out new work that wanted to be done. In re-writing the preface for a later edition, she was struck by the many points of connection of the physical sciences, and set about writing a work on that subject. Her health, which had never been good at Chelsea, had now become so bad as to make change necessary, and she was conveyed to France, where, after a time, acquaintance with old friends was renewed and new friendships formed—every one willingly aiding her in her work. She was so delicate, however, that at times she wrote in bed ! After the printing was begun, the correction of the proof-sheets, which were sent through the Embassy, was found to be "a very tedious business." Her daughters were indefatigable in their attentions to her, however, and gradually a measure of strength returned. The book was published about the time she reached home, and added to her reputation. It was by-and-by found that her health was not so completely restored as to enable her to remain permanently in England. A more genial climate was felt to be advisable, and accordingly the greater portion of her afterlife was spent in Italy—now in Rome, surrounded by such friends as Gibson the sculptor, Lady Davy, and others—now at Albano, now in Venice, now in Naples, varied by visits home in summer-time, which she much enjoyed. Everywhere she was the same genial-hearted, high-thinking, industrious woman, in midst of indifferent health working out patiently her scientific ideas ; for it was in such circumstances that the valuable work on "Physical Geography," with its immense research and its luminous arrangement, as well as the wonderfully clear and popular treatise on "Molecular and Microscopic Science," and those papers on the various experiments upon the effect of the solar spectrum on juices of plants and other substances, which Sir John Herschel communicated to the Royal Society, were all written. Even during her residence abroad, her daughter says, "She never allowed anything to interfere with her morning work. After that was over she was delighted to join in any plan which had been formed for the afternoon's amusement, and enjoyed herself thoroughly, whether in visiting antiquities and galleries in the neighbourhood, or else

going with a friend to paint on the Cam-pagna, [or other interesting points near Albano or elsewhere]." Her love of nature, and her fine eye for the beautiful, whether in art or scenery, rendered her residence abroad a delight, and defied weariness or vague regret. The husband who had so fully sympathized with her, and who possessed her full sympathy and affection, passed away in 1860, to her great grief. She was now unoccupied, and unoccupied time became, if possible, more trying to her; and so, under the advice of her daughters, she began to arrange her thoughts about molecular and microscopic science, which finally grew into the work of which we have already spoken. She wrought on, indeed, unremittingly, telling us that, in 1869, when she was in her ninetieth year she had " still the habit of studying in bed from eight in the morning till twelve or one o'clock." In her ninety-second year, though somewhat deaf, she was able to drive out for some hours a day, and still took lively and genial interest in all that was going on in science, in art, and politics, not forgetting kind remembrances of her many friends, nor failing to record her regrets for those of her contemporaries who were passing away. She was free from the grudges and querulous repinings of age, as woman ever was. She was sometimes afraid of losing her intellectual powers, and her wishes in that regard were granted to her. "Her last occupations," says her daughter, "continued to the day of her death. ... It was with intense delight that she pursued her intricate calculations after her ninetieth and ninety-first years, and repeatedly told me how she rejoiced to find that she had the same readiness and facility in comprehending and developing these extremely difficult formulae which she possessed when young." She died on the 29th of November, 1872, passing away so gently that those around her could scarcely tell the moment when she left them. Though she had seen reason to reject some of the severer dogmas of the creed she had been taught in her youth, she was sincerely and unostentatiously religious.

Her humility remained unspoiled by success. When on a visit to her old friend and helper, Dr. Somerville, at Jedburgh, she expressed her determination to put the manuscript of her "Physical Geography" in the fire, because Humboldt's "Cosmos" had just appeared, and she was only dissuaded from doing so by his urgent entreaties. Her indefatigable industry was equal to her humility and her keen sense of duty.

Brave, patient, noble old lady ! She was surely a worthy link between two eras. She had the high-born heartiness, abiding contentment, and sunshiny humour which twinkled forth so brightly in the lives of her immediate predecessors ; and she had all the aspiration after knowledge, which is-said to be characteristic of our busier time. Her memory, were it only because of this remarkable and almost unique union of qualities, deserves to be kept green, and her life to be carefully studied by thoughtful young women in these days, when scientific training is being more and more conceded as theirs by right of natural capacities.


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