Queen of Science: Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville

By Mary Somerville

Rating: 3 stars

I’m finding it difficult to sum this book up. Despite the author being intimately familiar with science, particularly maths and astronomy, this very definitely isn’t a science book. It doesn’t even really talk very much about the difficulties Somerville faced in her studies and in being accepted in the scientific world, despite an unsympathetic family and first husband in her youth.

What it is, is a very interesting portrait of a fairly well-to-do British family in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the kind of family that can hobnob with royalty and popes (Mary Somerville recounts meeting at least two) and spend their year wandering around Europe, staying with wealthy families on country estates for months on end. At one point, it is mentioned that the Somervilles do lose the bulk of their fortune, but there are no details, and it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to their lives.

Somerville is quite the scientific pioneer, in her translation and popular science writing work, and she mentions being granted honorary and associate membership of many scientific bodies. I felt it was entirely unfair that these memberships weren’t full (because the bodies at the time didn’t allow women to be members), but Somerville herself never mentions the point at all. I don’t know what she’d make of the fact that she’s going to feature on the £10 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland from 2017.

She was a life-long liberal (and, indeed, Liberal-with-a-capital-L), and very fond of animals, putting her name to various attempts in Italy (where she spent most of the later part of her life) to create legislative protection for them. In other ways, she perhaps wouldn’t be considered liberal to modern eyes, being firmly behind the adventure of empire, believing it to be “civilising” to the native peoples, and lamenting the fact that black men were given the vote before white women. We can’t be too harsh on her, as these were attitudes that were very difficult to avoid in the era that she lived, and for her time, she was indeed a very progressive person.

Somerville wrote her memoirs in the last few years of her life, and they were edited and published by her daughter after her death. This isn’t that book; the current editor has taken the published text, along with the original manuscripts of the various drafts and drawn together a new text synthesising all of the above (clearly labelling parts of the text that were drawn from the manuscripts). This is a very interesting insight into the editing process, looking at what Somerville and, then her daughter, felt fit to include or exclude.

So an interesting sketch of a particular part of a society that is now distant from us in time and attitudes, but not exactly a salacious warts ‘n’ all autobiography.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841951362
Publisher: Canongate UK
Year of publication: 1973

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