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The Leisure Hour/1871/Number 1032/Mrs Mary Somerville

< The Leisure Hour‎ | 1871‎ | Number 1032


Mary Somerville Leisure Hour.jpg

When discharging his official duties as Sheriff of Selkirkshire, at Jedburgh, in the autumn of 1826 —that calamitous year which brought ruin to his fortunes—Sir Walter Scott breakfasted at the manse of Jedburgh with his life-long friend, Dr. Thomas Somerville, the minister of the parish. "This venerable gentleman," writes Sir Walter in his diary of that date, "is one of the oldest of the literary brotherhood; I suppose about eighty-seven, and except a little deafness quite entire. Living all his life in good society as a gentleman born; and having, besides, professional calls to make among the poor, he must know, of course, much that is curious concerning the momentous changes which have passed under his eyes." Dr. Somerville was descended from a branch of the ancient family of the Somervilles of Drum, ennobled in the peerage of Scotland in the fifteenth century. Besides other works he wrote a "History of Great Britain during the Reign of Queen Anne," which was dedicated by permission to George III. Being at the time of its publication in London, the author was introduced at St. James's, and personally presented a copy to the king. A posthumous volume from his pen, entitled "My Own Life and Times," was not published until 1861. This work embraces much that is interesting concerning the social changes alluded to by Sir Walter Scott. Extracts from the mss. were furnished to Mr. Lockhart when engaged on the Life of the great Novelist, and from these it appears that Dr. Somerville, and more particularly his wife—" a lady of remarkable talent and humour"—had formed a high notion of Scott's future eminence at a very early period of his life. "Dr. Somerville," says Lockhart, "survived to a great old age, preserving his faculties quite entire I have spent many pleasant hours under his hospitable roof in company with Sir Walter Scott." The wife of Dr. Somerville, whose talent and humour impressed the biographer of Scott during these visits to the manse of Jedburgh, was a daughter of Samuel Charteris, Esq., Solicitor of the Customs for Scotland. Another daughter of this gentleman, Margaret, became the wife of Mr. William George Fairfax, the father of the subject of our notice, a distinguished naval officer, who, born in 1738, entered the Navy at an early age, and continued in it for the long period of sixty-three years. Mr. Fairfax (afterwards Sir William G. Fairfax) was present at the taking of Quebec by General Wolfe, in 1759; and in 1778, when in command of the "Alert," he captured "LeCoureur," the first ship taken in the French war —a service greatly enhanced from the "Arethusa" being engaged at the same time in her celebrated action with the "Belle Foule." At the battle of Camnerdown, Fairfax commanded the "Venerable," Admiral Duncan's own ship; and for his gallant conduct on that occasion he received the honour of knighthood. He was also made colonel of marines, and afterwards appointed Vice-Admiral of the Red. From the circumstance of his absence from Scotland engaged in the service of his country, it turned out that his daughter, Mary Fairfax, afterwards to become celebrated as Mary Somerville, was born in 1782, at her uncle Dr. Somerville's house—the manse of Jedburgh. Of the early years of Mary Fairfax, beloved by Dr. Somerville and his wife as "a child of the manse." we find a pleasing notice in "My Own Life and Times." Dr. Somerville thus writes: "Miss Fairfax was born and nursed in my house, her father being at that time abroad on public service. She afterwards often resided in my family; was occasionally my scholar, and was looked upon by me and my wife as if she had been one of our own children. I can truly say that next to them she was the object of our most tender regard. Her ardent thirst for knowledge, her assiduous application to study, and her eminent proficiency in literature, and in science and the fine arts, have procured her a celebrity rarely attained by any of her sex; but she never displays any pretensions to superiority, while the affability of her temper and the gentleness of her manners afford constant resources of gratification to her family and intimate friends."

At Edinburgh, on the 28th June, 1804, Miss Fairfax was married to her cousin, Captain Samuel Greig, of the Russian Navy. Captain Greig was a son of the celebrated Admiral Greig, who having been first an officer in the British Navy, had entered the Russian Service after the peace of 1763; and whose skill in naval affairs and diligent discharge of his duties attracted the attention of the Russian Government, and led to his speedy promotion. For his brilliant services in a war with Turkey, Commodore Greig was at once nominated Rear-Admiral, and on peace being concluded with that power he devoted himself to the improvement of the Russian fleet, and to the remodelling of its code of discipline; and thus justly earned for himself the title of "Father of the Russian Navy." The grandson of Admiral Greig, Woronzow Greig, we may here in passing note was aide-de-camp to Prince Menschikoff during the Crimean War, and bore a flag of truce to Lord Raglan. He subsequently fell at the battle of Inkermann. After a married life of three years, Mrs. Greig was bereaved of her husband, who died in 1807, at that time holding the appointments of Commissioner for the Navy of the Emperor of Russia, and officiating Russian Consul in Great Britain.

Dr. William Somerville, the son of the worthy minister of Jedburgh, attached to the medical department of the British Army, served for a considerable period abroad, more particularly in Canada, and at the Cape of Good Hope. He returned home in 1811, and during his visit to this country his intimacy with his cousin, Mrs. Greig, was renewed, which led to their marriage on the 18th of May, 1812. In regard to this happy event the reverend doctor, his father, remarks: "What above all other circumstances rendered my son's choice acceptable to me was that it had been the anxious though secret desire of my dear wife." This excellent lady died in 1809; the father survived until 1830, and attained the age of ninety. Admiral Fairfax died at Edinburgh in the year following his daughter's second marriage. In 1836, in consideration of his distinguished naval services, but slightly rewarded in his lifetime, a baronetcy was conferred on his son Henry Fairfax, of Holmes, Roxburghshire, who also attained to the rank of colonel in the army. The title is now held by Sir William George Herbert Taylor Fairfax, the nephew of Mrs. Somerville, who was engaged in the Crimean war, and who succeeded his father, Sir Henry, in 1860. It is worthy of note that Sir David Brewster, with whom Mrs. Somerville had during his life been on terms of intimate friendship, was born in the town of Jedburgh one year before the birth of that lady. Science has thus shed it lustre on that ancient town. Jedburgh is also associated with names eminent in literature; not, however, to speak of these, we may mention that half a mile to the south of Jedburgh resided James Veitch, a self-taught inventive and mechanical genius—a valued friend of Sir Walter Scott, and to whose knowledge and practical experience Sir David Brewster was much indebted for early help and training. Mrs. Somerville was also in her youth intimately acquainted with Veitch, and it is with evident delight that she mentions the Jedburgh worthy in her "Connection of the Physical Sciences" as the first to discover the great comet of 1811. On the occasion of the visit of the celebrated Dr. Wollaston to Jedburgh, Mrs. Somerville introduced him to Veitch, and also in later years he made the acquaintance of Professor Sedgwick, and corresponded with other scientific notabilities.

The first instance we find of Mrs. Somerville's scientific tastes being turned to account in the way of original research, is in the case of her well-known experiments made in 1825, on the magnetising power of the more refrangible solar rays. Her apparatus was of a simple kind. A slender sewing-needle an inch long, quite devoid of magnetism, was half-covered with paper, and fixed to the panel of the wall with wax, so that its uncovered half should receive the rays of a spectrum formed by an equi-angular prism of flint-glass placed five feet from the wall. In less than two hours Mrs. Somerville found that the half of this needle exposed to the violet rays attracted the south and repelled the north pole of the magnetic needle. In other modes the same effect was produced; the blue, green, and indigo rays were found to have to a less extent the magnetising power possessed by the violet rays. These experiments, confirmatory of results obtained in 1813 by Professor Morichini, of Rome, are noticed by Sir David Brewster, and Principal James D. Forbes, in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica;" the one in his articles on "Magnetism and Optics," and the other in his "Dissertation on the Progress of Mathematical and Physical Science." The results arrived at by Mrs. Somerville were embodied in a paper "On the Magnetising Power of the more Refrangible Solar Rays," which was communicated by her husband, Dr. Somerville, to the Royal Society, of which he was a Fellow, on the 2nd Febuary, 1826. The correctness of these results was, however, disputed; and much discussion ensued on the difficult point of experimental inquiry involved. The question was only set at rest some years later by the researches of Riess and Moser, two distinguished German electricians, in which the action upon the magnetic needle was shown not to have been caused by the violet rays.

We may here refer to other experiments made by Mrs. Somerville in 1835, on the permeability of different bodies to the chemical rays of the sun, similar to those of Melloni on the heating rays. An account of these she sent to Arago, which that philosopher brought before the Académie des Science, on the 31st December of that year. Arago at the same time referred to Mrs. Somerville as a person eminently distinguished, and expressed his desire to give her interesting experiments all the publicity which the meetings and reports of the Academy could confer. Her paper was entitled "Experiments on the Transmission of the Chemical Rays of the Solar Spectrum through various Media."

Soon after his marriage Dr. William Somerville was appointed Deputy Inspector of Hospitals at Portsmouth. This appointment he exchanged for a similar one at Edinburgh; but ultimately he was appointed Physician to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where he resided until his retirement from the service. From the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, Mrs. Somerville dates her "Mechanism of the Heavens," and the earlier editions of her "Connection of the Physical Sciences." To the first of these works we have now to refer. Its execution involved a task of vast labour, the successful accomplishment of which proved Mrs. Somerville to be profoundly versed in the higher branches of mathematics. Her aim was to interpret to the English reader the "Mécanique Céleste" of La Place, or in other words, to explain the methods by which the results arrived at by La Place in that work are deduced from one general equation of the motion of matter. The purpose and scope of La Place's celebrated work, and the nature of her own labours, will be best understood from the following remarks by Mrs. Somerville. "Simple as the law of gravitation is, its application to the motions of the bodies of the solar system is a problem of great difficulty; but so important and interesting that the solution of it has engaged the attention and exercised the talents of the most profound mathematicians, among whom La Place holds a distinguished position by the brilliancy of his discoveries, as well as from having been the first to trace the influence of gravitation from the elliptical motions of the planets to its most remote effects on their mutual perturbations. Such was the object contemplated by him in his splendid work—a work which may be considered as a great problem of dynamics, wherein it is required to deduce all the phenomena of the solar system from the abstract laws of motion, and to confirm the truth of these laws by comparing theory with observation." La Place in the "Mécanique Céleste," in short, undertook the arduous task of forming a complete system of physical astronomy, in which the various motions in nature should be deduced from the first principles of mechanics. And Mrs. Somerville, in her "Mechanism of the Heavens," endeavoured, as we have said, to explain to the English reader the methods by which the French astronomer and mathematician attained his magnificent results. The great work of La Place, which he regarded as embodying not only the fruits of his own researches, but also those of his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries, is, as he himself well expressed it to Mrs. Somerville, "a monument to the genius of the age in which it appeared." It is interesting also to find from a letter addressed to our authoress, that the great Frenchman expressed a very ardent admiration of Newton's "Principia," while she, on her part, holds La Place as yielding to Newton only in priority of time.

The "Mechanism of the Heavens," which, appeared in 1831, was undertaken at the request of Lord Brougham, and was originally intended as one of the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; but having unavoidably exceeded the necessary limits, it was published by Mr. Murray, of Albemarle-Street, and dedicated to his lordship, then Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.

The late Professor Wallace, in referring to instances of ladies who have applied their talents to the study and improvement of mathematics with success, and after naming Hypatia, the daughter of the ancient geometer Theon and Maria Gaetana Agnesi, who was professor of mathematics in the University of Bologna in the year 1748, thus speaks of our authoress: "At the present time we have another admirable instance of a lady who has surmounted the difficulties of the calculus. Mrs. Somerville, in her work entitled 'Mechanism of the Heavens,' has enriched English literature with a treatise on physical astronomy, in which the different branches of the calculus are combined with the most refined theories of mechanics."

The preliminary dissertation to her treatise so competent an authority as Sir John Herschel, writing in 1833, has pronounced "by far the best condensed view of the Newtonian philosophy which has yet appeared." Nor are the following remarks from the same pen, bearing on Mrs. Somerville's manner as a scientific writer, less worthy of citation. "Simplicity of character and conduct, and an entire absence of anything like female vanity or affectation, pervade the whole of the present work. In the pursuit of her object, and in the natural and commendable wish to embody her acquired knowledge in a useful and instructive form for others, she seems entirely to have lost sight of herself; and, although in perfect consciousness of the possession of powers fully adequate to meet every exigency of her arduous undertaking, it yet never appears to have suggested itself to her mind, that the acquisition of such knowledge, or the possession of such powers by a person of her sex, is in itself anything extraordinary or remarkable. We find nothing beyond the name on the title-page, nothing throughout the work, to remind us of its coming from a female hand. Even the tempting opportunity of deprecating criticism, which a preface affords, is neglected; nor does anything apologetic, in the tone of her admirably-written preliminary discourse, betray a latent consciousness of superiority to the less-gifted of her sex, or a claim either on the admiration or forbearance of ours, beyond what the fair merits of the work itself may justly entitle it to. There is not only good taste but excellent good sense in this."

From her work on the "Connection of the Physical Sciences," first published in 1834, and which has gone through numerous editions, Mrs. Somerville's name became much more widely known. It was dedicated to the Queen in the following terms: "Madam, if I have succeeded in my endeavour to make the laws by which the material world is governed more familiar to my countrywomen, I shall have the gratification of thinking that the gracious permission to dedicate my book to your Majesty has not been misplaced." This dedication is in keeping with the singular modesty and want of ostentation which belong to her own character, and which mark all her writings. In the "Connection of the Physical Sciences" the authoress professes to write for her countrywomen, and her aim, indicated by a quotation from Sir James Mackintosh, is "to inspire the love of truth, of wisdom and beauty—especially of goodness, the highest beauty—and of that supreme and eternal Mind, which contains all truth and wisdom, all beauty and goodness." Mrs. Somerville writes with much true yet repressed feeling, and with that calm self-possession which springs from perfect knowledge. Always lucid and exact, she is never, although dealing with some of the sublimest themes of thought, betrayed into a tumid eloquence. She allows the great facts of science to speak for themselves, and rather appeals to the reason than the imagination by her unadorned exposition of physical truths! Yet the effect on the imagination is all the greater from this rigid exclusion of inflated language. Instead, however, of any words of our own commendatory of this now classic work, we borrow those of a writer in the "Quarterly Review:"—"Before the student of astronomy enters upon the treatise of Sir John Herschel, he should prepare his thoughts for the tone of elevation which it requires by reading Mrs. Somerville's delightful volume on the 'Connection of the Physical Sciences.' The style of this astonishing production is so clear and unaffected, and conveys with so much simplicity so great a mass of profound knowledge, that it should be placed in the hands of every youth the moment he has mastered the general rudiments of education."

At the annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society held in February, 1835, the names of Mrs. Somerville and Miss Caroline Herschel were added to the list of honorary members, which at that time contained only the names of the Duke of Sussex and Captain Beaufoy, r.n. The unusual step of conferring upon ladies such high scientific distinction was fully justified, as we have seen in the case of Mrs. Somerville, by the merits of her work on the "Mechanism of the Heavens;" and not less so in that of Miss Herschel, whose observations of Encke's comet, and catalogue of Nebulæ observed by her brother, Sir William Herschel, added lustre to the name she bore in astronomical knowledge and discovery.

We now refer to Mrs. Somerville's next popular publication, "Physical Geography," issued in two volumes in 1848. These volumes have been happily characterised by Sir David Brewster in a few cordial and appreciative remarks which we gladly transfer to our pages. "From the lofty theme of physical astronomy," says Sir David, "in which she achieved her maiden reputation, and from the wide and rich field of the physical sciences, whose connection she traced with a master's hand, Mrs. Somerville has descended to the humbler though not less important subject of natural or physical geography, and we have no doubt, from the popular character of the science, as well as its relation to our sympathies and interests, that she will command a wider circle of readers, and enjoy the gratification so much desired by herself, of making the laws by which the material world is governed more familiar to her country-women. This work is written in a style always simple and perspicuous, often vigorous and elegant, and occasionally rising to a strain of eloquence commensurate with the lofty ideas which it clothes. In Mrs. Somerville's pages no sentiments are recorded which the Christian or the Philosopher disowns. In associating life with nature—in taking cognisance of man as tenant of the Earth-home which she describes, her sympathies are ever with the slave, her aspirations ever after truth, secular and divine; and everywhere throughout her work we meet with noble sentiments, the indication and offspring of a highly cultivated and well-balanced mind."

Soon after Dr. William Somerville's resignation of his appointment as physician to Chelsea Hospital, he retired with his wife to the Continent. They afterwards resided chiefly in Italy. When at Florence in 1857, Sir David Brewster thus writes: "Called on Dr. and Mrs. Somerville, and showed them the phenomena of the radiant spectrum." The radiant spectrum was discovered by Sir David in 1812, and the discovery communicated in that year to the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and it is interesting here to note that on the occasion of the last public appearance of the great Scottish philosopher at the Dundee meeting of the British Association in 1867, he read a paper on the radiant spectrum, an account of which will be found in the volume of the Association's proceedings for that year. At Florence, Dr. William Somerville died on the 20th June, 1860, having attained the age of ninety-one. Mrs. Somerville continues to reside abroad, and, in the words of Mrs. Gordon, in her "Home Life of Sir David Brewster," "still lives to show to the world what woman can accomplish in intellectual and scientific work without sacrificing one iota of her feminine and household gracefulness and dignity." Not only does this venerable lady still live at the ripe age of eighty-nine, but it would appear that her interest in scientific subjects is as fresh, her labours as incessant, and her pen as busy as ever. Two years since she published two volumes on "Molecular and Microscopic Science," which convey much condensed information, and give an admirable summary of the recent and fruitful researches in these departments of investigation. The volumes are otherwise marked by all the well-known literary excellences of the gifted writer.

A new edition of the "Physical Geography" has recently appeared, revised by Mr. W. H. Bates, Assistant-Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, and author of the "Naturalist on the River Amazon," and brought up by him to the present state of geographical knowledge and discovery.

Mrs. Somerville's merits as an original investigator and a popular writer on science were recognised by Government in 1835, and again in 1837. She enjoys a pension of £300 a year from the Civil List.

An engraving from a bust of Mrs. Somerville, executed at Rome by Macdonald in 1848, accompanies our notice. This bust was possessed by her relative, Woronzow Greig, to whom we referred as having fallen on the Russian side at the battle of Inkermann. A cast of it may be seen at the Crystal Palace. Another bust of our authoress by Chantry adorns the library of the Royal Society. It was subscribed for by several Fellows, and presented to the Society by the late Duke of Sussex, in his own name and that of the other subscribers, on the 10th March, 1842. The accompanying portrait is from a drawing by J. R. Swinton, in 1848, and represents Mrs. Somerville at the age of sixty-six.

We may add that the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for 1869 was awarded to Mrs. Somerville for her work on Physical Geography. Sir Roderick Murchison, the President, on that occasion paid a warm and graceful tribute to the distinguished scientific merits and attractive personal character of the venerable authoress.

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This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.