Recollections of Mary Somerville

Martha Somerville, daughter of Mary Somerville, edited Personal recollections of Mary Somerville and published the work in the year following her mother's death. It consists mainly of autobiographical writings which Mary Somerville intended for publication after her death. We give part of Martha Somerville's Introduction and below the Introduction by Mary Somerville herself.

Note that Martha writes about 'detached Recollections of past times, noted down by my mother during the last years of her life' which gives the impression that they were not intended for publication, but it is clear from letters that Mary Somerville wrote that she certainly intended the autobiography to be published:

Personal recollections of Mary Somerville


Martha Somerville

The life of a woman entirely devoted to her family duties and to scientific pursuits affords little scope for a biography. There are in it neither stirring events nor brilliant deeds to record; and as my Mother was strongly averse to gossip, and to revelations of private life or of intimate correspondence, nothing of the kind will be found in the following pages. It has been only after very great hesitation, and on the recommendation of valued friends, who think that some account of so remarkable and beautiful a character cannot fail to interest the public, that I have resolved to publish some detached Recollections of past times, noted down by my mother during the last years of her life, together with a few letters from eminent men and women, referring almost exclusively to her scientific works. A still smaller number of her own letters have been added, either as illustrating her opinions on events she witnessed, or else as affording some slight idea of her simple and loving disposition.

Few thoughtful minds will read without emotion my mother's own account of the wonderful energy and indomitable perseverance by which, in her ardent thirst for knowledge, she overcame obstacles apparently insurmountable, at a time when women were well-nigh totally debarred from education; and the almost intuitive way in which she entered upon studies of which she had scarcely heard the names, living, as the did, among persons to whom they were utterly unknown, and who disapproved of her devotion to pursuits so different from those of ordinary young girls at the end of the last century, especially in Scotland, which was far more old-fashioned and primitive than England.

Nor is her simple account of her early days without interest, when, as a lonely child, she wandered by the seashore, and on the links of Burntisland, collecting shells and flowers; or spent the clear cold nights at her window, watching the starlit heavens, whose mysteries she was destined one day to penetrate in all their profound and sublime laws, making clear to others that knowledge which she herself had acquired, at the cost of so hard a struggle.

It was not only in her childhood and youth that my mother's studies encountered disapproval. Not fill she became a widow, had she perfect freedom to pursue them. The first person - indeed the only one in her early days - who encouraged her passion for learning was her uncle by marriage, afterwards her father-in-law, the Rev Dr Somerville, minister of Jedburgh, a man very much in advance of his century in liberality of thought on all subjects. He was one of the first to discern her rare qualities, and valued her as she deserved; while through life she retained the most grateful affection for him, and confided to him many doubts and difficulties on subjects of the highest importance. Nothing can be more erroneous than the statement, repeated in several obituary notices of my mother, that Mr Greig (her first husband) aided her in her mathematical and other pursuits. Nearly the contrary was the case. Mr Greig took no interest in science or literature, and possessed in full the prejudice against learned women which was common at that time. Only on her marriage with my father, my mother at last met with one who entirely sympathised with her, and warmly entered into all her ideas, encouraging her zeal for study to the utmost and affording her every facility for it in his power. His love and admiration for her were unbounded; he frankly and willingly acknowledged her superiority to himself, and many of our friends can bear witness to the honest pride and gratification which he always testified in the fame and honours she attained.

No one can escape sorrow, and my mother, in the course of her long life, had her full share, but she bore it with that deep feeling of trust in the great goodness of God which formed so marked a feature in her character. She had a buoyant and hopeful spirit, and though her affections were very strong, and she felt keenly, it was ever her nature to turn from the shadows to all that is bright and beautiful in mortal life. She had much to make life pleasant in the great honours universally bestowed upon her; but she found far more in the devoted affection of friends, to say nothing of those whose happy lot it has been to live in close and loving intercourse with so noble and gentle a spirit.

She met with unbounded kindness from men of science of all countries, and most profound was her gratitude to them. Modest and unpretending to excess, nothing could be more generous than the unfeigned delight she showed in recognising the genius and discoveries of others; ever jealous of their fame, and never of her own.

It is not uncommon to see persons who hold in youth opinions in advance of the age in which they live, but who at a certain period seem to crystallise, and lose the faculty of comprehending and accepting new ideas and theories; thus remaining at last as far behind, as they were once in advance of public opinion. Not so my mother, who was ever ready to hail joyfully any new idea or theory, and to give it honest attention, even if it were at variance with her former convictions. This quality she never lost, and it enabled her to sympathise with the younger generation of philosophers, as she had done with their predecessors, her own contemporaries.

Although her favourite pursuit, and the one for which she had decidedly most aptitude, was mathematics; yet there were few subjects in which she did not take interest, whether in science or literature, philosophy or politics. She was passionately fond of poetry, her especial favourites being Shakespeare and Dante. and also the great Greek dramatists, whose tragedies she read fluently in the original, being a good classical scholar. She was very fond of music, and devoted much time to it in her youth, and she painted from nature with considerable taste. The latter was, perhaps, the recreation in which she most delighted, from the opportunity it afforded her of contemplating the wonderful beauty of the world, which was a never-failing source of intense enjoyment to her, whether she watched the changing effects of light and shade on her favourite Roman Campagna, or gazed, enchanted, on the gorgeous sunsets on the bay of Naples, as she witnessed them from her much loved Sorrento, where she passed the last summers of her life. All things fair were a joy to her - the flowers we brought her from our rambles, the seaweeds, the wild birds she saw, all interested and pleased her. Everything in nature spoke to her of that great God who created all things, the grand and sublimely beautiful as well as the exquisite loveliness of minute objects. Above all, in the laws which science unveils step by step, she found ever renewed motives for the love and adoration of their Author and Sustainer. This fervour of religious feeling accompanied her through life, and very early she shook off all that was dark and narrow in the creed of her first instructors for a purer and a happier faith.

It would be almost incredible were I to describe how much my mother contrived to do in the course of the day. When my sister and I were small children, although busily engaged in writing for the press, she used to teach us for three hours every morning, besides managing her house carefully, reading the newspapers (for she always was a keen, and, I must add, a liberal politician), and the most important new books on all subjects, grave and gay. In addition to all this, she freely visited and received her friends. She was, indeed, very fond of society, and did not look for transcendent talent in those with whom she associated, although no one appreciated it more when she found it. Gay and cheerful company was a pleasant relaxation after a hard day's work. My mother never introduced scientific or learned subjects into general conversation. When they were brought forward by others, she talked simply and naturally about them, without the slightest pretension to superior knowledge. Finally, to complete the list of her accomplishments, I must add that she was a remarkably neat and skilful needlewoman. We still possess some elaborate specimens of her embroidery and lace-work.

Devoted and loving in all the relations of life, my mother was ever forgetful of self. Indulgent and sympathising, she never judged others with harshness or severity; yet she could be very angry when her indignation was aroused by hearing of injustice or oppression, of cruelty to man or beast, or of any attack on those she loved. Rather timid and retiring in general society, she was otherwise fearless in her quiet way. I well remember her cool composure on some occasions when we were in great danger. This she inherited from her father, Admiral Sir William Fairfax, a gallant gentleman who distinguished himself greatly at the battle of Camperdown.

We give a short extract from Mary Somerville's introduction:


Mary Somerville

My life has been domestic and quiet. I have no events to record that could interest the public. My only motive in writing it, is to show my country women that self education is possible under the most unfavourable and even discouraging circumstances. I avoid gossip, and think it dishonourable to publish letters written in confidence between friends; the only instance in which I have transgressed this law, is when they are intimately connected with the circumstances of my scientific life. In my youth the prejudice was strong against learned women, it was still more so in the preceding generation. My mother whose maiden name was Margaret Charters learnt to read she scarce knew how, and had only three months' instruction in writing and accounts, yet she was the daughter of Samuel Charters a gentlemanly fine-looking man as I remember him, of good family and Solicitor General of the Customs for Scotland. My grandfather married Christian Murray of Kynynmont who died before I was born. Her elder sister who was an heiress was married to the great grandfather of the present Earl of Minto who took the name of Kynynmont in addition to his own. My grandmother had a large family, four sons and five daughters. All the sons had an excellent education and went to India; the eldest Samuel Charters who died chief judge of Patna was sent to travel after leaving college while it was thought self sufficient for the daughters to be able to read the Bible, write, and manage the house; however, Martha Charters the eldest, who married the Reverend Thomas Somerville and was afterwards my mother in law, had a little more instruction than the rest. Besides she was clever, witty and fond of reading: she knew Shakespeare almost by heart.

Last Updated August 2007