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M. B. Synge

Mary Somerville


M ary Somerville, whose parents' name was Fairfax, was born in Scotland on the day after Christmas in the year 1780. Her father was away at sea; he had begun life early as a midshipman, and had been present at the taking of Quebec in 1759. He had left his wife in a little seaport town on the Scotch coast just opposite Edinburgh, in a house whose garden sloped down to the sea and was always full of bright flowers. The Scotch in this part lived a primitive kind of life; we are told that all the old men and women smoked tobacco in short pipes, and the curious way in which a cripple or infirm man got his livelihood. One of his relations would put him into a wheelbarrow, wheel him to the next neighbour's door, and there leave him. The neighbour would then come out, feed the cripple with a little oatcake or anything she could spare, and wheel him on to the next door. The next neighbour would do the same, and so on, and thus the beggar got his livelihood.

Here it was that Mary lived with her mother, her brother Sam, and sometimes her father.

Now Mrs. Fairfax was very much afraid of thunder and lightning; and when she thought a storm was coming on, she used to prepare by taking out the steel pins which fastened on her cap, in case they might attract the lightning. Then she sat on a sofa at some distance from the fireplace, and read aloud descriptions of storms in the Bible, which frightened her little daughter Mary more than the storm itself. The large dog Hero, too, seems to have shared in the general fear of thunder, for, at the first clap, he would rush howling indoors and place his head on Mary's knee. Thus, with shutters closed, they awaited the utter destruction they expected, but which never came.

When Mary was seven, her mother made her useful at shelling peas and beans, feeding the cocks and hens, and looking after the dairy. Once she had put some green gooseberries into some bottles, and taken them to the kitchen, telling the cook to boil the bottles uncorked, and when the fruit was enough cooked, to cork and tie them up. In a short time the whole house was alarmed by loud screams from the kitchen. It was found they proceeded from the cook, who had disobeyed orders, and corked the bottles before boiling, so of course they exploded. This accident interested Mary very much, and in after years she turned it to account in her reading of science.

She was devoted to birds, and would watch the swallows collecting in hundreds on the house roofs to prepare for their winter flight. She always fed the robins on snowy mornings, and taught them to hop in and pick up the crumbs on the table. All through her life this love of birds continued; and, when she was quite old, and her little mountain sparrow died, having been her constant companion for eight years, she felt its death very much.

When she was between eight and nine, her father came back from sea, and was quite shocked to find his little daughter still a wild, untrained child, unable to write, and only reading very badly, with a strong Scotch accent. So, after breakfast every morning, he made her read a chapter from the Bible and a paper from the "Spectator." But she was always glad when this penance was over, and she could run off with her father into the garden, and take a lesson in laying carnations and pruning fruit trees.

At last one day her father said: "This kind of life will never do; Mary must at least know how to write and keep accounts."

So Mary was sent to a boarding school kept by a Miss Primrose, where she was very unhappy. Fancy the wild, strong Scotch child, used to roaming about the lanes, wandering by the sea at her own will, caring for no lessons but those of Nature, suddenly enclosed in a stiff steel support round her body, a band drawing her shoulders back till the shoulder-blades met, a steel rod with a semicircle passing under her chin to keep her head up, and thus bound up having to learn by heart pages of Johnson's dictionary; not only to spell the words and give their parts of speech and meaning, but to remember the order in which they came! Such was the strict discipline through which Mary Fairfax passed for one long year. Once home again, she was like a wild animal escaped from a cage, but still unable so much as to write and compose a letter.

When the tide went out, she would spend hours and hours on the sands, watching closely the habits of the starfish and sea-urchins collecting shells, and wondering at curious marks of fern leaves and shells on blocks of stone. She had no one to tell her they were fossils, or to explain to her their curious forms.

Still her people at home were not satisfied with the way she "wasted her time," and she was sent to the village school to learn plain needlework. The village schoolmaster also came on the winter evenings to teach her the use of the globes, and at night she would sit up at her own little window trying to learn about the stars and moon. And yet, fond as she was of stars, the dark nights had their terrors for her.

One night, the house being full, she had to sleep in a room apart from the rest of the house, under a garret filled with cheeses, slung by ropes to the rafters. She had put out her candle and fallen asleep, when she was awakened by a tremendous crash and a loud rolling noise over head. She was very frightened; there were no matches in those days, so she could not get a light; but she seized a huge club shod with iron, which lay in the room, and thundered on the bedroom door till her father, followed by the whole household, came to her aid. It was found that some rats had gnawed the ropes on which the cheeses hung, and all the cheeses rolled down. However, Mary got no comfort, but only a good scolding for making such an uproar and disturbing the household in the night.

When she was thirteen, her mother took a small house in Edinburgh, and Mary was sent to a writing-school, and also taught music and arithmetic.

One day, when she was getting up, she suddenly saw a flash in the air. "There is lightning!" she cried to her mother.

"No," answered Mrs. Fairfax, "it is fire; "and on opening the shutters they found the next house but one was burning fiercely. They dressed quickly, and sent for some men to help pack the family papers and silver.

"Now let us breakfast; it is time enough to move our things when the next house takes fire," said her mother, calmly showing the presence of mind one would not have expected from a woman so afraid of a thunder storm.

At last Mary obtained what she had so long wished for, a Euclid, and she worked at it by day and night. "It is no wonder the stock of candles is soon exhausted," said the servants, "for Miss Mary sits up till a very late hour;" and accordingly an order was given that the candle should be put out as soon as she was in bed. So she had to content herself by repeating the problems at night by heart, till she knew well the first six books.

She had learnt to paint, too, in Edinburgh, and her landscapes at this time were thought a great deal of by various people.

In 1797 her father was in a naval battle against the Dutch, and for his brave action he was knighted.

"You ask for the promotion of your officers, but you never ask a reward for yourself," were words addressed to him on his return.

"I leave that to my country," answered Fairfax. And his daughter tells us that his country did little for him, and his wife had nothing to live on but £75 a year at his death in 1813.

In 1804 Mary Fairfax married a cousin, a Mr. Greig, and went to live in London. She was very poor, her mother could afford her but a small outfit, and gave her £20 to buy a warm wrap for the winter. Mrs. Greig lived a lonely life, for her husband was out all day for three years, at the end of which time she returned to her old home, a widow, with two little boys, one of whom died soon after.

Then she threw her whole self into the study of mathematics and astronomy. At last she succeeded in solving a prize problem, and was awarded a silver medal with her name upon it, which greatly delighted and encouraged her. When she had money enough she bought a little library of books on her favourite subjects, which have since been presented to the College for Women at Cambridge.

Her family and those around her thought her very foolish to read so hard at subjects they thought so useless. When, some years later, she was going to marry Dr. Somerville, his sister wrote to say she did hope the "foolish manner of life and studies" might be given up, so that she might make a "respectable and useful wife to her brother."

Her husband, however, encouraged her in her study of science; he saw nothing "foolish" in it at all, and he helped her to collect minerals and curious stones.

They travelled abroad a good deal, and then settled in London, where Mary Somerville gave up a good deal of her time to teaching her little children. Here she published a book on Physical Geography, which is very well known and used still. It was a great undertaking for a woman, and made a stir in the world of science.

But she was not entirely given up to science. We find her making with her own hands a quantity of orange marmalade for a friend, who had brought her back minerals from a foreign land, to take on his next voyage, and she enjoyed an evening at the play as much as anyone.

The long illness and death of their eldest child fell very heavily on Mrs. Somerville, and for a time she could not even work. Then they moved to Chelsea. Here she was asked to write an account of a French book which she had read on astronomy, a book which only some twenty people in England knew, and she  was chosen above all the learned men to write on this difficult subject. It was a vast undertaking; the more so as she still saw and entertained friends, not wishing to drop society altogether.

Moreover, it was not known what she was writing, as, if it turned out a failure, it was not to be printed. In the middle of some difficult problem a friend would call and say, "I have come to spend a few hours with you, Mrs. Somerville," and papers and problems had to be hidden as quickly as possible.

When it was finished, the manuscript was sent to the great astronomer Herschel, who was delighted with it.

"Go on thus," he wrote, "and you will leave a memorial of no common kind to posterity."

Mrs. Somerville never wrote for fame, but it was very pleasant to have such praise from one of the greatest men of science living. The success of her book proved its value, and astonished her. Seven hundred and fifty copies were sold at once, and her name and her work were talked of everywhere. Her bust was placed in the Great Hall of the Royal Society; she was elected a member of the Royal Academy in Dublin, and of the Natural History Society at Geneva. A bust of her was made the figurehead of a large vessel in the Royal Navy, which was called "Mary Somerville," and lastly, she received a letter from Sir Robert Peel, saying he had asked the king, George IV. to grant her a pension of 1200 a year, so that she might work with less anxiety.

Here was success for the self taught woman, raised by her own efforts higher than any woman before her in any branch of science, and it is pleasant to find her the same modest character after it as she was before.

Her health being broken, she went to Paris. Here she still went on writing; but being very weak and ill, she was obliged to write in bed till one o'clock. The afternoons she gave up to going about Paris and seeing her friends.

Some years after, her husband being ill, they went abroad to Rome, where they made many friends. One friend is mentioned as having won Mrs. Somerville's heart by his love for birds. The Italians eat nightingales, robins, and other singing birds, and when the friend heard this, he cried:

"What! robins! our household birds! I would as soon eat a child!"

In 1860 her husband died in Florence. To occupy her mind, Mrs. Somerville began to write another book. She was now over eighty, and her hand was not so steady as it used to be, but she had her eyesight and all her faculties, and with her pet mountain-sparrow sitting on her arm, she wrote daily from eight in the morning till twelve.

Five years later she had the energy to go all over an ironclad ship, which she was very curious to see.

"I was not even hoisted on board," she wrote to her son, but mounted the ladder bravely, and examined everything in detail except the stoke-hole!"

At the age of ninety she still studied in bed all the morning, but "I am left solitary," she says, with pathos, "for I have lost my little bird, who was my constant companion for eight years."

One morning her daughter came into the room, and being surprised that the little bird did not fly to greet her as usual, she searched for it, and found the poor little creature drowned in the jug!

In 1870 an eclipse of the sun interested Mrs. Somerville very much; it came after a huge thunder storm, and was only visible now and then between dense masses of clouds. The following year there was a brilliant Aurora lighting up the whole sky; many ignorant people were very frightened, because it had been said the world was coming to an end, and they thought that a bright piece of the Aurora was a slice of the moon that had "already tumbled down!"

Though at the age of ninety-two her memory for names and people failed, she could still read mathematics, solve problems, and enjoy reading about new discoveries and theories in the world of science.

Some months before her death, she was awakened one night at Naples to behold Mount Vesuvius in splendid eruption. It was a wonderful sight.

A fiery stream of lava was flowing down in all directions; a column of dense black smoke rose to more than four times the height of the mountain, while bursts of fiery matter shot high up into the smoke, and the roaring and thundering never ceased for one single moment.

Three days later extreme darkness surprised everyone; Mrs. Somerville saw men walking along the streets with umbrellas up, and found that Vesuvius was sending out an immense quantity of ashes like fine sand, and neither land, sea, nor sky were visible.

In the summer Mrs. Somerville and her daughters went out of Naples, and took a pleasant little house near the sea.

She still took a keen interest in passing events; she knew she could not live much longer, and she worked on to the actual day of her death, which took place in the autumn of 1872.

Mrs. Somerville stands alone as the greatest woman in the world of science; she was entirely self-taught, and it was by her own efforts she rose to be what she was—a woman of untiring energy, with wonderful power of thought and clearness of mind, a woman in advance of her times.