Mary Somerville’s “Personal Recollections”

I *LOVE* to find new books that are based on letters, diaries, or personal recollections. Sometimes, as in this case, they are edited and published by a loved-one.

PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS from Early Life to Old Age, of MARY SOMERVILLE, with selections from her personal correspondence, was published in 1873 by John Murray (there also exists an 1874 Boston edition by Roberts Brothers). The editor, who does a nice job of introducing the material, bridging gaps, and adding valuable information, was Martha Somerville, Mary’s daughter.

Martha speaks favorably of a bust of her mother – which is reproduced as the frontispiece in the Murray edition. The bust was “modelled in Rome in 1844 by Mr. Lawrence McDonald.” The illustration below is from the Boston edition; it may represent the “crayon drawing by Mr. James Swinton, done in London in 1848.”

mary somerville

Although I suspected her to be the Mrs. Somerville (1780-1872) whom Emma Smith (one of my Two Teens in the Time of Austen) mentions in the 1820s, it was by searching the book for the Chelsea Hospital that I got confirmation of my hunch being correct!

Mrs. Somerville was the wife of physician William Somerville, whom the Smiths knew quite well.

william somerville

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for him lists him as “the husband of eminent mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville.”

While the article notes his appointment to the Chelsea Hospital (home of the “Chelsea Pensioners”), it is in his wife’s “recollections” we learn of the dire situation the family was left in, after they “lost their fortune,” due to someone they had considered a friend. The Smiths claim Somerville had a salary of £2000 (an enormous sum). Mary Somerville recalls the position at Chelsea as a chance for the family to survive.

Emma Smith and her sister Augusta did note the “ill health” of Mrs. Somerville in these first years at Chelsea. No wonder: the Somervilles also lost a daughter, after a long illness, as well as their home in Hanover Square, London.

The surprising part for me, was to learn that Mary Fairfax (her maiden name) hungered after knowledge and self-schooled on an unparalleled level. Mathematics was her meal of choice. An interest in astronomy started her on the path she followed the rest of her life.

mary somerville portrait

This is an important book – about an important (and, yes, pioneering) woman. Somerville College, Oxford took its name from Mary Somerville. She is mentioned in Smith and Gosling writings, but because of this book, I have an interest in finding out more about Mary Somerville. Highly recommended for the slice of life, as well as for its biographical information.

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