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.

Dr. Lucas of Stirling (online)

Dr Lucas diary

While searching online for “diaries” I came across an old (2013) news articles about a diary newly appearing online, based on the writings of Dr. Thomas Lucas, of Stirling, Scotland.

Born in 1756 (he died in 1822), Dr. Lucas built his picturesque little house on Upper Bridge Street in 1810; perhaps we’ve passed it, in visiting Stirling! He and his wife, born Isabella Whitehead, had eight children. Mrs. Lucas lived in the family home until 1850.

The Lucas family survives in the archives of the Stirling Council. The two diaries cover the period from March 1808 until May 1821.

The year of 1813 is represented under the “home” link, but look to the “Other Years” drop down menu for… well, the other years! Read of “severe frosty mornings” as well as the “ball and supper at the Guildhall”. Stand beside Dr. Lucas as he sows a pound “of early Charlton peas and planted some parsley”. Watch the erection of the “two inner gates… made out of two Lime trees that grew in front of the house.”

But it’s not all gardening and sunshine.

“A man named Michael Moncrieff hanged himself in Murray’s Wood.”

“John Dick and family finally left my house at Bridge Street.  There were about 15 panes of the Glass of the Windows broken which he replaced with a very bad grace.”

“Peter Robertson in Corntown was sentenced to six months imprisonment for accidentally Killing his own daughter with a pair of Tongs.” [you learn more about the tragic accident]

And yet, some bright patches appear:

“Mrs Melles our sister-in-law went to the Shoemakers Ball, with four or five fellows and danced for five or six hours, altho no woman was present above the rank of a servant girl.”

“My Tenant Thomas Dods went off on Sunday afternoon for America, a Step which surprised many”.

Dr. Lucas is a consistent writer, keeping up a steady stream of comments throughout his diary-keeping, which end in the month of May, the year before his death.