This long pursuit, p.10
This Long Pursuit, p.10Richard Holmes
The next one, says Poe, reminds us of Coleridge the ‘experimental man’ from those earlier Bristol days, who once believed science was ‘Hope and Poetry’ combined in one force for good, but whose moral hopes were progressively darkened. Perhaps we catch here a premonition of Poe’s own visionary science in his last strange cosmological work, Eureka (1849):
The balloon is comparable to a chemical substance, or one of the gases which I once inhaled with dear Davy, for it grants new Visions of the world … yet even as it does so, like the nitrous oxide, it removes the concomitant power of Voluntary will. For as Mr. Sadler was at pains to impress upon us, no balloon can be truly navigated, but depends on aerial currents and atmospheric streams and tides not only invisible to man, but utterly beyond his power to command or predict. He may harness the winds for a brief interval, but he may never command or control or subdue them. Thus we may all float through our own lives, never controlling our direction, never knowing our destination, our land fall or simply our Fall. Ah, Charlotte, fly with me!
Last, Poe presents a spiritual vision, wondering if Coleridge had read the work of Luke Howard (presumably he means On the Moderation of Clouds, 1804), or had subsequently seen the ‘transcendent’ cloud paintings of John Constable, a series done on Coleridge’s own Hampstead Heath in 1821–22:
I never saw such Clouds before; or rather, I never saw Clouds before at all! So full, so luminous, so fleeting, so prophetic, so mysterious, so various. How could any Science of man ever account for their transformations, their luminosities, their illusions? Their shadows passing over the earth, seem to make it smile with pleasure or frown with fear, as if visited by a god? What mathematical formula could ever analyse or predict them? Perhaps in all this some strange analogies with the Deity himself.
After these wonders, Poe brings Coleridge unceremoniously back to terra firma (‘if that is what it is’) with a metaphysical touch which one might suspect had been taken from one of his own Tales. The words are Coleridge’s, but the sentiment seems more like Poe’s own:
When we come back to earth, the fields rise up round our heads, the woods crowd round, and seem ready to welcome us back. But when we strike (our basket turns over, my companion cries, and my brandy flask flies out with untimely precipitation), we seem to return to a harsher reality, the world of contingencies and unforgiving shocks, as if all had been an illusion, a dream.
Only then, at the very last, does Poe add his Gothic master-touch: ‘Oh inflammable STC!’ he exclaims. ‘And was Miss Brent not with thee in the heights?’
There is one final oddity in this remarkable article. Poe never describes Coleridge actually getting out of his balloon basket. Nor how many people ‘prepared to dismount from the aerial carriage’: Mr Coleridge, Mr Sadler, and another slim shadow? All he gives us is the brandy flask gleaming in the couch grass of a Quantocks meadow, and the clouds posting away over the Bristol Channel ever westwards, towards America. So is Coleridge somehow still airborne … and still aflame?
On reflection, I have sometimes wondered myself if this whole unearthly encounter with Coleridge was not itself ‘an illusion, a traume’. Perhaps it was just one more of Poe’s ingenious, mischievous confabulations; or in plain terms, another brilliant hoax. Or come to that, perhaps it was something even stranger: a biographer’s heady flight, a momentary loosening of the oppressive ties to fact and terra firma, an ascent of April fancy, a dream within a dream? Or a dragon in the sky.
In December 1788 the Astronomer Royal, Dr Nevil Maskelyne, a leading Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote effusively to thirty-eight-year-old Caroline Herschel congratulating her on being the ‘first woman in the history of the world’ to discover not one, but two new comets. No woman since the renowned Greek mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria had had such an impact on the sciences. Her celebrity would, as the Director of the Paris Observatory, Pierre Méchain, noted, ‘shine down through the ages’.
Nevertheless, observed Dr Maskelyne with jocular good humour, he hoped Caroline did not feel too isolated among the male community of astronomers in Britain. He trusted she would not be tempted to ride off alone into outer space on ‘the immense fiery tail’ of her new comet: ‘I hope you, dear Miss Caroline, for the benefit of terrestrial astronomy, will not think of taking such a flight, at least till your friends are ready to accompany you.’ Or at least until her achievements were recognised by his colleagues in the Royal Society. Curiously, no such recognition was immediately forthcoming; and this raises an obvious but extremely interesting question.
All through the year 2010, and all around the globe, the Royal Society of London celebrated its 350th birthday. In a sense, this was a celebration of science itself and the social importance of its history. The senior scientific establishment in Britain, and arguably in the world, the Royal Society dates to the time of Charles II. Its early members included Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, and even – rather intriguingly – Samuel Pepys. But amid the year’s seminars, exhibitions and publications, there was one ghost at the feast: the historic absence of women scientists from its early ranks.
Although it was founded in 1660, women were not permitted by statute to become Fellows of the Royal Society until 285 years later, in 1945. (An exception was made for Queen Victoria, who was made a Royal Fellow.) It will be recalled that women over the age of thirty had won the vote nearly thirty years earlier, in 1918. Very similar exclusions operated elsewhere: in the American National Academy of Sciences until 1925; in the Russian National Academy until 1939; and even in that home of Enlightenment science, the Académie des Sciences in France, until 1962. Marie Curie was rejected for membership of the Académie in 1911, the same year she won her second Nobel Prize.
The first original paper that might be considered as part of a scientific research programme conducted by a woman and published in the Royal Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions, had been submitted by Caroline Herschel. It appeared in August 1786, modestly entitled ‘An Account of a new Comet, in a letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Mr Charles Blagden MD, Secretary to the Royal Society’. But Caroline, as we have seen, was sister to William Herschel, the great Romantic astronomer and influential Fellow of the Royal Society, and this undoubtedly gave her a special advantage that no other woman of this period was granted.
Both Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, and Charles Blagden, the Secretary, knew that Caroline’s brother was immensely proud of her, had built her special telescopes, and had helped her to obtain the first state salary for a female astronomer in Britain. William had also personally put forward her ‘Account of a new Comet’ to the Royal Society. Even so, he carefully annotated this first historic paper: ‘Since my sister’s observations were made by moonlight, twilight, hazy weather, and very near the horizon, it would not be surprising if a mistake had been made.’ By the end of her long life, Caroline’s acknowledged speciality was the discovery of new comets, of which she eventually found eight, at a time when fewer than thirty were known. For this she was made an Honorary Fellow of the newly founded Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. But though she lived until 1848, she was never elected to the Royal Society itself.
It is true that by the turn of the twenty-first century there had been more than sixty distinguished women Fellows of the Society. Many have become household names, such as the brilliant crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, who famously won a Nobel Prize in 1964, and whose whirling portrait by Maggi Hambling (1985) now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Her heroic life – she mapped the structure of penicillin, and then dedicated thirty-five years to deciphering the structure of insulin – is told in a superb biography by Georgina Ferry. Yet in Victorian Britain, the very idea of women doing serious science (except botany and perhaps geology) was still widely ridiculed, and even botany (with its naming of sexual p
In March 1860 Thomas Henry Huxley FRS, famed as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, wrote privately to his friend, the great geologist Charles Lyell FRS: ‘Five-sixths of women will stop in the doll stage of evolution, to be the stronghold of parsonism, the drag on civilisation, the degradation of every important pursuit in which they mix themselves – intrigues in politics and friponnes in science.’ This can be taken as typical of certain (though not all) Victorian assumptions, including the idea that physiologically the female brain simply could not cope with mathematics, experimental proofs or laboratory procedures.
When the young Ada Lovelace, the future computer pioneer, began to study advanced mathematics in the 1830s, her tutor August de Morgan (Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded University College, London) wrote privately to her mother Lady Byron, fearing that Ada would dangerously overtax her mental powers, and that the ‘very great tension of the mind’ involved in calculus would surely lead to a fatal breakdown. Certainly compared with their literary sisters, the scientific women of the mid-nineteenth century still appear invisible, if not actually non-existent. What female scientific names can be cited to compare with Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, the three Brontë sisters, George Eliot or Harriet Martineau?
Yet re-examination of the Royal Society archives suggests something that may require a subtle revision of the early history of science in Britain. This is the previously unsuspected degree to which women were a catalyst in the first discussion of the social role of science. More even than their male colleagues, they had a gift for imagining the human impact of scientific discovery, both exploring and questioning it. Precisely by being excluded from the Fellowship of the Society, they saw the life of science in a wider world. Observing from the outside, they saw the inside more clearly. They raised questions about the duties and moral responsibilities of science, its promise and its menace, in ways we can appreciate far more fully today.
The first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society was Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, in May 1667. In her own lifetime she became known as ‘Mad Madge’. But she was born plain Margaret Lucas, the daughter of a wealthy Essex farmer owning estates near Colchester, in 1623. She was the youngest of eight children; her father died when she was only two years old, so the whole family were brought up by an independent-minded and highly ambitious mother. Shy but headstrong, Margaret grew up with a mind of her own, a taste for fashion, great determination and energy, and a healthy disregard for the opinions of others.
She was appointed maid of honour to Queen Henrietta-Maria at Oxford during the latter part of Charles I’s reign, and a glittering place in English society and a handsome conventional marriage beckoned. But then in 1642 came the outbreak of the Civil War. It swept through English society ‘like a Whirlwind’, as Margaret later wrote, steadily destroying the world she had known. The Royalist Lucas family were soon in jeopardy, and Margaret’s brother Charles went off to fight for the King. Margaret herself slipped away into Parisian exile with the remnants of the royal court in 1644, aged twenty-one. She was away for seventeen years, only returning when she was thirty-seven. Her unconventional character, her unusual philosophical ideas, and not least her remarkable dress, were to be powerfully shaped by this Continental exile, and her long immersion in European manners and culture.
Margaret’s escape from England was timely. By 1647 the family house had been ransacked by passing Cromwellian troops. Both her mother and her sister were dispossessed and humiliated, and with their health and spirits broken by poverty, they died before the end of the year. Her brother Charles was arrested during the last desperate defence of Colchester, and executed in 1648. All the Lucas estates were seized, and even the family tomb was broken up. Finally, with the trial and execution of the King in 1649, it seemed that Margaret’s world and all its old certainties were lost forever.
But Margaret Lucas was a survivor. In Paris she met and quickly fell in love with the widowed William Cavendish, thirty years her senior. Cavendish, then Marquis of Newcastle, was a handsome and heroic figure who had commanded the Royalist troops at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. After disastrous defeat he had also fled to the Continent, and joined the Queen’s exiled court at Saint-Germain, on the outskirts of Paris. Despite the fact that he was now largely penniless, he was welcomed as head of one of the great aristocratic dynasties of British science, with a mathematical brother, the hunchbacked Charles Cavendish, whom Margaret also came to admire.
By happy chance, twenty-one of Margaret’s early love letters to William Cavendish in Paris have survived, and are now held in the British Library. They were written between their first meeting in April 1645 and their marriage in December 1645, evidence of a whirlwind romance to match the times. Only Margaret’s side of the correspondence exists, so William evidently kept and treasured her letters all his life. They capture something of Margaret’s reckless charm, her volatile mixture of shyness and steely determination, at the age of twenty-two. All the letters are short, and appear to have been written at great speed, with highly idiosyncratic spelling and an almost total disregard for punctuation, which are themselves extraordinarily expressive of Margaret’s vehement character.
She later wrote: ‘my Letters seem rather as a ragged Rout than a well-armed body, for the Brain being quicker in creating than the Hand in writing or the memory in retaining, many Fancies are lost, by reason they oft-times outrun the Pen …’
The very first, written when they were evidently already lovers, begins abruptly and dramatically: ‘my Lord there is but one Accident – which is Death – to make me unhappy …’ Margaret proceeds to pour scorn on those at court who have been attempting ‘to untie the Knot of our affection’. It ends with a refusal to let anyone else interfere with the precious but perhaps perilous happiness she has achieved: ‘… And sure, my Lord, I threw not myself away when I gave myself to you, for I never did any act worthy of Praise before, but tis of the Nature of those that cannot be Happy to desire none else should be so, as I shall be in having you, and will be so, in spite of all Malice, in being, my Lord, your most humbell servant Margaret Lucas. Pray lay the fault of my Writing to my pen.’
Soon after, a more confident love letter begins flirtatiously: ‘My Lord, I think you have a plot against my Health in sending so early, for I was forced to read your Letter by a Candle Light, for there was not day enough; but I had rather read your Letter than sleep, and it doth me more good …’
Other letters discuss the constant shifts of political hopes and intrigues at the exiles’ court in Paris; the unreliable attitude of the Queen towards their affair (William diplomatically gives Her Majesty a pair of gloves); Margaret’s own lack of ‘discretion’ (already characteristic); the portrait and ‘token of love’ which William sends her; and their shared delight in the writing and exchange of love poems, in which they are both absorbed. Here Margaret for once assumes the position of command, criticising William’s grasp of metre: ‘My Lord, let your Ear limit your poetry.’
Margaret makes many explicit and tender declarations of love, which are clearly reciprocated. Yet sometimes she reveals more complicated feelings, expressing both her innocence and her ambition, simultaneously: ‘I have not much Experience of the World, yet I have found it such as I could willingly part with it, but since I knew you, I fear I shall love it too well, because you are in it; and yet methinks you are not in it, because you are not of it; so I am both in and out of it, a strange Enchantment.’
Another unexpected revelation is Margaret’s depressive side, her ‘very Melancholy humour’, which occasionally makes her ‘look upon this world as a Death’s Head for mortification, for I see all things subject to alteration and changing’. The image of the Death’s Head is curiously self-conscious and even painterly. Yet her s
In the last surviving letter of the series, she and William are looking forward to their imminent marriage in Paris. Margaret is cheerful again, and promising to behave: ‘Be assured I will bring none to our wedding but those you please.’ She also points out that by getting married they will appease the Queen, and make Her Majesty their ‘good friend again’. Margaret’s final declaration of love is heartfelt, and is delivered with a typical lift of her chin: ‘My Lord, I desire nothing so much as the continuance of your Affection, for I think myself richer in having it than if I were a Monarch of all the World.’
It was an ambitious and successful match for Margaret, which soon established her place in a lively and high-spirited circle of thinkers and writers among the exiles. William and his brother Charles formed a philosophical salon whose participants included Marin Mersenne (‘the father of acoustics’, an expert on mathematics and harmonics); Pierre Gassendi (an astronomer and leading proponent of contemporary ‘atomism’); the English philosopher and adventurer Kenelm Digby; and not least the political theorist Thomas Hobbes. Margaret was encouraged to attend and participate on surprisingly equal terms, in a way that would have been impossible back home in conventional English society. Indeed, it seems that even her ‘good friend’ Queen Henrietta-Maria was shocked by the freedom of manners among this group. It was said that they talked ‘as soldiers as well as philosophers’, and drank and swore with fine disregard for civilian proprieties – or even the presence of the handsome young Lady Cavendish.
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