This long pursuit, p.19
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       This Long Pursuit, p.19

           Richard Holmes

  Mary made several brief returns to England, largely to see her son Woronzow, now a successful barrister in London, but also to discuss the updating of The Connexion with Murray, and to visit the studios of the aged J.M.W. Turner, whose later paintings she had come to admire greatly. She supported women’s suffrage, and her signature was the first on J.S. Mill’s 1866 petition on that subject to Parliament. She campaigned against vivisection, just as Margaret Cavendish and Anna Barbauld had done before her, and also against black slavery in America. Her portrait was hung in her publisher John Murray’s ‘Lions’ Gallery’, alongside Byron and Walter Scott.


  Mary Somerville had become an outstanding model for the next generation of younger women in science. This was particularly true of the first great American woman astronomer, Maria Mitchell. Born in 1818 in the remote Massachusetts whaling station of Nantucket, Maria had a Quaker upbringing, and her scientific interests were encouraged by her schoolmaster father. Like Caroline Herschel she initially made her name by the discovery of a new comet, in 1847, for which she received an international Gold Medal, presented by the King of Denmark. Recognition followed with startling speed. By the time she was thirty-two, Maria had been elected the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and then the first woman member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  Modestly revelling in this newfound American celebrity, Maria toured all the great observatories of Europe, subjecting their various astronomers to her candid Nantucket eye and salty humour. She visited Greenwich Observatory and the Royal Society, bringing with her as a calling card the first known photograph of a star. For the most part she was enthusiastically received, especially by the kindly John Herschel, though she was ‘riled’ by Whewell’s chauvinist teasing while dining at Trinity College high table. She was also amazed to be told by Sir George Airy FRS, the British Astronomer Royal: ‘In England, there is no astronomical public and we do not need to make science popular.’

  Undaunted, Maria pressed on to meet Mary Somerville in Italy, the great object of her European tour. In Rome, she was disconcerted to find the Vatican observatory closed to women after dark, a distinct setback for a professional astronomer. (‘I was told that Mrs Somerville, the most learned woman in all Europe, had been denied admission – she could not enter an observatory that was at the same time a monastery.’) When she finally reached Florence, she was captivated by Mary Somerville, both by her directness and by her fantastic range of interests.

  While William Somerville now appeared as a kindly, stout, shuffling valetudinarian, his head bound up in a red scarf, his wife by contrast delighted Maria with her directness, her apparent youth, and her crisp Scottish tones: ‘Mrs. Somerville came tripping into the room, speaking with the vivacity of a young person. She was seventy-seven years old, but appeared twenty years younger. Her face is pleasing, the forehead low and broad, the eyes blue … she spoke with a strong Scotch accent.’

  Maria Mitchell was also impressed by Mary Somerville’s encyclopaedic enthusiasms. She was in the midst of updating a new edition of her bestselling Physical Geography. She talked easily and simply, ‘with no tendency to the essay style’. She touched upon ‘the recent discoveries in chemistry, of the discovery of gold in California, of the nebulae, of comets, of the satellites, of the planets …’ To Maria’s satisfaction she also ‘spoke with disapprobation of Dr Whewell’s attempt to prove that our planet was the only one inhabited by reasoning beings’.

  Maria wrote a fine biographical essay on Mary Somerville inspired by this visit, later published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860, emphasising the significance of her books, as well as describing the domestic details of her Italian exile. She noted approvingly that the mathematician had retained her delight in growing roses in her secluded English garden. In retrospect she viewed Mary Somerville as one of ‘the few women of genius’ of the age, who had been ‘the successful rivals of man’ in their chosen field.

  She also made the shrewd comparison of Somerville’s place in Victorian science with that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Victorian poetry. The ‘authoress’ was also resident in Florence, at the Casa Guidi, and her most popular poem, Aurora Leigh, published in 1856, would make her famous among the English expatriates. Mary Somerville herself later met ‘Mrs Browning’ at several receptions, and thoroughly approved of her runaway romance with Robert Browning (‘I can imagine no happier or more fascinating life than theirs’). She admired her ‘poetical genius as well as her modesty and simplicity’, though she did gently mock the Brownings’ tendency to believe in spiritualism and ‘spirit-rapping’, as not quite sufficiently scientific.

  Like her heroine, Maria Mitchell also remained firmly progressive in her views. She identified with the anti-slavery cause, the female suffragist movements, and the future of women in science. ‘The laws of nature are not discovered by accident,’ she wrote; ‘theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds, they are not born in the hurry and worry of daily toil, they are diligently sought … and until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss their capacity for original work.’

  When she returned to America to be appointed the first Professor of Astronomy at Vassar in 1865, aged forty-seven, she installed a symbolic bust of Mary Somerville in her famous teaching observatory. It was modelled on the Chantrey bust, but it was also perhaps a silent rebuke to the Royal Society’s refusal to elect Mary Somerville to its Fellowship. Beneath its gaze Mitchell mentored a brilliant circle of devoted female students to take up the baton of astronomy. Among them she was renowned for her pithy Nantucket sayings: ‘Study as if you were going to live forever; live as if you were going to die tomorrow.’


  To begin with Mary Somerville had adapted well to her exile, for she had her family around her, and was still part of the international community of science. But time took its toll. Work on her final book was interrupted by the death of her beloved husband William in 1860; and even more by that of her adored son Woronzow in 1865, at the height of his legal career in London. She moved further south to the warmth of Naples, still with her two faithful daughters, who never married but managed to pursue adventurous and independent lives, which included climbing Mount Vesuvius, travelling on ponies through Vallombrosa and sailing their own twenty-eight-foot yacht in the bay of Spezia – in the wake, so to speak, of Shelley. Finally, in 1869, indefatigable, Mary published Molecular and Microscopic Science, written in her late eighties. Admittedly, this was largely a compilation volume, not fully up to date, yet successfully published through the goodwill and endlessly patient fact-checking of Murray’s faithful editors.

  After the death of William, and despite the presence of her daughters, Mary was evidently lonely, and was tempted by the fashionable consolations of Victorian spiritualism. But the scientific rationalist in her, and perhaps something of the old Scottish rebel instinct, successfully resisted such superstitious blandishments. She nevertheless continued to believe in a benign Creator, the existence of the human soul, and personal immortality. Even more remarkably, her old lifelong love of birds and other animals reasserted itself, and her house became an asylum for many stray creatures, both wild and domestic. She came to believe in immortality for them too, writing: ‘Since atoms of matter are indestructible, as far as we can know, it is difficult to believe that the spark which gives union to their life, memory, affection, intelligence, and fidelity, is evanescent.’

  Mary drew final inspiration from a scientific concept of the persistent life force, or vis viva, evident from its microscopic beginnings on earth right through to animal and human life. She celebrated this in Molecular and Microscopic Science, with its epigraph unexpectedly from St Augustine: ‘God, who is mighty in mighty things; but mightiest of all in the very smallest.’ She believed there was both a material world and an invisible one, in which ‘our nervous system is the bond of connection’. But how the brain produced the mind, or consc
iousness, or the soul, she thought was ‘probably inexplicable’ by science, and this was just as it should be.

  Her attitudes to natural theology, as for many of her scientific generation (excluding diehards like Whewell), adapted and modernised as she grew older. She accepted the new theory of evolution by natural selection, and applauded its bold simplicity. Nonetheless, she rejected Darwin’s strictly materialist version of it, believing that ultimately evolution still demonstrated the workings of God’s Divine laws and purpose in Nature. A similar view also came to be held by Darwin’s colleague Alfred Russel Wallace. This version of evolution, within a theological and teleological context, is still held today by many scientists, and is quite separate from Creationism. Its essential idea is that evolution, not only in the natural world on earth, but throughout the cosmos, has a Divine purpose which can be dimly perceived and felt, but never rationally – or scientifically – proved. These contrary reflections on Darwinism were removed from the manuscript by her daughter Martha when the first edition of Somerville’s autobiography, Personal Recollections, was published posthumously in 1873.

  Towards the end of her life Mary Somerville grew deaf and frail, but her mind remained sharp. Her memory was bad for names and dates, but impressive for music and mathematics, a fact she found scientifically suggestive in itself. She contemplated the future of science optimistically, but frequently worried about the growing and thoughtless impact of man on Nature. As she had written in Physical Geography: ‘Man, the lord of Creation, will extirpate the noble creatures of the earth, but he himself will ever be the slave of the cankerworm and the fly.’

  She also thought sadly of her own failure to go back to original scientific work, and especially mathematics, in the successful years after publishing The Connexion. She wrote in Chapter 11 of her Personal Recollections: ‘I had recorded some of the most refined and difficult analytic processes and astronomical discoveries. But I was conscious that I had never made a discovery myself, that I had no originality. I have perseverance and intelligence but no genius.’

  Reflecting on this, she was inclined to conclude, at least in her old age, that it was a limitation common to all women who attempted to take up science, rather than the arts or literature: ‘That spark from heaven is not granted to [my] sex, we are of the earth, earthy; whether higher powers may be allotted to us in another state of existence, God knows; original genius in science at least is hopeless in this.’ But Somerville evidently had second thoughts about this, for she added to the manuscript: ‘At all events it has not yet appeared in the higher branches of science.’ This was another passage which was edited out by her daughter Martha before the book’s publication in 1873, and it was not restored until 2001.

  Mary Somerville died peacefully in Naples, attended by her daughters, and was buried in the English cemetery there, in a large, plain marble tomb. Though sadly neglected, this still survives today, topped by a full-size statue of Mary tranquilly seated on a mathematical throne (evidently awaiting restoration). Lacking Margaret Cavendish’s aristocratic connections, she was refused burial in Westminster Abbey, although many Fellows of the Royal Society urged it. But she received a different kind of living memorial when Somerville College, Oxford, was founded in her memory in 1879. Originally for female students only, it has now become co-educational. Her popular reputation is spreading once again, as is her symbolic image. The Chantrey bust has been moved into the Royal Society’s research library, alongside busts of Faraday and Darwin. In 2014 she made a dramatic cameo appearance in Mike Leigh’s award-winning film Mr Turner, advising the painter on the scientific analysis of light as a form of electromagnetic wave. In 2016 her head appeared on the Scottish £10 note. Perhaps this too is biography by other means.



  John Keats the Well-Beloved


  Forty years ago this autumn I spent a week working at a small wooden table on a tiny ironwork balcony in Rome. The balcony was directly above the Spanish Steps. The apartment was that on the second floor of 26 Piazza di Spagna. It was the apartment where John Keats died at 11 o’clock at night on 23 February 1821, with the famous injunction to his faithful companion, the painter Joseph Severn: ‘Severn – Severn – lift me up for I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – thank God it has come.’

  My balcony was built onto the room at the back of number 26 (to the left as you look up from the Steps): the room where Severn, Keats’s nurse through those last four agonising months of tuberculosis, sometimes managed to snatch a few hours of exhausted sleep. It was not Keats’s own room, the famous bedroom with the marble fireplace and the daisies ‘growing over him’ on the ceiling and the sound of the Bernini fountain plashing in the piazza, which every visitor rightly remembers. It was the back room, the proper place for a biographer.

  I was actually working on my life of Shelley. But for those six days it was the life of Keats, or rather his death, which haunted me. Every creak that ran through the old polished wooden floorboards of the apartment behind me broke my concentration and made me think, painfully and uneasily, of the dying man, and the letters from Fanny Brawne he would not open, and the opium painkiller that was taken from him, and the poems he was forbidden to write. Finally, as a sort of protective charm, I turned to Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ (1821), the famous Olympian elegy inspired by Keats’s death, lifting it into the less painful stratosphere of myth:

  Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep –

  He hath awakened from the dream of life …

  It was only while reading this poem that the idea, not of Keats’s death but of its exact opposite, Keats’s awakening, his extraordinary survival after death, first struck me. The imaginative impact of Keats’s life – his ‘orphaned’ childhood, his letters, his poetry, his friendships, his illness, his agonising love affair – has continued unbroken for nearly two hundred years. It has retained a magnetic force not really matched in its personal immediacy by any other Romantic poet – neither by Shelley nor even by Byron. During that week, below me on the Spanish Steps there always seemed to be some young figure standing or sitting beyond the buckets of the flower-sellers, similarly reading from a book, and looking anxiously up at the second floor of number 26. I cannot believe it has changed to this day. Why should this be?

  The ‘living hand’ of his famous late fragment, possibly the last poem Keats ever wrote, really does reach out towards us and make an immediate appeal:

  This living hand, now warm and capable

  Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

  And in the icy silence of the tomb,

  So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

  That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

  So in my veins red life might stream again,

  And thou be conscience-calm’d – see here it is –

  I hold it towards you.

  In part, this must be because his poetry is so richly embedded in his wonderful letters, so that the two together form a natural autobiography of haunting power. Many of his most celebrated short poems simply rise out of the pages of the long letters he dashed off, appearing, as he put it, ‘as naturally as the Leaves to a tree’.

  ‘To Autumn’, for example, perhaps his most perfectly achieved poem, simply sprouts from a description of warm-looking stubble fields outside Winchester – ‘Aye better than the chilly green of spring’ – which concludes with a smiling, throwaway comment: ‘I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather.’

  The youthful animation of these letters is constantly astonishing. Who could resist the way he frames his early life-plan, to put a knapsack on his back, and ‘to write, to study, and to see all Europe at the lowest expense. I will clamber through the Clouds and exist.’ Or his explanation of why he never intends to marry: ‘The roaring of the wind is my wife, and the Stars through the window pane are my Children’ – with the added pathos that this was written approximately two mont
hs before he meets Fanny Brawne.

  His gift for entering imaginatively into physical objects is equally beguiling. The way he hoisted himself up, looking ‘burly and dominant’, when he first met Spenser’s description of ‘sea-shouldering whales’; or mimed the ‘pawing’ of a dancing bear; or the rapid flurry of a boxer’s punches, like ‘fingers drumming’ on a window pane.

  Or those famous moments of imaginative attention and empathy: ‘If a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.’ Or simply eating a ripe nectarine: ‘It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.’ Or even entering into the spirit of a billiard ball, so he could feel ‘a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness, volubility and the rapidity of its motions’. As he summarised this power: ‘Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.’

  Besides these matchless letters (a primer in what would now be called Creative Writing), his contemporaries also wrote vividly about Keats in short formal memoirs – his school friend Charles Cowden Clarke on his childhood and medical apprenticeship; his editor Leigh Hunt on his early poetry; his friend and amanuensis Charles Brown on his Hampstead days; or Joseph Severn on his dying. In particular, Brown’s description of Keats writing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) on a kitchen chair under a plum tree has achieved an iconic image of creativity not dissimilar to William Stukeley’s description of Isaac Newton conceiving of ‘universal gravity’ under an apple tree.

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