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Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind (review)
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Victorian Studies 45.3 (2003) 577-579



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Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind, by Kathryn A. Neeley; pp. xvi + 263. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, £47.50, £17.95 paper, $65.00, $24.00 paper.

The appearance of women in canonical histories of mathematics and science is peculiar and puzzling. The first officially recognized woman of science, Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415), is remembered not for her creative life, but for her violent death—after which women disappear entirely from the historical narrative of science for another 1300 years. In the period from 1700 through 1850, perhaps a dozen women scientists earn brief mention in the historical record. Towering over them all is the long-lived, prolific, and extraordinarily influential Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville (1780-1872), the intriguing subject of Kathryn A. Neeley's new book.

Somerville, like most nineteenth-century British "men of science," doesn't fit the twentieth-century stereotype of the single-minded scientific specialist. She was an intellectual polymath, a natural philosopher, and a "cultivator of science" (35, following Sommerville's admiring contemporary, William Whewell). Her reputation as a mathematician rests on her celebrated translation of and commentary on Pierre-Simon Laplace's five-volume Traité de Méchanique Céleste (1799-1825), first published in 1831 as Mechanism of the Heavens. Her reputation as a scientist rests on her astonishing ability to digest, interpret, and synthesize the current state of knowledge in the physical sciences for a broad, scientifically literate audience. Such diverse personages as James Clerk Maxwell, George Eliot, and Alexander von Humboldt number among Somerville's scores of eager readers. In the scientific community of the early nineteenth century, such scholarly synthesis was valued just as much as, if not more than, original discovery. Indeed, Neeley's book offers ample evidence for "the conclusion that Mary Somerville was at the apex of the prestige system of science in her day" (224, borrowing a phrase from Hilary Rose).

Neeley's book is the latest in the series of Cambridge Science Biographies, and yet it is not a biography in the usual sense. Rather, Neeley sets herself the task of "categorizing Mary Somerville" (11), of identifying a central metaphor through which Somerville's unique contributions might be best understood. In doing so, she borrows another phrase from Whewell: what Somerville brings to the world of Victorian science is the power of the "peculiar illumination" of the female mind (qtd. 15). [End Page 577]

Neeley briefly reviews the existing scholarship on Somerville, most notably Elizabeth Chambers Patterson's Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science, 1815-1840 (1983), a rich repository of biographical detail covering the years of Somerville's greatest influence, based significantly on Somerville's extensive correspondence. Neeley's own brief chronology of Somerville's life and work owes little to Patterson, however. Like most other biographical sketches, Neeley's draws from Somerville's own posthumously published Personal Recollections (1873).

Neeley devotes the central chapters to detailed discussion of Somerville's major scientific books: Mechanism of the Heavens,On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). Neeley's chief contribution to our understanding of these works is her literary analysis of the conceptual frameworks of each of these major publications. In the "Preliminary Dissertation" which prefaces Mechanism of the Heavens, for example, Neeley locates the ruling metaphors upon which the entire book is based: "From the cosmic platform, the heavens become a kind of Miltonic canvas against which the drama of the universe is played out. The drama consists largely of tracing the mazes through which the operations of nature can be followed" (110, emphasis added). In Physical Geography, Somerville's perspective has shifted to the earth from the heavens, yet "the Miltonian vision remains" (135). Nature is depicted as "epic theater," in which "we see drama, spectacle, and conflict at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels," whose unseen director is, of course, God (143). Analogous literary perspectives inform Neeley's analysis of Somerville's two other scientific books as...