Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, when bloggers all around teh Interwebs commit to writing about the achievements of women in technology and science. Isn't that lovely? I found out about this months ago and wrote it in my calendar, with a warm feeling in my heart, thinking, oh, I'll do that, not that it will ever be March 24 2010, tralalalala! Well. You have beaten me again, world.

The female scientist I have chosen to write about is Mary Roberts, the 19th century amateur biologist and natural historian who wrote The Conchologist's Companion, among other books. I first encountered her when I was curating an exhibition of women's writing in a rare books library and one of the librarians reverently brought me the little blue volume and lovingly placed it on the table. It was a magnificent little book, bound in blue cloth with lovely, delicate colour illustrations (which seemingly haven't survived the Google books digitization process, so sad!). Because I was also writing the little blurbs that accompanied the books in the final exhibition, I ended up researching Roberts and annotating that tiny book, and in the process I discovered just how little has been written about her.

Mary Roberts was an amateur botanist and natural historian, as well as an author. She was also a very religious woman and her scientific writings were published alongside her religious ones, as was very typical of Victorian scientists. She was born in London in 1788, and her parents were Quakers. From 1790 the Roberts lived in Gloustershire, and her interest in the natural world developed as she spent her childhood there. After her father died, she and her mother moved back to London. Besides Conchologist's Companion (which is not her most famous book, just the one that introduced me to her), she is the author of 14 other books, including a number of other science-related books, some of them for children; The Annals of my Village, which is about the seasonal changes that occur in her hometown, with a chapter for each month of the year; Select Female Biography, Comprising Memoirs of Eminent British Ladies, which is exactly what the title says; The Wonders of the Vegetable Kingdom Displayed, published the year before Conchologist and with a similar bent; and A Popular History of the Mollusca (1855). She died in 1864, again in London, never having married or had any children. These biographical facts are relatively easy to find, and repeated everywhere-- but where are her papers, her correspondence, her manuscripts? I have no idea, and neither, it seems, does anyone else. For that matter, where's the squinty ink drawing of her that should inevitably accompany a post like this one? IT DOES NOT EXIST.

"Such, then, are a few of the localitie of the shell tribe; of those deposits of the ocean which make the heart beat with delight in discovering, and possessing them. How vividly that bright moment recurs to my remembrance, when the deep, proud sea, first rose upon my sight,--when I first heard the loud cry of the returning sea-gull; and saw the dancing breakers bound upwards, as if in proud defiance of the rocks that repelled them."

I think about Victorian female scientists often, which may seem like a strange statement, but they fascinate me-- not just because the idea of a petite woman in an enormous hat bent low over a bunsen burner has enormous romantic appeal (although it DOES, especially if she happens to be wearing elbow-length gloves, although that's beside the point) but because I can easily extrapolate myself into their position. I hope this metaphor doesn't seem obnoxious, but to me they're like plants growing up cautiously between the stones of a sidewalk. It's easy to devalue their achievements or see them as insignificant (and in the case of Roberts, the frequent religious exultations and flowery prose will certainly be a turn off to most modern readers), but you can't go that route. Instead: it's a miracle that they are there at all. It's easy to dismiss the work of Mary Roberts and others like her as derivative and conventional. But instead, I try to live in a parallel world where 19th century women like her were well-educated and encouraged, where their natural passion and inquisitiveness was fostered instead of ignored, where it was a boon instead of a liability to be a woman with a sense of curiosity and a desire to share knowledge. Women like her had the forcefulness, the self-possession, to see that life for themselves too, and they aimed for it even though it must have seemed, at times, desperately out of reach. I will freely admit that my perception of the situation has almost nothing to do with Mary Roberts herself, or with her work, but rather with the promise of a person like her.

In this regard maybe I share Roberts' sentiments, as she writes in the preface to Select Female Biography:

Happy shall I deem myself, if the bright examples of suffering virtue, of exalted piety, of active benevolence, and of talents chastened and improved by the noblest principles, should cherish in the bosom of the reader, any of those valuable qualities, which, even in the bleak and churlish atmosphere of this world, bring forth abundant fruits of refreshment and consolation.
There you go. Bleak and churlish atmosphere of the world, check. I would say that's something that hasn't changed as much as it could, actually. And refreshment and consolation, check. We cannot forget that women of her talents ("chastened and improved by the noblest principles," almost certainly!) existed, that they studied the natural world and shared their knowledge with us, by whatever means were available.


Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about Roberts, The Invisible Woman, which appears in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack, and I suggest you take a look at it if you are interested in Mary Roberts. Although I encountered Gould's essay after I finished my own research in 2007 (sadly, because it would have been a good source), he has an interesting and valuable perspective on her life and work. He also talks quite a bit about 19th-century botany in general and the reasons why it was an "acceptable" science for ladies to pursue. My favourite quotation from this article: "...[I was] acknowledging her utter submission to conventional expectations, but refusing to judge her too harshly--for the urge to create can be so overpowering, and the pain of self-imposed silence so overwhelming, that we sometimes kowtow to the most iniquitous of limitations." Well said!

She was also the subject of (part of?) an episode of Engines of Our Ingenuity.

Biography appears in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

G. Lindsay, ‘Mary Roberts: a neglected naturalist’, Antiquarian Book Monthly, 23 (1996). I haven't gotten my hands on this article yet, actually, but I mention it because it is on its way to me already, requested on my husband's university library card, and someday I am going to read it.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron and worked with Charles Babbage on the Difference and Analytical Engines (very early computing machines). She was a computer programmer and mathematician. See the list of women who have been written about so far this year. Amazing and shaming, since I have only heard of a handful of them. What a wonderful idea!

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