Here we have just one of the many women claimed as Unitarian by Ruth Watts in her scholarly book entitled: Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England 1760-1860. I have found no evidence to suggest that either Mary Somerville, the other great science writer of the nineteenth century, or Jane Marcet can be defined as practising Unitarians, but they did mix in the same rational and scientific circles as Unitarians and shared their liberal opinions. Hints of their religious thinking can be found in the way they lived, learned and expressed themselves in writing.
Jane was born into a wealthy Huguenot Swiss merchant family, who had been exiled from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This saw many Protestants fleeing to surrounding Protestant countries. Her father, a financier, later moved from Geneva to be based in London where Jane was born and lived for the rest of her life, although frequent extended visits were made to Geneva where she had many close relatives. She was privately educated at home alongside her brothers. Her mother died when Jane was only fifteen so she took over the supervision of educating her five younger siblings. Her father had progressive views on education for both boys and girls so the family were exposed to the scientific ideas of the day. Jane also arranged evening gatherings for her father at home and here she met the leading politicians, men of science and of literature. It was here that she met her future husband Alex, who lived in Geneva but was in London for a while studying medicine. They married in 1799 and he moved into the family home.
Humphry Davy began his famous and popular lectures in 1802 at the Royal Institution, which women were allowed to attend. Jane and Alex would go to these lectures and afterwards they would discuss them at length. For the most part women attended the lectures as a form of Gothic theatrical entertainment. Jane wasn’t content with this and felt the need to understand them more closely and so together with her husband she would carry out some of the experiments at home and Alex would explain them to Jane in simple language. Jane felt that other women would benefit from having the experiments explained in the same simple language and the same format in order to understand and be more confident at gatherings they attended with their husbands. So she began writing her first book: Conversations on Chemistry, in which Mrs B taught her two pupils, Emily who was thoughtful and Caroline who was lively. It was expressed in straightforward language using examples taken from every day life. Most importantly the conversations were between a woman and two young girls, which went some way into validating science as appropriate for women to understand and discuss. The diagrams she drew herself. The book is lively and went into many editions over her lifetime, with Jane updating the material as the discipline developed. By the age of 84 the book had sold 20,000 copies and an adapted edition of it sold 140,000 in America. On being asked how one should set about learning chemistry, Thomas Jefferson replied: “Read Mrs Marcet’s book”. It remains in print – a testament to its continuing appeal, although the scientific names are not up-to-date but of their time, when the discipline was in its infancy. It was published in many countries around the world. Michael Faraday was an apprentice bookbinder and whilst working on the book he read it and was inspired to pursue science. It is interesting to note that like many other women of that time she gave birth to two children whilst writing it, the book being published by Longman in 1806. This was the beginning of her prolific writing career – all non-fiction.
The couple became known for hosting gatherings at their home for all the leading scientific thinkers of their time. On going to London in 1816, Mary Somerville and her husband made it a priority to meet Jane Marcet at one of these gatherings, thus being introduced to a vibrant network of those breaking new ground in science. Jane also maintained her own salon in London where women met, thus encouraging networks to be built amongst thinking women of that time. These women were savants in their own right. Translating was a work often done by women but Jane was a populariser and disseminator of discoveries and disciplines of the Enlightenment, thus ensuring the assimilation of ideas into the culture of the period. (www.uh.edu/engines/epi950.htm)
During the period 1810-1840 the most influential and controversial science in society was political economy. Inheriting the financial acumen of the Haldimand family and having being responsible for the domestic finances from the age of fifteen, she was astute in this particular discipline. She became one of the first popularisers of political economy and along with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus she rationalized the actions and aspirations of the new capitalist class, validating them by scientific laws. In 1816 Longman published her Conversations on Political Economy for adults and young people. Leading economists at home and abroad recognized its value and again the book went on to be updated in later editions. Jane Marcet, in stating the similarities between domestic and political economy, preceded Margaret Thatcher by some considerable time. The linking of domestic and political economy was yet another example of validating economics as a subject suitable and essential for women to study and understand. Jane Marcet influenced Harriet Martineau, who went on to become a leading writer on political economy, using a style that could be understood by a greater number in society.
In 1819 was published Conversations on Natural Philosophy. The same tried and tested format was successfully used. This was the first book that defined a curriculum of what later became physics and was used for a long time as a standard text book as well as providing a liberal education course to be used for teaching in the home.
In 1822 Alexander Marcet died, but Jane continued to make her home in London making regular visits to Geneva. Her contacts there were extensive and she was able to arrange for Mary Somerville to be given honorary membership in the Geneva Society of Physics and Natural History, demonstrating the extent of her influence in society abroad as well as at home. She generously writes to Somerville: (www.uh.edu/engines/epi828.htm)
You receive great honours, my dear friend, but that which you bestow on our sex is still greater, for with talents and acquirements of masculine magnitude you unite the most sensitive and retiring modesty of the female sex.
Whether the death of her husband made Jane study the Bible more we don’t know but Conversations on the Evidences of Christianity, published in 1826 shows the extent of her Biblical learning and also the writings of theologians. This book demonstrates the breadth of knowledge she had of the times when Jesus lived, developments in Judaism, Islam, Paganism, philosophy, and theology through the ages. Does this work justify Ruth Watts’ claim that Jane Marcet was a Unitarian? Having read the book closely I still find it difficult to judge the matter. There are many clues though that would suggest that she was. Like her other books, she uses the conversational style between an older person, Mr B and the younger Edward and Beatrice, who are allowed to ask questions, challenge accepted assumptions and above all to think for themselves and finally decide for themselves what they believe to be true on the evidence available. They must study the Bible and make an assessment of Christianity based on reason and evidence of it and not on doctrine. However, they must be tolerant of those who may arrive at a different conclusion following the same method of study. On page 58 is the clearest indication that the man does not agree with the assertion of the Trinity.
Yet surely all those Trinitarians who long had the manuscripts of the Greek Testaments in their possession, would never have transmitted them to us destitute of a text so decisive of this great controversy, if any thing like interpolation could have been allowed…the evidence hitherto brought forward in its behalf appears to me by no means demonstrative.
Following, in 1829 came Coversations on Vegetable Physiology: 1830, Berthas’s Visit to Her Uncle in England: 1831, Essays: 1833, John Hopkins’s Notions of Political Economy, which was especially suited to the labouring classes. Malthus believed these to be much more suitable for this particular readership than those of Martineau. He suggested publishing them as cheaply as possible for general circulation and to give away. He promised to purchase a dozen to distribute to cottagers in the neighbourhood. The doctrines were plain and well expressed. www.jstpr.org/pss/1806082 . Following in 1841 was written, The Ladies’ companion to the Flower Garden: 1842 returning to the old conversational style came, Conversations on the History of England: 1844, Conversations on Language for Children: and finally in 1851 at the age of 82, Rich and Poor.
Jane Marcet died in 1858 at the age of 89 after a long and prolific career as an author, who made many subjects accessible to a wide spectrum of British society and beyond. Like Mary Somerville, she managed to negotiate a way by which she could be comfortable within the domestic sphere and also become a respected author. For many, access to the subjects she covered, was not available through formal channels of education, but nevertheless, through her books, new understanding across society became a crucial form of spreading up-to-date information that would be important in establishing a wider base of understanding in a changing society from a young age regardless of sex. As with other Unitarians and rational thinkers of her age, education based on reason and individual understanding was more important than learning based on religious doctrine.
Watts, Ruth. Gender, power and the Unitarians in England 1760-1860 (Longman 1998)
Marcet, Jane Haldimand. Conversations on the evidences of Christianity (1826) (Longmans 1826) available now through Kessinger Publishing’s Legacy Reprints