Read CHAPTER V of Personal Recollections‚ from Early Life to Old Age‚ of Mary Somerville , free online book, by Mary Somerville, on ReadCentral.com.

[Mr. Samuel Greig was a distant relation of the Charters family. His father, an officer in the British navy, had been sent by our government, at the request of the Empress Catharine, to organize the Russian navy. Mr. Greig came to the Firth of Forth on board a Russian frigate, and was received by the Fairfaxes at Burntisland with Scotch hospitality, as a cousin. He eventually married my mother; not, however, until he had obtained the Russian consulship, and settled permanently in London, for Russia was then governed in the most arbitrary and tyrannical manner, and was neither a safe nor a desirable residence, and my grandfather only gave his consent to the marriage on this condition. My mother says: ]

My cousin, Samuel Greig, commissioner of the Russian navy, and Russian consul for Britain, came to pay us a visit, and ultimately became my husband. Fortune I had none, and my mother could only afford to give me a very moderate trousseau, consisting chiefly of fine personal and household linen. When I was going away she gave me twenty pounds to buy a shawl or something warm for the following winter. I knew that the President of the Academy of Painting, Sir Arthur Shee, had painted a portrait of my father immediately after the battle of Camperdown, and I went to see it. The likeness pleased me, the price was twenty pounds; so instead of a warm shawl I bought my father’s picture, which I have since given to my nephew, Sir William George Fairfax. My husband’s brother, Sir Alexis Greig, who commanded the Russian naval force in the Black Sea for more than twenty years, came to London about this time, and gave me some furs, which were very welcome. Long after this, I applied to Sir Alexis, at the request of Dr. Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and through his interest an order was issued by the Russian Government for simultaneous observations to be made of the tides on every sea-coast of the empire.

LETTER FROM DR. WHEWELL TO MRS. SOMERVILLE.

UNIVERSITY CLUB, Ja, 1838.

MY DEAR MRS. SOMERVILLE,

I enclose a memorandum respecting tide observations, to which subject I am desirous of drawing the attention of the Russian Government. Nobody knows better than you do how much remains to be done respecting the tides, and what important results any advance in that subject would have. I hope, through your Russian friends, you may have the means of bringing this memorandum to the notice of the administration of their navy, so as to lead to some steps being taken, in the way of directing observations to be made. The Russian Government has shown so much zeal in promoting science, that I hope it will not be difficult to engage them in a kind of research so easy, so useful practically, and so interesting in its theoretical bearing.

Believe me, dear Mrs. Somerville,
Very faithfully yours,
W. WHEWELL.

My husband had taken me to his bachelor’s house in London, which was exceedingly small and ill ventilated. I had a key of the neighbouring square, where I used to walk. I was alone the whole of the day, so I continued my mathematical and other pursuits, but under great disadvantages; for although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met with no sympathy whatever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind. I took lessons in French, and learnt to speak it so as to be understood. I had no carriage, so went to the nearest church; but, accustomed to our Scotch Kirk, I never could sympathise with the coldness and formality of the service of the Church of England. However, I thought it my duty to go to church and join where I could in prayer with the congregation.

There was no Italian Opera in Edinburgh; the first time I went to one was in London as chaperone to Countess Catharine Woronzow, afterwards Countess of Pembroke, who was godmother to my eldest son. I sometimes spent the evening with her, and occasionally dined at the embassy; but went nowhere else till we became acquainted with the family of Mr. Thomson Bonar, a rich Russian merchant, who lived in great luxury at a beautiful villa at Chiselhurst, in the neighbourhood of London, which has since become the refuge of the ex-Emperor Napoleon the Third and the Empress Eugenie. The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Bonar, kind, excellent people, with two sons and a daughter, all grown up. We were invited from time to time to spend ten days or a fortnight with them, which I enjoyed exceedingly. I had been at a riding school in Edinburgh, and rode tolerably, but had little practice, as we could not afford to keep horses. On our first visit, Mrs. Bonar asked me if I would ride with her, as there was a good lady’s horse to spare, but I declined. Next day I said, “I should like to ride with you.” “Why did you not go out with me yesterday?” she asked. “Because I had heard so much of English ladies’ riding, that I thought you would clear all the hedges and ditches, and that I should be left behind lying on the ground.” I spent many pleasant days with these dear good people; and no words can express the horror I felt when we heard that they had been barbarously murdered in their bedroom. The eldest son and daughter had been at a ball somewhere near, and on coming home they found that one of the men-servants had dashed out the brains of both their parents with a poker. The motive remains a mystery to this day, for it was not robbery.

[After three years of married life, my mother returned to her father’s house in Burntisland, a widow, with two little boys. The youngest died in childhood. The eldest was Woronzow Greig, barrister-at-law, late Clerk of the Peace for Surrey. He died suddenly in 1865, to the unspeakable sorrow of his family, and the regret of all who knew him.]

I was much out of health after my husband’s death, and chiefly occupied with my children, especially with the one I was nursing; but as I did not go into society, I rose early, and, having plenty of time, I resumed my mathematical studies. By this time I had studied plane and spherical trigonometry, conic sections, and Fergusson’s “Astronomy.” I think it was immediately after my return to Scotland that I attempted to read Newton’s “Principia.” I found it extremely difficult, and certainly did not understand it till I returned to it some time after, when I studied that wonderful work with great assiduity, and wrote numerous notes and observations on it. I obtained a loan of what I believe was called the Jesuit’s edition, which helped me. At this period mathematical science was at a low ebb in Britain; reverence for Newton had prevented men from adopting the “Calculus,” which had enabled foreign mathematicians to carry astronomical and mechanical science to the highest perfection. Professors Ivory and de Morgan afterwards adopted the “Calculus”; but several years elapsed before Mr. Herschel and Mr. Babbage were joint-editors with Professor Peacock in publishing an abridged translation of La Croix’s “Treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus.” I became acquainted with Mr. Wallace, who was, if I am not mistaken, mathematical teacher of the Military College at Marlow, and editor of a mathematical journal published there. I had solved some of the problems contained in it and sent them to him, which led to a correspondence, as Mr. Wallace sent me his own solutions in return. Mine were sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and it occasionally happened that we solved the same problem by different methods. At last I succeeded in solving a prize problem! It was a diophantine problem, and I was awarded a silver medal cast on purpose with my name, which pleased me exceedingly.

Mr. Wallace was elected Professor of Mathematics in the University of Edinburgh, and was very kind to me. When I told him that I earnestly desired to go through a regular course of mathematical and astronomical science, even including the highest branches, he gave me a list of the requisite books, which were in French, and consisted of Francoeur’s pure “Mathematics,” and his “Elements of Mechanics,” La Croix’s “Algebra,” and his large work on the “Differential and Integral Calculus,” together with his work on “Finite Differences and Series,” Biot’s “Analytical Geometry and Astronomy,” Poisson’s “Treatise on Mechanics,” La Grange’s “Theory of Analytical Functions,” Euler’s “Algebra,” Euler’s “Isoperimetrical Problems” (in Latin), Clairault’s “Figure of the Earth,” Monge’s “Application of Analysis to Geometry,” Callet’s “Logarithms,” La Place’s “Mécanique Celeste,” and his “Analytical Theory of Probabilities,” &c., &c., &c.

I was thirty-three years of age when I bought this excellent little library. I could hardly believe that I possessed such a treasure when I looked back on the day that I first saw the mysterious word “Algebra,” and the long course of years in which I had persevered almost without hope. It taught me never to despair. I had now the means, and pursued my studies with increased assiduity; concealment was no longer possible, nor was it attempted. I was considered eccentric and foolish, and my conduct was highly disapproved of by many, especially by some members of my own family, as will be seen hereafter. They expected me to entertain and keep a gay house for them, and in that they were disappointed. As I was quite independent, I did not care for their criticism. A great part of the day I was occupied with my children; in the evening I worked, played piquet with my father, or played on the piano, sometimes with violin accompaniment.

This was the most brilliant period of the Edinburgh Review; it was planned and conducted with consummate talent by a small society of men of the most liberal principles. Their powerful articles gave a severe and lasting blow to the oppressive and illiberal spirit which had hitherto prevailed. I became acquainted with some of these illustrious men, and with many of their immediate successors. I then met Henry Brougham, who had so remarkable an influence on my future life. His sister had been my early companion, and while visiting her I saw her mother a fine, intelligent old lady, a niece of Robertson the historian. I had seen the Rev. Sydney Smith, that celebrated wit and able contributor to the Review, at Burntisland, where he and his wife came for sea-bathing. Long afterwards we lived on the most friendly terms till their deaths. Of that older group no one was more celebrated than Professor Playfair. He knew that I was reading the “Mécanique Celeste,” and asked me how I got on? I told him that I was stopped short by a difficulty now and then, but I persevered till I got over it. He said, “You would do better to read on for a few pages and return to it again, it will then no longer seem so difficult.” I invariably followed his advice and with much success.

Professor Playfair was a man of the most varied accomplishments and of the highest scientific distinction. He was an elderly man when I first became acquainted with him, by no means good-looking, but with a benevolent expression, somewhat concealed by the large spectacles he always wore. His manner was gravely cheerful; he was perfectly amiable, and was both respected and loved, but he could be a severe though just critic. He liked female society, and, philosopher as he was, marked attention from the sex obviously flattered him.

I had now read a good deal on the higher branches of mathematics and physical astronomy, but as I never had been taught, I was afraid that I might imagine that I understood the subjects when I really did not; so by Professor Wallace’s advice I engaged his brother to read with me, and the book I chose to study with him was the “Mécanique Celeste.” Mr. John Wallace was a good mathematician, but I soon found that I understood the subject as well as he did. I was glad, however, to have taken this resolution, as it gave me confidence in myself and consequently courage to persevere. We had advanced but little in this work when my marriage with my cousin, William Somerville (1812), put an end to scientific pursuits for a time.