Friday, October 12, 2018

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Highly Accessible

Some of you know that I was once and occasionally still am a writer of technical documents. That’s why I was particularly thrilled when I discovered this nineteenth century heroine. Jane Marcet may be one of the first technical writers, a person with some education and access to scientists who could translate their lofty ideas into something for everyone to marvel at. Her work is credited with influencing countless young ladies as well as the famous chemist, Michael Faraday, who read one of her books when he was a teen and decided to go into science.

Jane certainly didn’t start life in a way that would suggest she would follow that path. She was born in 1769, one of a dozen children of a wealthy Swiss banker and his wife. She was educated at home along with her brothers. Her mother died when she was only 15, and she became the manager of the household and her father’s hostess at the parties he liked to throw. On a trip to Italy when she was 27, she decided she liked painting and was tutored by no less than Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence, two of the foremost portrait painters of the day (my Lady Emily is insanely jealous of the fact).

But Jane didn’t become a painter. She was 30 when she married a Swiss physician living in London. Her husband was one of the Grand Amateurs I’ve written about before—a man of letters who dabbled in chemistry. He and Jane conducted experiments together at home. When their four children were old enough, Jane involved them as well. She also took care of her father, who lived with her until he died in 1817, leaving her an inheritance. Based on that income, her husband quit his medical practice and became a full-time researcher. 

Meanwhile, Jane had decided that she would write a book. Her idea turned into a series of books. The first to be published was Conversations on Chemistry in 1805. She wrote it as a fictional dialogue between a teacher and two students. What was remarkable at the time was that both the teacher and the students were female. Not so remarkable? Though she wrote and illustrated it, it was published anonymously. She would not be credited with the work until 1832. The work was widely plagiarized in America, where it was claimed by a number of different male authors.

The work was an instant sensation. Like any good piece of technical writing, it made science accessible to those who were unfamiliar with it, perhaps experiencing it for the first time. Governesses used it, girls’ schools used it. Even boys’ schools used it. She went on to write Conversations on Natural Philosophy, Conversations on Plant Physiology, and Conversations on Political Economy. She continued to issue new editions, the last of which was published with she was 84. Her books were translated into German, Dutch, Spanish, and French.

Jane died in London when she was 89, but her works continued to be used as textbooks, for boys and girls, until after the turn of the century.

Now, that’s accessibility.


QNPoohBear said...

Chemistry is evil and I wish we had studied Jane Marcet and her book instead of the complicated text book. Conversations I can handle! Kudos to you for being able to write both technical content and fiction.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, QNPoohBear. All kinds of disciplines can be evil, depending on how the book or teacher handles it. I can't tell you how many times someone has said to me "history is boring." WHAT!!! :-)