Successful Woman: Mary Somerville

Despite the quaint and stilted style of this narrative, which was written in England in the late 1880’s, the character of this notable woman can still delight and inspire us. I particularly enjoy the anecdote about the marmalade.

Mary Somerville Woman Scientist
Mary Somerville

 

MARY SOMERVILLE, the most remarkable scientific woman our country has produced, was born at Jedburgh in 1780. Her father was a naval officer, and in December 1 780 had just parted from his wife to go on foreign service for some years. Her father was Admiral Sir William Fairfax, who gave many proofs that he was in every way a gallant sailor and a brave man. Mary Somerville’s mother, Lady Fairfax, does not seem much to have sympathised with her remarkable child. Mary, however, inherited some excellent qualities from both parents. Lady Fairfax was, in some ways, as courageous as her husband; notwithstanding a full allowance of Scotch superstitions and a special terror of storms and darkness, she had what her daughter called “presence of mind and the courage of necessity.”

On one occasion the house she was living in was in the greatest danger of being burned down. The flames of a neighbouring fire had spread till they reached the next house but one to that which she occupied. Casks of turpentine and oil in a neighbouring carriage manufactory were exploding with the heat. Lady Fairfax made all the needful preparations for saving her furniture, and had her family plate and papers securely packed. She assembled in the house a sufficient number of men to move the furniture out, if needs were. Then she quietly remarked, “Now let us breakfast; it is time enough for us to move our things when the next house takes fire.” The next house, after all, did not take fire, and, while her neighbours lost half their property by throwing it recklessly into the street, before the actual necessity for doing so had arisen, Lady Fairfax suffered no loss at all.

During the long absences of Sir William Fairfax on foreign service, Lady Fairfax and her children led a very simple life at the little seaside village of Burntisland, just opposite to Edinburgh, on the Firth of Forth. As a young child, Mary led a wild, outdoor life, with hardly any education, in the ordinary sense of the word, though there is no doubt that in collecting shells, fossils, and seaweeds, in watching and studying the habits and appearance of wild birds, and in gazing at the stars through her little bedroom window, the whole life of this wonderful child was really an education of the great powers of her mind.

However, when her father returned from sea about 1789 he was shocked to find Mary “such a little savage”; and it was resolved that she must be sent to a boarding school. She remained there a year and learned nothing at all. Her lithesome, active, well-formed body was enclosed in stiff stays, with a steel busk in front; a metal rod, with a semicircle which went under the chin, was clasped to this busk, and in this instrument of torture she was set to learn columns of Johnson’s dictionary by heart. This was the process which at that time went by the name of education in girls’ schools. Fortunately she was not kept long at school. Mary had learned nothing, and her mother was angry that she had spent so much money in vain. She would have been content, she said, if Mary had only learnt to write well and keep accounts, which was all that a woman was expected to know.

After this Mary soon commenced the process of self-education which only ended with her long life of ninety-two years. She not only learnt all she could about birds, beasts, fishes, plants, eggs and seaweeds, but she also found a Shakespeare which she read at every moment when she could do so undisturbed. A little later her mother moved into Edinburgh for the winter, and Mary had music lessons, and by degrees taught herself Latin. The studious bent of her mind had now thoroughly declared itself; but till she was about fourteen she had never received a word of encouragement about her studies. At that age she had the good fortune to pay a visit to her uncle and aunt at Jedburgh, in whose house she had been

born. Her uncle, Dr. Somerville, was the first person who ever encouraged and helped her in her studies. She ventured to confide in him that she had been trying to learn Latin by herself, but feared it was no use. He reassured her by telling her of the women in ancient times who had been classical scholars. He moreover read Virgil with her for two hours every morning in his study. A few years later than this she taught herself Greek enough to read Xenophon and Herodotus, and in time she became sufficiently proficient in the language to thoroughly appreciate its greatest literature.

One of the most striking things about her was the many-sided character of her mind. Some people men as well as women who are scientific or mathematical seem to care for nothing but science or mathematics; but it may be truly said of her that “Everything was grist that came to her mill.” There was hardly any branch of art or knowledge which she did not delight in. She studied painting under Mr. Nasmyth in Edinburgh, and he declared her to be the best pupil he had ever had. Almost to the day of her death she delighted in painting and drawing. She was also an excellent musician and botanist. The special study with which her name will always be associated was mathematics as applied to the study of the heavens, but she also wrote on physical geography and on microscopic science. It is sometimes thought that if women are learned they are nearly sure to neglect their domestic duties, or

that, in the witty words of Sydney Smith, “if women are permitted to eat of the tree of knowledge, the rest of the family will soon be reduced to the same aerial and unsatisfactory diet.” Mrs. Somerville was a living proof of the folly of this opinion. She was an excellent housewife and a particularly skilful needlewoman. She astonished those who thought a scientific woman could not understand anything of cookery, by her notable preparation of black currant jelly for her husband’s throat on their wedding journey. On one occasion she supplied with marmalade, made by her own hands, one of the ships that were being fitted out for a Polar expedition.

She was a most loving wife and tender mother as well as a devoted and faithful friend. She gave up far more time than moat mothers do to the education of her children. Her first husband, Mr. Samuel Greig, only lived three years after their marriage in 1804. He appears to have been one of those men of inferior capacity, who dislike and dread intellectual power in women. He had a very low opinion of the intelligence of women, and had himself no interest in, nor knowledge of, any kind of science.

When his wife was left a widow with two sons at the early age of twenty-seven, she returned to her father’s house in Scotland, and worked steadily at mathematics. She profited by the instructions of Professor Wallace, of the University of Edinburgh, and gained a silver medal from one of the mathematical societies of that day. Nearly all the members of her family were still loud in their condemnation of what they chose to regard as her eccentric and foolish behaviour in devoting herself to science instead of society. There were, however, exceptions. Her Uncle and Aunt Somerville and their son William did not join in the chorus of disapprobation which her studies provoked. With them she found a real home of loving sympathy and encouragement. In 1812 she and her cousin William were married. His delight and pride in her during their long married life of nearly fifty years were unbounded. For the first time in her life she now had the daily companionship of a thoroughly sympathetic spirit. Much of what the world owes to her it owes indirectly to him, because he stimulated her powers, and delighted in anything that brought them out. He was in the medical department of the army, and scientific pursuits were thoroughly congenial to him. He had a fine and well cultivated mind which he delighted in using to further his wife’s pursuits. He searched libraries for the books she required, “copying and recopying her manuscripts to save her time.” In the words of one of their daughters, ” No trouble seemed too great which he bestowed upon her; it was a labour of love.”

When Mrs. Somerville became famous through her scientific writings, the other members of her family, who had formerly ridiculed and blamed her, became loud in her praise. She knew how to value such commendation in comparison with that which she had constantly received from her husband. She wrote about this, “The warmth with which my husband entered into my success deeply affected me; for not one in ten thousand would have rejoiced at it as he did; but he was of a generous nature, far above jealousy, and he continued through life to take the kindest interest in all I did.”

Mrs. Somerville’s first work, The Mechanism of the Heavens, would probably never have been written but at the instance of Lord Brougham, whose efforts were warmly supported by those of Mr. Somerville. In March 1827 Lord Brougham, on behalf of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, wrote a letter begging Mrs. Somerville to write an account of Newton’s Principia and of La Place’s Mechanique Celeste. In reference to the latter book he wrote, ” In England there are now not twenty people who know this great work, except by name, and not a hundred who know it even by name. My firm belief is that Mrs. Somerville could add two cyphers to each of these figures.”

Mrs. Somerville was overwhelmed with astonishment at this request. She was most modest and diffident of her own powers, and honestly believed that her self-acquired knowledge was so greatly inferior to that of the men who had been educated at the universities, that it would be the height of presumption for her to attempt to write on the subject. The persuasions of Lord Brougham and of her husband at last prevailed so far that she promised to make the attempt; on the express condition, however, that her manuscript should be put into the fire unless it fulfilled the expectations of those who urged its production. “Thus suddenly,” she writes, “the whole character and course of my future life was changed.” One is tempted to believe that this first plunge into authorship was, to some extent, stimulated by a loss of nearly all their fortune which had a short time before befallen Mr. and Mrs. Somerville.

The impediments to authorship in Mrs. Somerville’s case were more than usually formidable. In the memoirs she has left of this part of her life, she speaks of the difficulty which she experienced as the mother of a family and the head of a household in keeping any time free for her work. It was only after she had attended to social and family duties that she had time for writing, and even then she was

subjected to many interruptions. The Somervilles were then living at Chelsea, and she felt at that distance from town, it would be ungracious to decline to receive those who had come out to call upon her. But she groans at the remembrance of the annoyance she sometimes felt when she was engaged in solving a difficult problem, by the entry of a well-meaning friend, who would calmly announce, “I have come to spend an hour or two with you.”

Her work, to which she gave the name of The Mechanism of the Heavens, progressed, however, in spite of interruptions, to such good purpose that in less than a year it was complete, and it immediately placed its author in the first rank among the scientific thinkers and writers of the day. She was elected an honorary member of the Astronomical Society, at the same time with Caroline Herschel, and honours and rewards of all kinds flowed in upon her. Her bust, by Chantrey, was placed in the great hall of the Royal Society, and she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Dublin, and of many other scientific societies. It was a little later than this, in 1835, that Sir Robert Peel, on behalf of the Government, conferred a civil list pension of 200 a year upon Mrs. Somerville ; the announcement of this came almost simultaneously with the news of the loss of the remainder of her own and her husband’s private fortune, through the treachery of those who had been entrusted with it. The public recognition of her services to science came therefore at a very appropriate time; the pension was a few years later increased to 300 a year.

Throughout her life Mrs. Somerville was a staunch advocate of all that tended to raise up and improve the lot of women. When quite a young girl she was stimulated to work hard by the feeling that it was in her power thus to serve the cause of her fellow-women. Writing of the period when she was only sixteen years old, she says: “I must say the idea of making money had never entered my head in any of my pursuits, but I was intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low.” It is interesting toobserve that her enthusiasm for what are sometimes called “women’s rights” was as warm at the end of her life as it had been at its dawn. When she was eighty-nine, she was as keen as she had been at sixteen for all that lifts up the lot of women. She was a firm supporter of Mr. John Stuart Mill in the effort he made to extend to women the benefit and protection of Parliamentary representation. She recognised that many of the English laws are unjust to women, and clearly saw that there can be no security for their being made just and equal until the law-makers are chosen partly by women and partly by men. The first name to the petition in favour of women’s suffrage which was presented to Parliament by Mr. J. S. Mill in 1868 was that of Mary Somerville. She also joined in the first petition to the Senate of the London University, praying that degrees might be granted to women. At the time this petition was unsuccessful, but its prayer was granted within a very few years.

Mrs. Somerville’s other works, written after The Mechanism of the Heavens, were The Connection of the Physical Sciences, Physical Geography, and Molecular and Microscopic Science. The last book was commenced after she had completed her eightieth year. Her mental powers remained unimpaired to a remarkably late period, and she also had extraordinary physical vigour to the end of her life. She affords a striking instance of the fallacy of supposing that intellectual labour undermines the physical strength of women. Her last occupations, continued till the actual day of her death, were the revision and completion of a treatise on The Theory of Differences, and the study of a book on Quaternions.

She was a woman of deep and strong religious feeling. Her beautiful character shines through every word and action of her life. Her deep humility was very striking, as was also her tenderness for, and her sympathy with, the sufferings of all who were wretched and oppressed. One of the last entries in her journal refers again to her love of animals, and she says, “Among the numerous plans for the education of the young, let us hope that mercy may be taught as a part of religion.” The reflections in these last pages of her diary give such a lovely picture of serene, noble, and dignified old age that they may well be quoted here. They show the warm heart of the generous woman, as well as the trained intellect of a reverent student of the laws of nature. “Though far advanced in years, I take as lively an interest as ever in passing events. I regret that I shall not live to know the result of the expedition to determine the currents of the ocean, the distance of the earth from the sun determined by the transits of Venus, and the source of the most renowned of rivers, the discovery of which will immortalise the name of Dr. Livingstone. But I regret most of all that I shall not see the suppression of the most atrocious system of slavery that ever disgraced humanity.”

A later entry still, and the last, gives another view of her happy, faithful spirit. The Admiral’s daughter speaks in it: “The Blue Peter has been long flying at my foremast, and now that I am in my ninety-second year I must soon expect the signal for sailing. It is a solemn voyage, but it does not disturb my tranquillity. Deeply sensible of my utter unworthiness, and profoundly grateful for the innumerable blessings I have received, I trust in the infinite mercy of my Almighty Creator.” She then expresses her gratitude for the loving care of her daughters, and her journal concludes with the words, “I am perfectly happy.” She died and was buried at Naples. Her death took place in her sleep, on 29th November 1872. Her

daughter writes, ” Her pure spirit passed away so gently that those around her scarcely perceived when she left them. It was the beautiful and painless close of a noble and happy life.”

Adapted from Some Emininent Women of Our Times by Millicent Garret Fawcett.

Successful Woman: Mary Carpenter

This is the second post in our Successful Women series. For the introduction, click here.

The style and some of the sentiments in this sketch, which was written in the late 1800s, may seem a little quaint in the twenty-first century, but the story should still be able to inspire us, despite the difference in literary style and social conditions.

On the other hand, many of the problems that Mary Carpenter dealt with in 19th century England still exist in America today, and her example will hopefully serve to inspire similar selfless work on the part of Americans, both men and women, in the 21st century.

(She looks kind of scary, but by all accounts she was very nice in person)

“That it may please Thee… to show Thy pity upon all prisoners and captives.”

Mary Carpenter was thirty-eight years old when Mrs. Fry died in 1845. We do not hear, in reading the lives of either, that the two women ever met, or that the elder directly stimulated the activity of the younger. Yet the one most surely prepared the way for the other; their work was upon the same lines, and Miss Carpenter, the Unitarian, of Bristol, was the spiritual heir and successor of Mrs. Fry, the Quaker, of Norwich.

There is, it is true, a contrast in the manner in which the two women approached their work in life. The aim of both was the rescue of what Mary Carpenter called ” the perishing and dangerous classes.” But while Mrs. Fry was led, through her efforts on behalf of convicts, to establish schools for them and their children, Mary Carpenter’s first object was the school for neglected children, and through the knowledge gained there she was led to form schemes for the reformation of criminals and for a new system of prison discipline. Mrs. Fry worked through convicts to schools ; Mary Carpenter through schools to convicts.

It will not therefore be imagined that there is any want of appreciation of Mrs. Fry when it is said that Mary Carpenter’s labours were more effective, inasmuch as they were directed to the cause of the evil, rather than to its results. By establishing reformatory and industrial schools, and by obtaining, after long years of patient effort, the sanction and support of Parliament for them, she virtually did more than had up to that time ever been done in England to stop the supply of criminals. Children who were on the brink of crime, and those who had actually fallen into criminal courses, were, through her efforts, snatched away from their evil surroundings, and helped to become respectable and industrious men and women.

Before her time, magistrates and judges had no choice, when a child criminal stood convicted before them, but to sentence him to prison, whence he would probably come out hopelessly corrupted and condemned for life to the existence of a beast of prey. She says, in one of her letters, dated 1850: “A Bristol magistrate told me that for twenty years he had felt quite unhappy at going on committing these young culprits. And yet he had done nothing!” The worse than uselessness of prisons for juvenile offenders was a fact that was burnt into Mary Carpenter’s mind and heart by the experience of her life. She was absolutely incapable of recognising the evil and at the same time calmly acquiescing in it. Her magisterial friend is the type of the common run of humanity, who satisfy their consciences by saying, “Very grievous! very wrong! ” and who do nothing to remove the grievance and the wrong; she is the type of the knights-errant of humanity, who never see a wrong without assailing it, and endeavouring to remove the causes which produce it.

Mary Carpenter was born at Exeter in 1807, the eldest of five children, several of whom have left their mark on the intellectual and moral history of this century. There was all through her life a great deal of the elder sister one may almost say, of the mother in Mary Carpenter. She never shrank from responsibility, and she had a special capacity for protecting love, a capacity that stood her in good stead in reclaiming the little waifs and strays to whom she afterwards devoted herself. Her motherliness comes out in a hundred ways in the story of her life.

Her endless patience with the truant and naughty children was such as many a real mother might envy. She was especially proud of the title of “the old mother” which the Indian women, whom she visited towards the close of her life, gave her. In writing to a friend, she once said: “There is a verse in the prophecies, ‘I have given thee children whom thou hast not borne,’ and the motherly love of my heart has been given to many who have never known before a mother’s love.” She adopted a child in 1858 to be a daughter to her, and writes gleefully : ” Just think of me with a little girl of my own I about five years old, readymade to my hand, without the trouble of marrying. A darling little thing, an orphan..” Her friends spoke of her eager delight in buying the baby’s outfit.

It was her motherliness that made her so successful with the children in the reformatories and industrial schools; moreover, the children believed in her love for them. One little ragged urchin told a clergyman that Miss Carpenter was a lady who gave away all her money for naughty boys, and only kept enough to make herself clean and decent On one occasion she heard that two of her ex-pupils had “got into trouble,” and were in prison at Winchester. She quickly found an opportunity of visiting them, and one of them exclaimed, directly he saw her, ” Oh! Miss Carpenter, I knew you would not desert us!”

Another secret of her power, and also of her elasticity of spirit, was her sense of humour. It was like a silver thread running through her laborious life, saving her from dullness and despondency. In one of her reports, which has to record the return of a runaway, she said: “He came back resembling the prodigal in everything except his repentance! ”

The motto which she especially made her own was Dum doceo disco: While I teach, I learn. She was indeed very proficient in many branches of knowledge. Her education, which took place at her father’s school for boys, included Latin, Greek, mathematics, and natural history; and the exactness which her father and the nature of her studies demanded of her formed a most invaluable training for her after career.

For many years the acquisition of knowledge, for its own sake, was the chief joy of her life; but a time came when it ceased to satisfy her. She was rudely awakened from the delightful dreams of a student’s life by a severe visitation of cholera at Bristol in 1832. From this period, and indeed from a special day that set apart as a fastday in consequence of the cholera dates a solemn dedication of herself to the service of her fellow-creatures. She wrote in her journal 31st March 1832, what her resolution was, and concluded: “These things I have written to be a witness against me, if ever I should forget what ought to be the object of all my active exertions in life.” These solemn self-dedications are seldom or never spoken of by those who make them. Records of them are found sometimes in journals long after the hand that has written them is cold. But, either written or unwritten, they are probably the rule rather than the exception on the part of those who devote themselves to the good of others. There is a time when the knight-errant consciously enrolls himself a member of the noble band of warriors against wrong and oppression, and takes upon himself his baptismal vow manfully to fight against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end.

When Mary Carpenter first began to exert herself for the benefit of neglected children, there were no reformatory or industrial schools, except those which had been established by the voluntary efforts of philanthropists like herself. Aided by a band of fellow-workers and wise advisers, Mary Carpenter set to work to establish a voluntary reformatory school at Kingswood, near Bristol. Her principle was that by surrounding children, who would otherwise be criminals, with all the influences of a wholesome home life, there was a better chance than by any other course, of reclaiming these children, and making them useful members of society.

To herd children together in large, unhomelike institutions, was always, in Mary Carpenter’s view, undesirable; the effect on character is bad; the more perfectly such places are managed, the more nearly do the children in them become part of a huge machine, and the less are their faculties, as responsible human beings, developed. Over and over again, in books, in addresses, and by the example of the institutions which she managed herself, Mary Carpenter reiterated the lesson that if a child is to be rescued and reformed, he must be placed in a family; and that where it is necessary, for the good of society, to separate children on account of their own viciousness, or that of their parents, from their own homes, the institutions receiving them should be based on the family ideal so far as possible.

With this end in view, the children at Kingswood were surrounded by as many home influences as possible. Miss Carpenter at one time thought of living there herself, but this scheme was given up in deference to her mother’s wishes. She was, however, a constant visitor. She taught the children herself, and provided them with rabbits, fowls, and pigs, the care of which she felt would exercise a humanising influence upon them.

The whole discipline of the place was directed by her; one of her chief difficulties was to get a staff of assistants with sufficient faith in her methods to give them an honest trial. She did not believe in a physical force morality. ” We must not attempt,” she wrote, “to break the will, but to train it to govern itself wisely; and it must be our great aim to call out the good, which exists even in the most degraded, and make it conquer the bad.” After a year’s work at Kingswood in this spirit, she writes very hopefully of the improvement already visible in the sixteen boys and thirteen girls in her charge. The boys could be trusted to go into Bristol on messages, and even ” thievish girls ” could be sent out to shops with money, which they never thought of appropriating.

But although the success of the institution was so gratifying, it had no legal sanction; it had consequently no power to deal with runaways, and the great mass of juvenile delinquents were still sentenced to prisons, from which they emerged, like the man into whom seven devils entered, in a state far worse than their first. Mary Carpenter’s work was not only to prove the success of her methods of dealing with young criminals, but, secondly, to convince the Government that the established system was a bad one, and thirdly, and most difficult of all, to get them to legislate on the subject. At last, in 1854, her efforts were crowned with success, and the Royal Assent was given to the Youthful Offenders Bill, which authorised the establishment of reformatory schools, under the sanction of the Home Secretary.

It is a striking proof of the change that has taken place in the sphere and social status of women, that Mary Carpenter, in the first half of her active life, suffered what can be called nothing less than anguish from any effort which demanded from herself the least departure from absolute privacy. When she was called upon to give evidence before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1852, her profound personal timidity made the occasion a painful ordeal to her, which she was only enabled to support by the consciousness of the needs of the children. Surely this excessive timidity arises from morbid self-consciousness, rather than from true womanly modesty. Mary Carpenter was enabled, by increasing absorption in her work, to throw it off, and for her work’s sake she became able to speak in public with ease and self-possession.

As years passed by, her work and responsibilities rapidly increased. It is astonishing to read of the number of institutions, from ragged schools upwards, of which she was practically the head and chief. Her thoroughly practical and business-like methods of work, as well as her obvious self-devotion and earnestness, ensured to her a large share of public confidence and esteem. The extraordinary energy and vitality of Mary Carpenter never declined.

When she was over sixty years of age she made four successive visits to India, with the double object of arousing public opinion there about the education of women, and the condition of convicts, especially of female convicts. At the ago of sixty-six she visited America. She had long been deeply interested in the social and juridical condition of the United States, and had many warm personal friends there. Her first impulse to reformatory work had come from an American citizen, Dr. Tuckerman; her sympathy and help had been abundantly bestowed upon the Abolitionist party, and she was of course deeply thankful when the Civil War in America ended as it did in the victory of the North, and in the complete abolition of slavery in the United States.

Her mind remained vigorous and susceptible to new impressions and new enthusiasms to the last. In 1877, within a month of her death, she signed the memorial to the Senate of the London University in favour of the admission of women to medical degrees. She passed away peacefully in her sleep, without previous illness or decline of mental powers, in June 1877, leaving an honoured name and a network of institutions for the reform of young criminals and the prevention of crime, of which our country will for many years to come reap the benefit.

Adapted from Some Eminent Women of Our Time by Elizabeth Garret Fawcett

Successful Woman: Elizabeth Fry

This is the first of our Successful Women series. For the introduction, click here.

The style and some of the sentiments in this sketch, which was written in the late 1800s may seem a little quaint in the twenty-first century, but the story should still be able to inspire us, despite the difference in literary style and social conditions.

While some aspects of society are vastly different and/or vastly improved today, some of Elizabeth Fry’s ideas for prison reform could still be usefully applied today.

ELIZABETH FRY

 

“Humanity is erroneously considered among the commonplace virtues. If it deserved such a place there would be less urgent need than, alas! there is for its daily exercise among us. In its pale shape of kindly sentiment and bland pity it is common enough, and is always the portion of the cultivated. But humanity armed, aggressive, and alert, never slumbering and never wearying, moving like an ancient hero over the land to slay monsters, is the rarest of virtues.” –-JOHN MORLEY.

THE present century is one that is distinguished by the active part women have taken in careers that were previously closed to them. Some people would have us believe that if women write books, paint pictures, and understand science and ancient languages, they will cease to be true women, and cease to care for those womanly occupations and responsibilities that have always been entrusted to them. This is an essentially false and mistaken notion. True cultivation of the understanding makes a sensible woman value at their real high worth all her womanly duties, and so far from making her neglect them, causes her to appreciate them more highly than she would otherwise have done.

It has always been held, at least in Christian countries, that the most womanly of women’s duties are to be found in works of mercy to those who are desolate and miserable. To be thirsty, hungry, naked, sick, or in prison, is to have a claim for compassion and comfort upon womanly pity and tenderness. And we shall see, if we look back over recent years, that never have these womanly tasks been more zealously fulfilled than they have been in the century which has produced Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, and Octavia Hill.

Mrs. Fry was born before the beginning of this century in 1780 but the great public work with which her memory will always be connected was not begun till about 1813. She was born of the wealthy Quaker family, the Gurneys of Norwich. Her parents were not very strict members of the sect to which they belonged, for they allowed their children to learn music and dancing pursuits that were then considered very worldly even by many who did not belong to the Society of Friends. Mr. and Mrs. Gurney, however, seem to have been very free from such prejudices, as well as from others which were much more universal, for their children not only learned music and dancing, but also girls as well as boys Latin and mathematics.

She had a very strong, innate repugnance to anything which drew public attention upon herself, and when the sphere of public duty first revealed itself to her, she records in her diary what it cost her to enter upon it, and writes of it as ” the humiliating path that has appeared to be opening before me.” It must be noticed, however, that in her case, as always, the steep and difficult path of duty becomes easier to those who do not flinch from it. In a later passage of her diary, the public work which she had at first called a path of humiliation she speaks of as “this great mercy.”

The first great change in Elizabeth Gurney’s life was caused by the deep impression made upon her by the sermons of William Savery. It is rather strange to find the girl who had such a terror of enthusiasm, weeping passionately while William Savery was preaching. Her sister described what took place. “Betsy astonished us all by the great feeling she showed. She wept most of the way home. . . . What she went through in her own mind I cannot say; but the results were most powerful and most evident.” Her emotion was not of the kind that passes away and leaves no trace behind. The whole course of her life and tenor of her thoughts were changed.

Soon after this, at the age of twenty, she became the wife of Mr. Joseph Fry, and removed to London, where she lived in St Mildred’s Court, in the City. The family into which she married were Quakers, like her own, but of a much more severe and strict kind. Her marriage was, however, in every respect a fortunate one. Her husband sympathised deeply with her in all her efforts for the good of others, and encouraged her in her public work, although many in the Society of Friends did not scruple to protest that a married woman has no duties except to her husband and children. Her journal shows how anxiously she guarded herself against any temptation to neglect her home duties. She was a tender and devoted mother to her twelve children, and it was through her knowledge of the strength of a mother’s love that she was able to reach the hearts of many of the poor prisoners whom she afterwards helped out of the wretchedness into which they had fallen.

Her study of the problem of how to help the poor began in this way. A beggar-woman with a child in her arms stopped her in the street. Mrs. Fry, seeing that the child had whooping-cough and was dangerously ill, offered to go with the woman to her home in order more effectually to assist her. To Mrs. Fry’s surprise, the woman immediately tried to make off; it was evident what she wanted was a gift of money, not any help to the suffering child. Mrs. Fry followed her, and found that her rooms were filled with a crowd of farmed-out children in every stage of sickness and misery; the more pitiable the appearance of one of these poor mites, the more useful an implement was it in the beggar’s stock-in-trade.

From this time onwards the condition of women and children in the lowest and most degraded of the criminal classes became the study of Mrs. Fry’s life. She had the gift of speech on any subject which deeply moved her. From about 1809 she began to speak at the Friends’ meeting-house. This power of speaking, as well as working, enabled her to draw about her an active band of co-workers. When she first began visiting the female prisoners in Newgate it is probable that she could not have supported all that she had to go through if it had not been for the sympathy and companionship of Anna Buxton and other Quaker ladies whom she had roused through her power of speech, just as she had herself been roused when a girl by the preaching of William Savory.

The condition of the women and children in Newgate Prison, when Mrs. Fry first began visiting them in 1813, was more horrible than anything that can be easily imagined. Three hundred poor wretches were herded together in two wards and two cells, with no furniture, no bedding of any kind, and no arrangements for decency or privacy. Cursing and swearing, foul language, and personal filthiness, made the dens in which the women were confined equally offensive to ear, eye, nose, and sense of modesty. The punishment of death at that time existed for 300 different offences, and though there were many mitigations of the sentence in the case of those who had only committed minor breaches of the law, yet the fact that nearly all had by law incurred the penalty of death, gave an apparent justification for herding the prisoners indiscriminately together. It thus happened that many a poor girl who had committed a comparatively trivial offence, became absolutely ruined in body and mind through her contact in prison with the vilest and most degraded of women. No attempt whatever was made to reform or discipline the prisoners, or to teach them any trade whereby, on leaving the jail, they might earn an honest livelihood. Add to this that there were no female warders nor female officers of any kind in the prison, and that the male warders were frequently men of depraved life, and it is not difficult to see that no element of degradation was wanting to make the female wards of Newgate what they were often called a hell on earth.

When Elizabeth Fry and Anna Buxton first visited this Inferno, there was so little pretence at any kind of control over the prisoners that the Governor of Newgate advised the ladies to leave their watches behind them at home. Mrs. Fry, with a wise instinct, felt that the best way of influencing the poor, wild, rough women was to show her care for their children. Many of the prisoners had their children with them in jail, and there were very few even of the worst who could not be reached by care for their little ones. Even those who had no children were often not without the motherly instinct, and could be roused to some measure of self-restraint and decency for the sake of the children who were being corrupted by their example. So Mrs. Fry’s first step towards reforming the women took the form of starting a school for the children in the prison.

As usual in all good work of a novel kind, those who knew nothing about it were quite sure that Mrs. Fry would have been much more usefully employed if she had turned her energies in a different direction. People who have never stirred a finger to lighten the misery of mankind always know, so much better than the workers, what to do and how to do it. They would probably tell a fireman who is entering a burning house at the risk of his life, that he would be more usefully employed in studying the chemical action of fire, or in pondering over the indestructibility of matter. The popular feeling with regard to Mrs. Fry’s work in Newgate was embodied by Thomas Hood in a ballad which is preserved in his collected works, and serves now to show how wrong a good and tender-hearted man may be in passing judgment on a work of the value of which he was entirely unqualified to form an opinion. The refrain of the poem is “Keep your school out of Newgate, Mrs. Fry.”

I like the pity in your full-brimmed eye

I like your carriage and your silken gray,

Your dove-like habits and your silent preaching,

But I don’t like your Newgatory teaching.

 

No, I’ll be your friend, and like a friend

Point out your very worst defect. Nay, never

Start at that word! But I must ask you why

You keep your school in Newgate, Mrs. Fry.

Elizabeth Fry teaching in Newgate Prison

Mrs. Fry’s philanthropy was not of a kind to be checked by a ballad, and she went on perseveringly with her work; the school was formed, and a prisoner named Mary Connor, became the first schoolmistress. A wonderful change gradually became apparent in the demeanour, language, and appearance of the women in prison. In 1817 an association was formed for carrying on the work Mrs. Fry had begun. It was called ” An Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.”

Public attention was now alive to the importance of the work; and in the following year a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to inquire and report upon the condition of the London prisons. Mrs. Fry was examined before this committee. Her chief recommendations were that the prisoners should be employed in some industry, and be paid for their work, and that good conduct should be encouraged by rewards; she was also most urgent that the women prisoners should be in the charge of women warders.

Mrs. Fry did not confine her efforts to the poor and wretched of her own country. She visited foreign countries in order thoroughly to study various methods of prison work and discipline. On one occasion she found in Paris a congenial task in bringing the force of public opinion to bear on the treatment of children in the Foundling Hospital there. The poor babies were done up in swaddling clothes that were only unwrapped once in twelve hours. There was no healthy screaming in the wards, only a sound that a hearer compared to the faint and pitiful bleating of lambs. A lady who visited the hospital said she never made the round of the spotlessly clean white cots, without finding at least one dead baby! Everything in the hospital was regulated by clockwork; its outward appearance was clean and orderly in the extreme, but the babies died like flies!

There were many other classes of neglected or unfortunate people whose circumstances were improved by Mrs. Fry’s exertions. The lonely shepherds of Salisbury Plain were provided with a library after she had visited the desolate region where they lived. She also organised a lending library for coastguardsmen and for domestic servants. There was no end to her active exertions for the good of others except that of her life. She died at Kamsgate in 1845, and was buried at Barking.

Her private life was not without deep sorrows and anxieties. She lost a passionately beloved child in 1815; in 1828 her husband was unfortunate in his business affairs. They suffered from a great diminution of fortune, and were obliged to remove to a smaller house and adopt a less expensive style of living. She did not pretend to any indifference she was far from feeling under these trials ; but they were powerless to turn her from the duties which she had marked out for herself. The work which she had undertaken for the good of others probably became, in its turn, her own solace and support in the hour of trial and affliction. In helping others she had unconsciously built up a strong refuge for herself, thus giving a new illustration to the truth of the words: ” He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life, for my sake, shall find it.”

Adapted from Some Eminent Women of Our Time by Elizabeth Garret Fawcett

What Does It Take To Be a Successful Woman?

There are a lot of different definitions of success. The most banal idea of success involves having a great job (or being retired), lots of money, a fancy car of your choice, a perfect house… you get the idea. This is, I think, what most people unconsciously imagine when they think of a successful person.

But is this really success? What if you live in your perfect house alone, and drive your fancy car to the high-paying job that you hate? What if you’re retired and have plenty of money, but are bored? What’s missing from this view of success? You have been successful in your career, but not in life.

Warren Buffet, who certainly would fit the having-lots-of-money definition of success, recently said,

Basically, when you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you.

I know many people who have a lot of money, and they get testimonial dinners and they get hospital wings named after them. But the truth is that nobody in the world loves them.

That’s the ultimate test of how you have lived your life. The trouble with love is that you can’t buy it. You can buy sex. You can buy testimonial dinners. But the only way to get love is to be lovable. It’s very irritating if you have a lot of money. You’d like to think you could write a check: I’ll buy a million dollars’ worth of love. But it doesn’t work that way. The more you give love away, the more you get.

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, would have agreed with Warren Buffet, but he also would have gone further. Aristotle points out that no one wants money for its own sake. Everyone who wants money wants it to buy something that they want more than the cash. But even the stuff that money buys is acquired for the sake of something else. Why did you buy that new house? Why did you buy that new car? To be comfortable, to be admired by others… there are many reasons. Aristotle goes through all the things that people want, even friendship and love, and points out that the only thing that is desired for itself, and for no other reason, is happiness. The successful woman will be the happy woman.

Now Aristotle’s idea of happiness is not the same as pleasure. Pleasure is fleeting and can easily be lost. It can become sickening over time. Imagine your favorite dessert: soft, creamy, delicious cheesecake! Yum…. Now imagine eating that dessert all day, every day for a month. Yuck…. And any pleasure can become as old and dreary as your cheesecake would be after thirty days.

Aristotle’s view of happiness is rather the complete fulfillment of the human person. The human person is a rational being, and its greatest joys are those of the mind. But the human is also physical, and the physical needs must also be met. As the people at pursuit-of-happiness.org put it, “happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc.—that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. This requires us to make choices, some of which may be very difficult. Often the lesser good promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting, while the greater good is painful and requires some sort of sacrifice.”

True happiness requires that all the humans needs and desires be balanced, a state Aristotle calls virtue. Virtue is the state of order within the person in which that person can choose freely to do what is most good, without having an internal battle over it.

Most people agree that they are happiest in the moments when they accomplish some goal, and the higher and worthier that goal is, the greater the happiness is. Virtues are necessary for happiness because they allow the person to achieve his or her goals despite the temptations to do things that would prevent the acquisition of the “all the goods …that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life.”

Virtue also allows us to avoid those things which prevent us from being happy. Drug use, overeating, and alcoholism are all bad choices that can ruin lives and prevent happiness. Virtue makes it easy to make good choices, like saving money, eating healthy food, maintaining important relationships, and avoiding harmful substances.

No woman can be called genuinely successful unless she is happy. They may have achieved notable things, and become rich or famous, but without happiness, this is worthless. While any woman who achieves happiness is successful in living, we like to hear about people who went above and beyond the ordinary. These are the people who inspire us, who make us want to be better, who make us want to be great ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I want to post the stories of some successful women—women who not only achieved something more than the average, but also seem to have achieved happiness in their lives.

If you want to make sure that you don’t miss any of these inspiring stories, enter your email address and a name in the right-hand column, and hit the subscribe button. We’ll send them right to your inbox.

Here are the first two in our series:

Mary Carpenter

Elizabeth Fry