Jane Marcet was inspired by the lectures of Humphry Davy, and in turn inspired Michael Faraday through her book, Conversations on Chemistry.
Born into the family of a London merchant and banker, Jane soon learned how to deal with great responsibility when her mother died, leaving her to take charge of her eleven siblings. Jane was tutored at home, together with her brothers, and her love of learning was born.
In 1799 she married a Swiss exile and physician, Alexander John Gaspard Marcet, and through him, she had the opportunity to meet leading scientists of the day. Her interest in writing began when her husband asked her to help read the proofs of one of his books. This encouraged her to start producing a series of her own books entitled Conversations which spanned many disciplines including economics, religion, botany and chemistry.
Not being an expert in these fields herself, Marcet strove to find a way of engaging others with these subjects in an informal and straightforward manner. To this end, she created three characters – two pupils, Emily and Caroline, and Mrs Bryant, their teacher – who revealed the subject through a sparky dialogue. This was a considerable departure from the staid textbook format of the day, and made the book much more accessible to young people, and particularly girls.
Her most famous work, Conversations on Chemistry, was inspired by the lectures of Humphry Davy which she regularly attended, and it became one of the first elementary science textbooks, including diagrams of the experiments described.
Although it was published in 1805, Marcet was not revealed as the author until 1832, by which time it was in its 12th edition. Its popularity was evident, especially in England, where it ran for 16 editions, and in the USA, where around 160,000 copies were sold. This was a feat unheard of for the 19th century, when science was rarely taught to girls, let alone taught by a woman.
The preface to Conversations on Chemistry shows the modest nature of Marcet but also demonstrates her desire to support young women in understanding science:
“In venturing to offer to the public, and more particularly to the female sex, an introduction to chemistry, the author, herself a woman, conceives that some explanation may be required; and she feels it the more necessary to apologise for the present undertaking, as her knowledge of the subject is but recent, and as she can have no real claims to the title of chemist.”
Her work not only reached other women, but had a significant impact on Michael Faraday, at that time an assistant to Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. In his correspondence with Swiss physicist Auguste de la Rive, Faraday wrote:
“Mrs Marcet was a good friend to me, as she must have been to many of the human race. I entered the shop of a book-seller and book-binder at the age of 18, in the year 1804, remained there eight years, and during the chief part of the time bound books. Now it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy. There were two that especially helped me, the Encyclopedia Britannica from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry which gave me my foundation in that science.”
Marcet’s books remained standard educational texts well into the 20th century, and while they may no longer appear on any curriculum, Marcet’s influence lives on today. Her life and works (along with many other notable women in science) are to be told in a theatrical production entitled No Belles, performed by The Portal Theatre Group.
The Portal Theatre Group, based in Oregon, have devised a play based on the lives and stories of Jane Marcet and a number of other notable, but underappreciated, women in science. No Belles will be performed at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Words by Charlotte Still
Image © The Royal Institution, London, UK / Bridgeman Images
Published August 2014