Women of Science, Women of Faith: Book Review of What Regency Women Did For Us

What Regency Women Did For Usby Rachel Knowles (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword History, 2017)

In January I plan to focus more on science, but let’s start now with this book which includes women scientists, as well as other fascinating and influential women.

What do Sarah Siddons, Caroline Herschel, Marie Tussaud, and Jane Austen have in common? All were women of Regency England who impacted the world in some way that still affects us today! Rachel Knowles has chosen a dozen such women, and shared their stories with us. They came from a variety of social classes, educational achievements, and church backgrounds.

Eleanor Coade, who produced artificial stone for statues and building fronts, and Madame Tussaud, who produced wax figurines, were both artists and brilliant businesswomen, even in a time when husbands normally controlled their wife’s finances. Sarah Siddons and Harriott Mellon were actresses; Mrs. Siddons made the occupation respectable for women, and Mrs. Mellon married wealth and benefitted the poor. Mary Parminter stretched the boundaries of her time, climbing mountains, constructing a giant mosaic, and leaving a legacy to benefit other single women as well as Christian mission organizations. You already know Jane Austen; Maria Edgworth was another popular writer; she established the genre of historical fiction, which personally I love to read!

What Regency Women Did For Us

Women Scientists

The women scientists made important contributions despite their lack of scientific education. Caroline Herschel is the most famous. Her brother William discovered the planet Uranus from their backyard in Bath, and developed more and more accurate telescopes. His sister Caroline assisted him in “sweeping” the night skies; she ended up discovering eight comets, never observed before! Her work was published by the Royal Society, the premier scientific organization in England. She is considered the first woman to receive a salary for her scientific work, 50 pounds a year.

Science was quite popular in the Regency, and more and more women were interested in it and attending scientific lectures. But most did not have the background to understand such lectures. Jane Marcet, whose husband was a physician and a chemist, faced this challenge when she attended Humphry Davy’s lectures in London. (Davy was the discoverer of “laughing gas” and the inventor of a much-needed safety lamp for miners.) Marcet’s husband helped her understand the scientific vocabulary she needed. She wrote a book for other women, Conversations on Chemistry, explaining scientific concepts in simpler language. She used everyday examples, such as a loaf of bread, and taught in the form of a conversation between a women teacher and two female pupils. The little class also did experiments that readers could do at home. The book was very popular, in both England and America, and stayed in print for many years. It taught basic chemistry to Michael Faraday, who later made many discoveries in electricity, and to many others.

Conversations on Chemistry 1806
Page from Conversations on Chemistry, 1806

Mary Anning’s story is amazing. She came from a very poor family in Lyme Regis (site of Louisa Musgrove’s fall in Persuasion), and received only a basic education. Her father taught her to find fossils in the cliffs around Lyme. She sold these fossils, and learned more and more about them, even teaching herself French so she could read important publications. She is now considered one of the founders of paleontology, and her fossils of creatures such as ichthyosaurs and pterodactyls are in museums around the world.

There’s even a woman engineer, or “engineering enthusiast,” in this collection. Sarah Guppy was an inventor who patented a number of inventions. Her husband was also an engineer and they ran a company together, so it is sometimes difficult to know which ideas are hers and which are his. However, some of her patents are in her own name, and she wrote a number of letters suggesting public improvements, such as relocating cattle markets from the center of town to a safer area (considering the health and comfort of the animals, a new consideration of the time!), and creating green spaces in the city. She was also involved in charities and in scientific organizations. Truly a woman pioneer!

A Woman of Faith

While the Christian faith of many of these women is mentioned, the one most clearly applying her faith is Elizabeth Fry, “the Angel of the Prisons.” Fry was a devout Quaker minister who preached around the country. When she visited Newgate prison and saw the horrendous conditions of women there, she took action. She started a school for the prisoners and enabled them to make things to sell so that they could make money for themselves and their children (who were also in the prison). She testified before the government repeatedly on prison conditions and possibilities for reform, and her reforms spread throughout the United Kingdom. She was also the mother of modern nursing, starting the first successful nursing school about twenty years before Florence Nightingale’s school. Fry was a woman who put her faith into practice in relieving needs in the world.

I bought this book because I appreciated the author’s website on Regency History which is full of helpful information, and because the author includes both faith and science in the book. Knowles tells a fascinating story about each Regency woman. Highly recommended.

A Perfect Match

I also recommend, by the way, Knowles’ entertaining novel, A Perfect Match. Both romance and mystery, it includes brief appearances by Wilberforce and Hannah More, as well as other notables of the time.

What are we doing to impact our own world, to make a difference? Who are our models?

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