Tag Archives: Mary Somerville

Suffrajitsu: A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

Tossing a policeman

No more the meek and mild subservients we!
We’re fighting for our rights, militantly!
Never you fear!

‘Sister Suffragette’ is sung by Mrs Banks from Disney’s Mary Poppins

In this modern era of Third Wave Feminism, it is often hard to realise how much the suffragettes battled against the oppression of women. It wasn’t just a battle of debates and political lobbying, there was several aspects of the struggle that were life threatening. The Cat-and-Mouse Act of 1913 was brought into subjugate the women prisoners who took to hunger strikes, and was a cruel policy to negate the death of these women in custody. Hunger strikes are a non-violent method of protest. Some suffragettes were more militant.

The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903, and ran until the Great War, where it turned its might to supporting the British war effort. It was only one of the suffragette organisations formed during Victorian and Edwardian times,but it was possibly the most militant. It had it own band of trained ‘soldiers’ who would protect and defend suffragettes, nicknamed by journalists as the Bodyguard, the Amazons and the Jiujitsuffragettes. Edith Garrud – the first female martial arts trainer in England – was one of their trainers, teaching the women Jujutsu, which the media renamed Suffrajitsu. I think this was rather cool, and levelled the playing field when these women went up against lines of policemen intent on subduing these nonconforming women.

Portrait Badge of Emmeline Pankhurst - circa 1909 - Museum of London

Portrait Badge of Emmeline Pankhurst – circa 1909 – Museum of London

In Britain, the pillar that supported the Suffragette Movement was Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, and later on, her daughters. The Women’s Social and Political Union was set up by her, one of a series of suffragette organisations she was to run during her lifetime. It was her tightly wound spring that powered the mechanism of the British suffragettes.  On a side note, as an Australian, I was interested to discover her daughter, Adela, moved to Australia and became a political force for communism; this caused a rift between her and her mother (the irony is that  – later in life – Adela became an anti-communist). Mrs Pankhurst died just two weeks before the act of parliament that saw every British woman over the age of 21 receiving the right to vote. As a writer, I can’t help wondering if her fighting spirit was what kept her going, and once she won, she had nothing else to live for…

In a Steampunk-genre writer, I can use all this lovely information to add interest to my characters and my plot. I have a love/hate relationship with Mrs Banks from Disney’s Mary Poppins, because she is often the only suffragette that people have seen represented in the cinema (though the Canadian television show Murdoch’s Mysteries is changing that.) In my work-in-progress, I am using the suffragette movement as a contrast to the misogyny of the Royal Society and the British academic scene in general. As with Mary Somerville, Mrs Pankhurst had the support of her husband, Richard Pankhurst, who also believed in the cause and the women’s right to vote. I enjoy seeing these husbands that didn’t just ‘allow’ their women to follow their interests, but actively encouraged them; unlike poor Mrs Banks, whose husband is quite the prig for most of the movie. Not all suffragettes were pacifists, and not all Victorian husbands dominated their wives. Break the stereotypes!



Filed under Analogy, Historical Personage, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Stereotypes, Suffragettes

Update on the Steampunk Work-in-Progress

Steampunk Ghostbusting portrait

This past week has seen some major editing being done on the Steampunk YA work-in-progress. I’ve been taking my own advice, as well as taking hints from other writers’ blogs on WordPress. All-in-all, I have finally tapped into the enormous potential WordPress has for supporting a writer, by providing a community context for what is essentially a solo occupation. So, what did I achieve over this week?

I’ve rewritten the start of the novel, to plunge the reader straight into the action. Personally, I don’t mind a slow reveal at the start of a novel, but as an emerging writer I shouldn’t try to be too clever and lose my audience. I’ve shared this new start here on the blog. I was uncertain whether to do that or not, as it was a first draft, and it will most likely be much changed in the final draft. Then I decided What the heck! This blog is about writing, and like to see other writers’ processes, and I figure I’m not the only person fascinated with the writing process. A new beginning means a change in intent, atmosphere and expectations, and the rest of the novel has to adapt to that change.

I’ve added a couple of ‘walk ins’ by historical personages. Mary Somerville, Arabella Buckley and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) are all now scheduled to make an appearance in the narrative. As prominent women in science, I have Mary and Bella giving my protagonist some feminine support against the patriarchal world of Victorian British Science. Dodgson should have been an obvious inclusion, since my Alice works with talking flowers, (well, a talking tree man). I can use references to Alice in Wonderland as a thematic device in my novel. After all, the Steampunk literary genre does allow for these cameos of real historical personages.

“Good afternoon. We haven’t been introduced, but I am a great admirer of your books, Mrs Somerville. My name is Professor Alice Saint de Cologne,” she said, and gave a tiny curtsey.

“You have probably guessed that I am Mrs William Somerville, and this is Miss Arabella Buckley, my editor,” said the elderly woman, accompanying the introduction with a kind smile. “I’ve heard of you, my dear.”

“I have also heard about you,” said Miss Buckley. “And I have quite a few of your creations bearing fruit and flowers in my gardens.”

“I hope everything you heard of me was good,” said Alice.

Miss Buckley flushed and pursed her lips. She looked embarrassed, and couldn’t meet Alice’s gaze. Alice felt herself start to blush, and wished herself a thousand miles away.

Mrs Somerville glanced sharply at both of them. “Oh, look at the both of you,” she said in an exasperated tone. “Of course Bella and I will have heard some silly, pompous men make claims that you, Professor  Saint de Cologne, are impertinent and have ideas above your station, and other nonsense. We need not take any heed of such idiocy, as sensible women.”

I have decided to use Victorian food as a sustained metaphor throughout the novel. Victorian dishes range from stodgy to magnificent … what a great way of lamp-shading what is going on in a scene. Bad food hints at bad events, and visa versa.

Currently the novel is standing at over 115,000 words in length. This will vary over the next few weeks as the editing process prunes away the deadwood, and adds fresh wood to fill in the gaps in the hedge. Wish me luck!


Filed under Personal experience, Steampunk, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, writing, YA Work in Progress

Burning Bustles instead of Books: the Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

Chained Books

“Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” A comment made by Mary Somerville’s father to her mother, worried about the teenaged Mary’s passion for maths and science.

 When I was at high school, it wasn’t unusual for the girls to go off to do a parenting course called ‘Mothercraft’ while the boys were given an extra session of technical drawing. We were always separated by gender for domestic science and technical drawing. Too bad if you were a girl like me, who would have preferred to do tech drawing, and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a subject called ‘Fathercraft’. Even now, girls and women are discouraged by lack of support and female role models in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Yesterday, I attended an Ada Lovelace Afternoon Tea, followed by a lecture that was discussing just this topic. Often girls drop out of STEM courses because they are outnumbered by the male students, and subtly (or not so subtly) are made to feel like they don’t belong. This is happening in the 21st century, so imagine how much harder it was for a women in the 19th century.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

We look back at Mary Fairfax Somerville and see her awards and achievements, and know she was respected in her chosen field. The word missing in that sentence is ‘eventually’. Mary Fairfax, as a child and young woman, was not supported in her studies in the same way that Ada Lovelace was. Her father was convinced her brain would overheat and she would go insane; this attitude worsened when Mary’s sister died and her death was partially attributed to too much studying. In fact, her first marriage was arranged by her parents to discourage her unnatural passion for learning about maths, science, astronomy and geology. As her husband’s chattel, Mrs Samuel Greig wasn’t allowed to pursue her research and it was the unhappiest time in her life.

It might sound cold, but her widowhood was the making of Mary. She went on to marry for love, to a William Somerville, who admire her vivid intellect and encouraged her in her studies. I cannot stress how unusual a man William was, a well-educated man who trained as a surgeon, who wasn’t indulging his wife’s interests as a doting husband, but supported them because he treasured Mary’s brilliance. At the same time, Mary became acquainted to many distinguished intellectuals and her reputation grew as she consolidated her studies by translating foreign science books, and by writing and publishing  science textbooks. It was through her friendship with Charles Babbage that she became Ada Lovelace’s mathematics tutor.

This was all achieved in an era when women were solely to function as wives and mothers, keeping house, raising children and given the occasional opportunity to socialize with other women. Women were not encouraged to obtain tertiary educations. With no women mentors or role models, Mary managed to glean her the start of her mathematical education from her brother’s math tutor, and from her painting master who introduced her to the mathematics of perspective, and this lead her to read Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Which she read for fun. And she still managed to have a stellar career while living through two marriages, two widowhoods, six children and being considered potentially insane by her parents.

So, if you decide to have a women scientist in a Steampunk narrative, you have to make sure your woman isn’t easily discouraged. She can’t be the sort of person that would give up at the first hurdle. She has to be a goal-setter, a go-getter, able to shrug off opposition and still fight on. She can still be a perfect lady, but under that lace dress is a soul that is as hard as steel and as flexible as a willow wand. She wouldn’t be content to have someone take her books away and try to make her conform to any role other than the one she chooses for herself.


Filed under Characterization, Feminism, Historical Personage, Steampunk, Women in Science, writing

Women in Science: a Steampunk Perspective

Sommerville and Lovelace

A depiction of Mary Somerville and Ada Lovelace in the webcomic, 2D Goggles: Dangerous Adventures in Comics.

I don’t think I’ve hidden my passions for Science or Feminism, or my admiration for any woman trying to make her way into the scientific establishment in the Victorian era. Science was considered a masculine field of endeavour, as women were not supposed to have rational or logical minds, and were considered too frail to cope with the rigours of Science (sad to say, we still have echoes of that viewpoint around today). So not only was any woman successful in the scientific field considered something of an oddity, she had to be tough as well.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

I have previously mentioned Ada Lovelace. Her tutor was the Scottish woman, Mary Somerville, nee Fairfax, who was a respected mathematician, astronomer, and a science writer. Mary Somerville’s second husband was certainly a free-thinker, because Dr William Somerville, a member of the Royal Society (which was rather a gentlemen’s club at that time), encouraged his wife to follow her interests. She went on to write popular textbooks on science, one of which was edited by Arabella Buckley, another woman science writer. Somerville was renown for the clarity of her writing style, as well as her enthusiasm for her topics, which is why she was – and still is – so popular. It is easy to see why Ada Lovelace was so well educated, with a polymath for her tutor.

Mary Somerville was so well thought of that she was one of the two first women to be invited to join the Royal Astronomical Society, and she was awarded the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society – which is awarded for conspicuous merit in research in Geography. In Brisbane, Australia, a well-thought-of school is named after her, Somerville House. There is a Somerville College in Oxford. She is a rare example of a woman who was both successful and respected in the field of Science. In her final years, she supported the Suffragette movement.

'The Fairyland of Science' by Arabella Buckley

‘The Fairyland of Science’ by Arabella Buckley

Arabella Buckley was also a science writer, but her books were aimed for a much younger audience than Mary Somerville’s text books. Buckley worked as a secretary for the geologist, Charles Lyell, from the age of 24 until Lyell’s death 11 years later. During that time, she obviously mixed with his colleagues and associates, because Charles Darwin considered her a friend, and she went into bat for the naturalist Alfred Wallace when he was in need of a pension. She was a great supporter of Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories of natural selection, and this support showed in her science books for children. As mentioned, she obviously was a colleague of Mary Somerville.

Her books were factual, though they did overemphasize the idea that morals and spirituality evolve along with the ‘higher’ animals; no modern biologist would say human beings are more evolved than a whale or a camel. She was the daughter of a reverend, and both her mother and her friend Alfred Wallace encourage her interest in Spiritualism. However, to her credit, her books still favoured scientific theory, even though they may seem twee to modern eyes, with her use of ‘fairies’ as metaphors for invisible forces like gravity. You are able to find some of her books online – don’t you just love the internet?

From my research, I can see she wasn’t as respected as Mary Somerville, but her opinions still held more weight than the average woman. She married in middle age (to a New Zealander from Christchurch, go Steampunk Christchurch), and her husband died after a decade of marriage. She continued writing using her maiden name as her pen name, which would have been quite a scandalous thing to do during the Victorian era. Arabella Buckley obviously wasn’t as sweet as her writings might indicate.

Not all woman writers were so well treated by the scientific establishment. Before she went on to write her children’s books, Beatrix Potter was a talented naturalist in her chosen field of British fungi. However, she became disheartened with the constant belittling of her research, to the point she wasn’t even allowed a student pass into Kew Gardens because she was a woman … even though they gratefully accepted all her samples and findings. Poor Beatrix. Her art developed because of her scientific interest in illustrating fungi and mushrooms, she made accurate and meticulous painting of specimens. At least she was able to find a financial reward for her art in the end.

I was tempted to call this article ‘Burning the Bustle: Part Two’. These women, Ada, Mary, and Arabella, were exceptions rather than the rule in an era when women were actively discouraged – like Beatrix Potter – to enter the field of science. Steampunk is a Science Fiction genre, and though it is set in a Vicwardian-like era, this doesn’t mean women characters have to confirm to the cultural expectations of the historical Victorian/Edwardian eras. A powerful woman scientist or science writer can be based on women like Ada, Mary and Arabella, but they don’t have to be lone intellectual amazons in a field of fussy men in frock coats. However, these women were all still quite feminine WHILE remaining true to science. They were feminists on their own terms, wearing bustles AND being outstanding in scientific arena.


Filed under Characterization, Feminism, History, Science, Steampunk, Stereotypes, Women in Science