Today, praise for a woman goes astray. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In recent programs I've
talked about an early-19th-century writer of
popular technical books.
Jane Marcet used conversations between a Mrs. B
and two young ladies, Caroline and Emily, to
explain very complicated ideas.
The other day I found an odd note penned on the
frontispiece of her political economics book. It
was part Latin, part English: "a Lady cujus
ingenium haud absurdum." What did it mean? A
librarian with a background in classics came to my
It literally means "a lady whose talent is by no
means" -- what? "absurd?" "awkward?" It's hard to
know what the book's owner meant by the word
"absurdum." We need some context.
It turns out he'd paraphrased a line from the Roman
author Sallust. Sallust tells about a woman named
Now among these women was Sempronia, who had
often committed many crimes of masculine daring ...
able to play the lyre and dance more skillfully
than an honest woman ... there was nothing she held
so cheap as modesty and chastity ...
Next comes a free translation of the line on the
She was a woman of no mean endowments.
Is this how the owner saw the author?
Brilliant, iconoclastic, half-whore? Then I realize:
every copy of Marcet's books I've seen -- every copy
of these instructional books for young ladies -- was
owned and read by a man.
Most are filled with marginal notes -- all
down-to-earth and factual. Every few paragraphs the
owner of this one has written a little marginal
summary. He obviously takes it very seriously.
Yet this odd quote from Sallust! Then we find that
none of Marcet's early books carried her name. One
says, "by the author of ... " and cites another
work. She didn't reveal herself as author of her
book on chemistry 'til it reached its 13th edition.
Still, this owner knew a woman had written his
book. He'd clearly meant to praise her. Yet he ties
into early-19th-century apprehensions. Listen to
Marcet's own words in an introduction:
In venturing to offer to the public ... an
Introduction to Chemistry, the author, herself a
woman, ... feels it ... necessary to apologize ...
as she can have no real claims to the title of
Women have been telling us how they've been written
out of history. Now I've stumbled into the middle
of that process. Everyone's bothered by Marcet's
gender. That book owner, society in general, even
Marcet herself. Everyone tries to find ways to
minimize the truth of Marcet's enormous educational
Marcet was one of the great technical educators 170
years ago. This man sounds a warning to us all when
he has to cast her as wanton -- before he can
praise her for all she's done.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Marcet, J. Conversations on Political
Economy... , 5th ed. London: Longman etc.,
Sallust. Sallust with an English
Translation (tr. by J.C. Rolfe). The Loeb Classical
Library, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Alic, M., Hypatia's Heritage. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1986, Chapter 12. (This gives the
best overview of Marcet that I could find.)
Jones, T.P., New Conversations on
Chemistry... Philadelphia: John Grigg, 1833.
(This is a revised version of Marcet's original
1805 book on chemistry.)
I am most grateful to Dr. Jeff Fadell at the
University of Houston Library for his fine
detective work in tracking down the Latin
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |