Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Greatest Composer of All Time

In 2019, BBC Music Magazine named Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer of all time. The magazine asked 174 current composers to vote for their favourites, of which Bach came out on top. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) followed second, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) third, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) fourth, and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) a respectable fifth. Why does Bach stand head and shoulders above all the other composers that have been and gone throughout history? He came from a family that produced over 50 musicians in 200 years, yet J.S. Bach surpassed them all to become the nation’s favourite.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) – Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31st March 1685 in Eisenach in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, Germany. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-95), the town musical director, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (1644-94). Bach’s father taught him to play the violin from a young age, and his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645-93), taught the young boy how to play the organ. Bach had several uncles and cousins who played various instruments and worked as organists or composers, all of whom had a great impact on Bach’s childhood. Sadly, his parents died when Bach was ten years old, leaving his older brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721) as his guardian.

Johann Christoph worked as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, where he also taught Bach everything he needed to know about the instrument. His brother also gave him lessons on the clavichord and introduced Bach to some of the top composers of the day, including Johann Christoph’s former tutor, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).

Whilst living with his brother in Ohrdruf, Bach attended a local school where he studied theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. In 1700, Bach enrolled at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, which extended his music knowledge as well as providing a prestigious academic education. Bach joined the school choir and took organ and harpsichord lessons from Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a German Baroque organist and composer at the local church.

Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche

After graduating from St Michael’s School in 1703, Bach found a position as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III (1664-1707) in Weimar. Still in his teens, Bach used the opportunity to develop his reputation as an organist. After seven months, rumours of his skill spread to neighbouring towns, including Arnstadt, located 19 miles from Weimar. A new protestant church in Arnstadt invited Bach to inspect their organ and give a harpsichord recital to mark the opening of the building. In August 1703, Bach became the official organist at the church, which until 1935 was known as New Church. Today, it is called Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche because of its association with the composer.

As the church organist, Bach worked with other musicians and a choir. After a couple of years in the post, Bach grew from a teenager into a self-important man who was not afraid to raise his opinion. Bach disliked the singing standard of the choir and, on one occasion, described one member as a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie bassoon player). The man retaliated by attacking Bach with a stick and, although Bach complained, the man was not reprimanded. Instead, the authorities advised Bach to lower his expectations of the choir.

Bach continued to assert his self-appointed authority on those who he deemed beneath him, including his employer. In 1705, Bach requested four weeks leave to visit the Baroque composer and organist Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) in the city of Lübeck. This involved a 280 miles journey, which Bach mostly travelled on foot over several days. Bach failed to return after his allotted four weeks, returning after four months instead. The 21-year-old organist most likely lost his job as a result.

Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)

In 1706, Bach started working as the organist at Divi Blasii, a Gothic church in Mühlhausen. Bach received a higher salary and was no doubt pleased with the better quality of the choir. He also convinced the church to renovate the organ, a task that needed much fundraising. After four months in his new job, Bach married his 23-year-old second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720).

Whilst working in Mühlhausen, Bach composed a cantata for the inauguration of the new council held on 4th February 1708. Gott ist mein König (God is my King), consists of seven movements written for “four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.” The lyrics are based on Psalm 74, in which the author expresses the pleas of the Tribe of Judah in Babylonian captivity. Although Bach only intended the cantata for the festival, it became his first published work later that year. It is also Bach’s only known cantata published in his lifetime.

In 1708, Bach moved back to Weimar, where his wife gave birth to their first child, Catharina Dorothea (1708-74). Two years later, they welcomed a son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), who inherited his father’s talent. Unfortunately, Wilhelm earned very little for his future compositions and died in poverty. In 1713, Maria gave birth to twins Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia. Unfortunately, Johann died on the same day, and Maria passed away twenty days later.

Whilst in Weimar, Bach worked as an organist and composed many keyboard and orchestral works. Bach later compiled many of his preludes and fugues from this time to form The Well-Tempered Clavier. Each piece in the collection is in a different key, totalling 24 key signatures: C major, C minor, C sharp major and so on. The outcome remains one of the most important works in the history of classical music. Bach also studied Italian composers and transcribed some of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) works for the organ and harpsichord.

In 1714, Bach welcomed another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88), who almost surpassed Bach’s musical legacy. Haydn (1732-1809), Beethoven and Mozart admired his work greatly, particularly the latter who said, “Bach is the father, we are the children.” The same year as Carl’s birth, J.S. Bach became the Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court in Weimar. His boss, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715), required Bach to compose one cantata each month for the court chapel service. Bach also transcribed many of Prince Johann Ernst’s violin concertos for the harpsichord and organ.

Bach’s sixth child, Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715-39), was born in 1715, the same year that Prince Johann Ernst passed away. Bach continued working as Konzertmeister but soon fell out of favour with the musicians and choir under his command. In 1717, his employers tried to dismiss Bach from his position. After stubbornly refusing to leave, Bach found himself arrested and confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for a month. On his release, he begrudgingly accepted his discharge.

Despite Bach’s unfavourable dismissal, Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728) hired Bach as Kapellmeister. Prince Leopold had an ear for music and recognised Bach’s talents. Unlike his previous employer, Bach had a good relationship with the prince and made him the godfather of Leopold Augustus (1718-19), who sadly died in infancy. The prince paid Bach well but disapproved of elaborate organ music in churches. As a result, most of Bach’s compositions from his time in Köthen had a secular nature. Nonetheless, Bach respected his employer’s taste, saying, “He was a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music.”

As Kapellmeister, Bach frequently joined the prince on his travels. In 1720, while away in Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), Bach’s wife unexpectedly died. Bach described her untimely death as the worst event in his life. Fortunately, he found love again the following year with the soprano singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke (1701-60). She also worked for the prince, and the couple married on 3rd December 1721. Anna instantly took up the role of stepmother and raised Bach’s children as though her own.

Die Leipziger Thomaskirche 1749

In 1723, Bach accepted the position of Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas). This involved moving to Leipzig to direct the Thomanerchor, a choir of boys aged 9 to 18 who attended St Thomas boarding school. Bach’s employer also expected him to teach Latin but allowed the composer to appoint others for this task. Bach was also expected to compose cantatas for Sunday services, of which he produced more than 300. The majority of the cantatas reflected the Gospel readings in the weekly lectionary.

During his first six years in Leipzig, Bach fathered six children. Due to the lack of medical care, many of Bach’s children did not survive infancy. Christiana Sophia Henrietta (1723-26), for example, died at the age of three, Christian Gottlieb (1725-28) at two, Regina Johanna (1728-33) at five, and Ernestus Andreas (1727-27) shortly after his birth. Two of the six children lived to adulthood. Gottfried Heinrich (1724-63) learned to play the keyboard well and showed the potential of “a great genius, which however failed to develop”. Writings of the time suggest Gottfried had a mental handicap of some sort and relied on his sister, Elisabeth “Liesgen” Juliana Friederica (1726-81), for all his adult life. Liesgen married one of her father’s pupils, Johann Christoph Altnickol (1720-59), who worked as an organist, composer and teacher.

In March 1729, Bach took over as director of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society that specialised in secular performances. The position, which he held for ten years, allowed Bach to broaden his repertoire, which, until then, was constricted to liturgical compositions. The extra work did not prevent Bach from his Thomaskantor duties because of Bach’s proactiveness in producing six years worth of cantatas during his first three years in Leipzig. He also continued to grow his large family, although the child mortality rate remained high. Three babies born in the 1730s did not reach childhood: Christiana Benedicta (1730-30), Christiana Dorothea (1731-32) and Johann August Abraham (1733-33).

In 1732, Bach welcomed a son who managed to survive childhood and follow in his musical footsteps. Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-95), known as the ‘Bückeburg’ Bach to differentiate him from his father, became a concertmaster in Bückeburg, where he was also a renowned harpsichord player. The Bückeburg Bach composed hundreds of pieces for the keyboard, as well as chamber music, choral work and symphonies. Unfortunately, a lot of J.C.F. Bach’s manuscripts were destroyed during the Second World War.

Johann Christian Bach – Thomas Gainsborough

Another of Bach’s sons earned the epithet “The London Bach” because he established his reputation in England as the music master to Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). J.S. Bach was already 50 years old at Johann Christian’s (1735-82) birth and did not live to witness his son’s success. Nonetheless, J.C. Bach’s talent emerged from a young age, and his father spent a few years teaching him how to play the keyboard. Later in life, J.C. tutored the 8-year-old Mozart in composition, who often credited the “London Bach” for his success. On hearing of J.C. Bach’s death in 1782, Mozart lamented, “What a loss to the musical world!”

In 1736, J.S. Bach received the title of “Royal Court Composer” from Augustus III of Poland (1696-1763), the Elector of Saxony. At this time, Bach was working on his first publication of German Organ Mass, which he eventually published in 1739. The collection includes a triple fugue in E flat major, which is understood to represent the Trinity. “The first fugue is calm and majestic, with an absolutely uniform movement throughout; in the second the theme seems to be disguised, and is only occasionally recognisable in its true shape, as if to suggest the divine assumption of an earthly form; in the third, it is transformed into rushing semiquavers as if the Pentacostal wind were coming roaring from heaven.” (Albert Schweitzer, 1905)

Following the birth of his final two children, Johanna Carolina (1737-81) and Regina Susanna (1742-1809), Bach’s music style shifted. He adopted stile antico from the 16th century and combined it with the music of his contemporaries, for instance, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel and Bach were born in the same year, yet they never met. Bach attempted to visit Handel in 1719, but he had moved to London. Bach incorporated several of Handel’s arias into his version of the St Mark Passion, composed in 1747.

In mid-1747, Bach visited King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) in Potsdam, who introduced Bach to the fortepiano. This new instrument was an early version of the piano built by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). Bach had come across Silbermann’s earlier constructions and criticised them heavily. Yet, the fortepiano impressed Bach and inspired him to write a collection of keyboard canons and fugues, which he published under the title The Musical Offering. Many musicologists consider this work one of the first piano compositions in history.

Although Bach continued to compose, often returning to and adapting older works, his eyesight rapidly deteriorated. He stubbornly refused to step down as Thomaskantor, but his employer made arrangements to hire another composer to start working “upon the eventual … decease of Mr Bach”. By 1750, Bach was almost completely blind due to cataracts and underwent eye surgery by the British eye surgeon John Taylor (1703-72). Unfortunately, Taylor was a charlatan and permanently blinded Bach as a result. He also blinded the composer Handel and up to 100 other victims. Sadly, Bach passed away on 28th July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful operation.

Not much is known about Bach’s funeral other than he was buried in an unmarked grave at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. Yet, he did not die a poor man. An inventory drawn up at the time claims Bach owned five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet. Whilst his funeral remains a mystery, Bach’s life is recorded in detail in a Nekrolog (obituary) written by his son Carl and one of his students, Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-74).

Image of the Bach memorial erected by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1843

During his lifetime, Bach was highly regarded amongst his colleagues. Yet, those outside his social circle were not so familiar with his compositions. As a result, only a limited number of people played Bach’s music. It is thanks to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), who conducted a famous performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on 11th March 1829, that Bach is popular today. Mendelssohn later erected a monument to the composer in Leipzig. Also credited with reviving Bach’s compositions is Bristol-born Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the son of the famous hymnodist Charles Wesley (1707-88). At the beginning of the 19th century, Wesley, sometimes known as “the English Mozart”, occasionally performed some of Bach’s organ pieces in London concerts.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded by Moritz Hauptmann (1792-1868), a cantor of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, to promote Bach’s music. Around that time, musicians referred to Bach as one of the Three Bs, a term coined in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung to represent Bach, Beethoven and Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Later, a German conductor replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (1833-97), saying “I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.” (Hans von Bülow, 1880) Since then, the English composer David Matthews (b.1943) has proposed adding Benjamin Britten (1913-76) to the legacy, making them the Four Bs.

Bach’s popularity continued to rise during the 20th century with the appearance of several organisations and awards in his name. Choirs and orchestras, including the Bach Aria Group, Deutsche Bachsolisten, Bachchor Stuttgart, and Bach Collegium Japan, have developed and performed various Bach Festivals around the world. Every two years, the Bach-Archiv Leipzig holds the Internationaler Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig (International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition); and the Royal Academy of Music in London awards the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize to “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the performance and/or scholarly study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So, why is Bach the nation’s favourite composer? Admittedly, it is a matter of personal taste, but Bach may come out on top due to his versatile style of compositions. Whilst Bach usually wrote for organ and other keyboard instruments, he also produced concertos for the violin and music for orchestras. Bach composed hundreds of religious works, making him popular in churches, but he also wrote secular music, which is enjoyed by people of all faiths and none. Bach wrote something for everyone, and it is this, alongside his expertise, that earns him the title “The Greatest Composer of All Time”.

Some of the compositions mentioned in this blog are available on YouTube through the following links:
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I: Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major (BWV846)
German Organ Mass : Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV683a)
Prelude in E-flat Major (BWV 552/i) – Representing the Trinity
Six-voice ricercar from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079)
Opening to St. Matthew Passion (BMW 244)


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The Queen of Science

When researching women of science, Mary Somerville is a name that frequently crops up. Since past societies often wrote women out of history, Mary Somerville must have been a scientist of some significance to feature so often in biographies of other women (and men). Mary Somerville receives a mention in two of my recent blogs about female scientists (Ada Lovelace and Caroline Herschel), so it is about time I focused on Mary’s life and achievements.

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville – Thomas Phillips

Born on 26th December 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, Mary was the second of four surviving children to Vice-Admiral William George Fairfax (1739-1813) and Margaret Charters. Despite her father’s position, his pay was meagre, and Mary grew up in poverty in her childhood home at Burntisland, Fife. To earn some extra money, Mary’s mother grew and sold vegetables and fruit and kept a cow for milk. Mary’s father spent much of her early life at sea, leaving her mother to give her a rudimentary education by teaching her to read the Bible.

When Mary was ten years old, her father returned from his recent voyage and expressed his discontent with Mary’s lack of education. After scraping together as much money as possible, Fairfax sent his daughter to a boarding school in Musselburgh for a year, where she learnt English grammar and French.

Over the following year, Mary developed a fascination with shells and small sea creatures, which she found while spending hours on the beach. When at home, her mother expected Mary to help around the house, but she often retreated to her father’s library to read. As a result, her parents sent her to a local school to learn the more feminine art of needlework. Mary expressed her contempt in her memoirs, admitting she “was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Mary Somerville as a Young Lady – John Jackson

Aware of her desire to learn, the headmaster of the village school paid home visits to Mary to teach her about geography. This came to an end after her 13th birthday when her mother sent Mary to writing school in Edinburgh, where she also studied arithmetic. In her spare time, Mary attempted to teach herself Latin, later seeking the help of her uncle, Rev. Dr Thomas Somerville (1741-1830). Mary also taught herself the Greek language and how to play the piano during school holidays and, instead of returning to the writing school, enrolled at an art school run by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840). Nasmyth also had an interest in astronomy and mechanical science, and he gladly became Mary’s tutor on the subjects.

In 1797, Mary’s father helped Admiral Adam Duncan (1731-1804) beat the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown while serving on HMS Venerable. For this, Fairfax earned a knighthood and became Colonel of Marines. The family’s income significantly increased, and they joined Edinburgh socialites at many social events, where Mary earned the nickname “the Rose of Jedburgh”. When at home, Mary’s parents expected her to play the traditional role of a daughter, but when not in public, Mary focused on playing the piano, painting and studying algebra. Sadly, the family’s good fortune was marred by the death of Mary’s older brother Samuel, who died while serving in the East India Company’s military service, aged 21.

Self Portrait – Mary Somerville

In 1804, Mary met a distant cousin, Captain Samuil Samuilovich Greig (1778-1807), a Russian Consul. The same year, Mary married Grieg, some claim by force and moved to London. In 1805, they welcomed a son, Woronzow (1805-65), named after a Russian diplomat. Their second son, George, soon followed, who Mary nursed while simultaneously trying to study science and mathematics. Grieg disliked his wife’s intellectual pursuits and actively tried to prevent her. The unhappy marriage came to an end in 1807 with the death of Grieg. Mary returned to Scotland with her sons, but sadly the infant George died the same year.

The money left by her late husband allowed Mary to pursue the intellectual interests that Greig had forbidden. She resumed her mathematical studies with the encouragement of the Church of Scotland minister and scientist John Playfair (1748-1819), who introduced her to William Wallace (1768-1843). Mary regularly wrote letters to Wallace, discussing her mathematical learnings, and he, in turn, suggested books to read. Gradually, Mary’s studies grew to include astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geography, magnetism and microscopy.

Mary practised her mathematical skills by solving problems posed in the journal of the Military College at Marlow, now known as Sandhurst. Several of her solutions featured in the Mathematical Repository under the pseudonym “A Lady”, but one particular result earned Mary a silver medal in 1811.

William Somerville c. 1840

When not studying, Mary spent time with her family, who introduced her to people of note, including her cousin Dr William Somerville (1771-1860), the inspector of the Army Medical Board. Somerville actively encouraged Mary’s ambitions and helped her learn about physical science. In 1812, Mary married William Somerville, with whom she had four children: Margaret Farquhar (1813-23), Thomas (1814-15; died in infancy), Martha Charters (1815-79) and Mary Charlotte (1817-75).

Mary’s husband was elected to the Royal Society, which boosted their reputation in society, acquainting them with many writers and artists, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In 1819, the Somerville’s moved to Hanover Square, London, so that Mary’s husband could accept the position of physician at Chelsea Hospital. Meanwhile, Mary began tutoring a friend’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-52). At a scientific gathering, Mary met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who was “making his Calculating-machines”. Mary later introduced Lovelace to Babbage, which sparked a significant professional relationship.

A German governess looked after Mary’s children, allowing her the freedom to mingle in society. She became well known by scientists and mathematicians, both in England and abroad. Together, the Somervilles travelled around Europe, meeting people of note, who often returned the visit. The only thing marring this idyllic lifestyle was the death of their eldest daughter Margaret in 1823.

In 1826, Mary published her first scientific paper, The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum, in the Royal Society’s journal. One reader, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), declared she was “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Subsequently, Mary received a commission from Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham (1778-1868), to translate the Traité de mécanique céleste (“Treatise of celestial mechanics”) by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Not only did Mary painstakingly translate the lengthy treatise from French to English, she embellished it with her knowledge about the mathematics behind the workings of the solar system, saying, “I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language.” This translation, published under the title The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831, made Mary famous throughout the English speaking world. Cambridge University used the publication as a textbook until the 1880s.

Mary’s translation continued to garner praise over the next few years, particularly from “many men of science”. In 1834, Mary was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Bristol Philosophical Institution and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève. She also received an annual £200 civil pension from the British Crown, although spent most of her time in Italy. Despite this, the Somervilles faced a financial crisis in 1835 as the needs of their children increased as they neared adulthood. Money made from Mary’s book and future publications often saved them from bankruptcy, although Mary always maintained she only wrote for pleasure. Mary’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, sold over 15,000 copies, making it one of the biggest selling science books of the 19th century. In a review of the book, the polymath Rev Dr William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the word “scientist”. Until then, the term “man of science” was the usual description, but this did not befit a woman.

Mary Somerville – James Rannie Swinton

Due to her love of astronomy, Mary joined in the discussions about a hypothetical planet on the other side of Uranus. She wrote of her predictions in later editions of Connexion, which were fulfilled in 1846 by the official discovery of Neptune. Two years later, Mary published her third book, Physical Geography, the first English textbook on the subject. Mary described the structure of planet earth, including land, mountains, volcanoes, oceans, rivers and lakes. She also discussed weather, temperature, plants, animals and prospects of the human race. Setting the book apart from modern publications is Mary’s Victorian view that humans are superior to all other life forms. Physical Geography sold more copies than her previous books and earned her the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. A decade later, she was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

Haliomma Echinaster, a marine phosphorescence.

Although Mary Somerville continued to study and join in mathematical and scientific discussions, it was not until 1869 that she published her fourth book. Molecular and Microscopic Science took ten years to complete and on several occasions Mary admitted she regretted the subject choice. “In writing this book I made a great mistake, and repent it. Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful, as a new era had begun in that science.” Nonetheless, the book proved successful and contained up-to-date information about atoms and molecules, plant life, and animals. It also contained 180 illustrations, which significantly increased the cost of the publication.

Shortly before the publication of her final book, the British MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73) asked Mary to be the first to sign a petition for female suffrage. Unfortunately, the petition was unsuccessful. In her autobiography, published posthumously from many letters to and from Mary, she declared, “British laws are adverse to women.” Throughout her life, Mary felt the effects of the male-dominated world, particularly in childhood when she could not study the same subjects as her brothers. Fortunately, she also saw positive changes, such as higher education establishments opening to women.

On 29th November 1872, Mary Somerville passed away aged 91 in Naples. Her husband predeceased her by 12 years, and Mary’s daughters helped to look after her for the remainder of her life. Mary was buried in the English Cemetery in Naples, and the following year, her letters and memoirs were published under the title Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. The book includes letters to and from family, friends and notable public people, including Ada Lovelace.

Mary Somerville lived on through her work and books, some of which universities continued to use until the 20th century. She has also been honoured several times over the past century and a half, including the naming of Somerville College at the University of Oxford in 1879, one of the first women’s colleges. Also named after the first person to be called a scientist is Somerville Square in her home town Burntisland, Somerville House boarding school in Australia, and Somerville Island in Canada.

Whilst it is true that many honours come after a person’s death, Mary Somerville received some during her lifetime. In 1835, when Mary was 55 years old, a ship named Mary Somerville set sail. Belonging to Taylor, Potter & Co., of Liverpool, the ship sailed to and from India and the West Indies carrying trading goods. The ship worked for 17 years until it disappeared after departing from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean on 18th October 1852. When she did not appear at her destination, she was presumed to have foundered, and all crew were believed dead. The ship may have nearly reached the British Isles because, on 11th January 1853, a chest belonging to the Mary Somerville washed up on Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Mary’s legacy continued into the 20th century when an asteroid discovered on 21st September 1987 was named 5771 Somerville in her memory. This asteroid, the size of a minor planet, orbits the sun once every five years and seven months (2,029 days). The small Somerville crater on the eastern side of the moon also honours Mary Somerville.

Perhaps Mary Somerville’s greatest honour to date is becoming the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 note. In February 2016, RBS held a public vote on Facebook to decide which Scottish figure should replace the nobleman Lord Ilay (1682-1761), who had appeared on the note since 1987. Wishing to change the material of the note from paper to polymer, RSB thought the public should have a say about the design. Voters had a choice between several notable people, including Mary Somerville, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834). The new note, featuring a young Mary Somerville on one side and a picture of two otters on the reverse became legal tender in Scotland on 4th October 2017.

Google Doodle 2nd February 2020

On 2nd February 2020, Mary Somerville received her most recent honour with a Google Doodle. For 24 hours, a cartoon version of Mary sitting at a desk was the first thing people saw when visiting the Google website. Doodle designer Alyssa Winans commented that she admired Mary’s “voracious appetite for learning”. Winans hoped “this Doodle will shine a light on Mary Somerville’s contributions, and people will feel inspired to explore a broad range of interests.”

Like Winans, I hope this blog has shone a light on Mary Somerville’s contribution to science and mathematics. She wrote several successful books at a time when being a female writer was challenging. Mary Somerville was also a vocal advocate for equal rights, and it is thanks to her, or at least a reviewer of her books, that the gender-neutral term “scientist” came into the English language.


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Chopin: The Man Behind the Music

Frédéric Chopin is remembered as a composer and piano player whose “professional technique […] was without equal in his generation.” With over 230 compositions under his belt, Chopin became one of the world’s first celebrities in the music industry. Influenced by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin combined new and old techniques to develop new genres of music that made him a leading symbol of the Romantic era. Yet, Chopin died young at the age of 39, robbing the world of his talents. Nonetheless, he left behind a hole that musicians have since tried and failed to fill. How did someone so young achieve everlasting fame and admiration?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was the second child born in Poland to Nicolas Chopin (1771-1844) and Justyna Krzyżanowska. There is some discrepancy about his date of birth, which is either 22nd February or 1st March 1810, although the latter is generally accepted today. His father, a Polonised Frenchman, received a teaching post at the Warsaw Lyceum in the same year of his son’s birth, prompting the family to move to the capital. Chopin and his sisters, Ludwika (1807-55), Izabela (1811-81) and Emilia (1812-27), grew up within the grounds of the school where their father taught the flute and violin, and their mother the piano.

Although his parents were musicians, Chopin’s father arranged for his children to have professional music tuition. At the age of six, Chopin started receiving piano lessons from Wojciech Żywny (1756-1842), a Polish teacher who instilled Chopin’s love of Mozart (1756-1791) and Bach (1685-1750). His elder sister Ludwika also received lessons, and they occasionally played duets, but of the pair, it became apparent Chopin was the child prodigy. Chopin gave his first public concert to the Polish aristocracy at seven years old and composed two polonaises, a style of Polish dance. Unfortunately, these manuscripts are missing, so Chopin’s earliest known work is a polonaise in A-flat major, which he wrote and dedicated to his piano teacher in 1821, aged 11.

Fryderyk Chopin at the piano – Eliza Radziwiłłówna

In 1823, Chopin began attending the Warsaw Lyceum as a pupil. As well as academic instruction, Chopin received organ lessons from Czech musician Wilhelm Würfel (1790-1832). In 1826, Chopin enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory to take a three-year music course under the tuition of Józef Elsner (1769-1854). During this time, Chopin focused on composition work, which he performed at many recitals in the city. Chopin wrote mainly for the piano, but in 1825 he was invited to try out a unique instrument: the aeolomelodicon.

The aeolomelodicon is an obsolete keyed wind instrument consisting of a keyboard and pedal, which when depressed triggered a set of bellows to produce a soft, ethereal sound. The designer, Fidelis Brunner, based it on the earlier, unsuccessful instrument, the aeolodion. The older instrument used steel springs to produce the sound, but Brunner used brass tubes and reeds instead, which proved more powerful. In May 1825, Chopin performed one of his compositions on the aeolomelodicon, for which he received great praise.

The success of Chopin’s performance on the aeolomelodicon led to the invitation to play for Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) on another strange instrument: an aeolopantalon. Jozé Dlugosz of Warsaw, the inventor of the aeolopantalon, combined the earlier instruments with a piano, which played both in conjunction or separately from the bellows. Impressed with Chopin’s recital, the Tsar presented him with a diamond ring. Another concert was arranged at which Chopin performed his Rondo Op. 1., which subsequently became his first published work.

As a student, Chopin took the opportunity to visit other parts of Poland. He particularly enjoyed staying in the Polish village Szafarnia, where he discovered rural folk music. The atmosphere and traditions Chopin observed differed greatly to the city and made a significant impact on the young composer. Sadly, the death of Chopin’s youngest sister Emilia in 1827 put an end to these excursions, and he returned to his parents, who ran a boarding house for students of the Warsaw Lyceum.

Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829 – Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887

In 1829, Chopin completed his education at the Conservatory. The same year, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Posen, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł (1775-1833), invited Chopin to Berlin. As visualised in a painting by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), Chopin performed for the Radziwiłł family and guests. Chopin also composed a piano and cello piece called Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for the prince, an aspiring cellist. Yet, when Chopin officially published the manuscript, he dedicated it to the Austrian cellist Joseph Merk (1795-1852), who Chopin claimed was the only violoncellist he respected.

Later that year, Chopin made his debut in Vienna, where he premiered his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”. These were variations of a song of the same name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and received favourable reviews, although some commented that Chopin was “too delicate for those accustomed to the piano-bashing of local artists.” Yet, the performance drew attention to the young composer and he played at another concert before returning to Warsaw. When the up-and-coming German composer Robert Schumann (1810-56) heard Chopin play, he exclaimed, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

In 1830, Chopin set out “into the wide world, with no very clearly defined aim, forever.” (Zdzisław Jachimecki, 1937) Little did he know he would not see his home city again, which suffered damages during the November 1830 Uprising. Also known as the Polish-Russian War 1830-31, Polish rebels turned the capital into a military garrison, forcing the Warsaw Lyceum and Conservatory to close. Although Chopin expressed his nostalgia for his homeland, he did not return to the city to enlist in the army. Instead, he remained in Western Europe, performing in Vienna and Paris.

Chopin at 25 – Maria Wodzińska, 1835

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, inadvertently becoming one of the many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration who fled from the uprising. To gain French citizenship, Chopin began using the French version of his name, Frédéric François Chopin, yet he always considered himself Polish at heart. While in Paris, Chopin became acquainted with many french composers and artists, including Hector Berlioz (1803-69), Franz Liszt (1811-86) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). He also remained in close contact with his Polish friends, especially Julian Fontana (1810-69), who boarded with Chopin during their years at the Warsaw Lyceum. Although Fontana wanted to establish himself in England, his lack of success prompted him to become Chopin’s “general factotum and copyist”.

Chopin’s debut concert in Paris took place on 25th February 1832 in the salons de MM Pleyel, a virtuoso pianist and piano maker. Critics exclaimed, “Here is a young man who … taking no model, has found, if not a complete renewal of piano music, … an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else …”. Chopin earned the patronage of the wealthy Jewish Rothschild family, and by the end of the year, had a steady income from the publications of his compositions. He no longer relied on public performances or money from his family for day-to-day living.

In 1835, Chopin visited his family in the Slavic city Carlsbad. As it turned out, this was the last time Chopin saw his parents. On his way back to Paris, Chopin stopped in Dresden, where he met the Wodziński family with whom he had made the acquaintance during his student years. While there, Chopin became enamoured with 16-year-old Maria Wodzińska (1819-96), who painted a portrait of Chopin, which is considered the best likeness of all images of the composer. The following year, Chopin returned to Dresden, where he proposed to Maria. From there, he travelled on to Leipzig, where he composed many pieces, which he compiled into an album for his fiancée. Unfortunately, the gift did not receive the reaction for which Chopin hoped, and the relationship came to an end.

While living in Paris, Chopin befriended Franz Liszt, whom he performed with on at least seven occasions. Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op.10 to Liszt, but some historians suggest their relationship was often strained. In a letter, Chopin revealed his jealousy of Liszt’s skill on the piano, saying, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies.” Chopin also forced Liszt to apologise after embellishing one of his nocturnes during a public performance rather than playing the music as written. Yet, Chopin continued to refer to “my friend Liszt” in his letters to other friends and family members.

Another reason for Chopin and Liszt’s unsteady friendship may involve their relationship with women. Liszt felt concerned that his mistress, Marie d’Agoult (1805-76), who wrote romantic novels under her pen name, Daniel Stern, gave Chopin too much attention. His jealousy heightened after Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op. 25 to d’Agoult, especially as the reason for this was unclear. Nonetheless, Liszt and d’Agoult had a lengthy affair, resulting in three children: Blandine Rachel (1835-62), Francesca Gaetana Cosima (1837-1930) and Daniel (1839-59).

Chopin and Sand [detail] – Delacroix, 1838

In 1836, Chopin attended a party held by Marie d’Agoult where he met the author George Sand (born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, 1804-76). At the time, Chopin was still engaged to Maria Wodzińska and thought little of Sands, saying, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” Sand, on the other hand, admitted to her friends her infatuation for the composer. After discovering Chopin and Maria were no longer an item, Sand let her feelings be known to Chopin. By 1838, Chopin and Sands were lovers.

Sand had a reputation for having many lovers and had married, although now separated from Casimir Dudevant (1795-1871), which resulted in two children: Maurice (1823-89) and Solange (1828-99). Chopin appeared unfazed by Sand’s past and agreed to spend the winter of 1838 in Majorca with Sand and her children. Before travelling, Chopin complained of feeling unwell but hoped the Mediterranean climate would revive him. Unfortunately, the couple struggled to find lodgings on the island because the Catholic population disapproved of their relationship. In the eyes of the church, Sand was still married. As a last resort, Chopin, Sand and the children moved into a former Carthusian monastery in the Majorcan village of Valldemossa.

Chopin – Gratia, 1838

Chopin’s health failed to improve, and the prognosis given by three doctors did not make him feel any better. “Three doctors have visited me … The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die.” Despite feeling miserable, Chopin continued to compose music and completed several preludes, two polonaises, his Ballade No. 2, Op. 38, and worked on Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. Chopin dedicated the ballade to Robert Schumann, who had recently dedicated a piano solo to Chopin.

The Mediterranean climate that Chopin hoped would cure him failed to materialise. Instead, poor weather ravaged the island, prompting the couple to move to Barcelona on the mainland, then to Marseilles in the south of France, where Chopin spent two months convalescing. Chopin’s health improved a little, and in the summer of 1839, he moved to Sand’s estate at Nohant in central France, much to Maurice’s disgust. The 16-year-old boy wished to establish himself as the man of the house and feared Chopin would take that role from him. Nonetheless, Chopin and Sand continued to spend their summers at Nohant until 1846.

During one of his stays at Nohant, Chopin composed Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 (1842), which gained the nickname Polonaise héroïque (Heroic) during the Revolution of 1848. Many pianists find the piece physically demanding to play, although Chopin usually played it much more gently than most performers. When hearing the music played at the time of the Revolution, George Sand declared, “L’inspiration! La force! La vigueur! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on, this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol.”

Chopin’s health took a turn for the worse in 1842, the same year he composed the Héroïque. Although he gave solo recitals in Paris, he complained to a friend that “I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much.” Soon, Chopin was declining more invitations than he was accepting, and on one occasion, he was discovered on the floor “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” The worse his health became, the less work Chopin could achieve. Usually, he wrote dozens of compositions each year, but in 1844, he only managed to complete Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor. Nonetheless, many consider this one of Chopin’s most technically challenging compositions.

The historian Adam Zamoyski (b. 1949) observes, “[Chopin’s] powers of concentration were failing and his inspiration was beset by anguish, both emotional and intellectual.” As well as his health, Chopin had problems with his relationship with Sand, who accused him of being more supportive of her daughter Solange than herself. Nonetheless, Sand continued to care for Chopin, becoming more like a nurse than a lover to the “beloved little corpse”, as she nicknamed him. In 1847, Sand published a novel Lucrezia Floriani, which featured characters based on herself and Chopin – a story that Chopin allegedly admired. Yet, by the end of the year, their relationship ended with an exchange of angry letters.

On 16th February 1848, Chopin performed his Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 with the cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808-84), but felt too unwell to give any more performances. For a while, Chopin continued to take on pupils, but this soon became too difficult for him. To avoid the Revolution of 1848, Chopin visited England at the suggestion of his Scottish pupil Jane Stirling (1804-59), who arranged an introduction with Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert (1819-61). Chopin agreed to perform to the royals, much to the delight of the Prince, who eagerly watched Chopin’s fingers on the piano to observe his technique.

In August, Jane invited Chopin to stay with her family in Scotland, which sparked rumours about a romantic relationship. Whilst Jane desired to marry Chopin, he did not reciprocate her feelings. In letters to friends, he described Jane and her family as boring. Chopin also realised his health was deteriorating rapidly, writing, “They have married me to Miss Stirling; she might as well marry death.” Despite his illness, Jane took him to visit all of her relatives and arranged concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester. At the latter, which he performed on 28th August, Chopin was so weak he needed someone to carry him off the stage.

Chopin on His Deathbed – Teofil Kwiatkowski, 1849

In the autumn, Chopin returned to London with Jane, who continued to support her piano tutor despite his rejection of her romantic advances. On 16th November 1848, Chopin gave his final public concert at London’s Guildhall, even though he was critically ill. Jane continued to look after him and helped Chopin travel to Paris, where he gave the occasional piano lesson. His sister Ludwika came to stay in the city at Chopin’s request, and many of his friends visited him at his bedside, often entertaining him by playing music.

Frédéric Chopin playing at Paris’s Hôtel Lambert – Kwiatkowski

Jane commissioned the Polish artist Teofil Kwiatkowski (1809-91) to produce an oil painting of Chopin on his “deathbed”. He sits in bed surrounded by five guests, including his sister and a pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (1817-94). This was the artist’s second painting of Chopin, the first being a picture of him playing at a ball at Hôtel Lambert in Paris.

In the early hours of 17th October 1849, a visiting doctor enquired whether Chopin was suffering greatly. Chopin replied, “No longer,” and died shortly after, age 39. According to Chopin’s death certificate, he succumbed to tuberculosis, but more recently, other suggestions have cropped up. These include cystic fibrosis, cirrhosis and pericarditis. Due to Chopin’s popularity, his funeral was delayed until 30th October, and attendees needed to reserve tickets. Over 3,000 people were refused entry to the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where the service was held, many of whom had travelled from other countries for the occasion. A choir sang Mozart’s Requiem and Chopin’s Preludes No. 4 in E minor and No. 6 in B minor were also played, followed by a rendition of the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 at his graveside.

Auguste Clésinger (1814-83), the husband of George Sand’s daughter Solange, sculpted Chopin’s tombstone, which sits in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. It features the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre. Although Chopin’s body rests under the sculpture, his sister took his heart back to Poland as per her brother’s request, symbolising that he always considered himself Polish.

Chopin’s music is his long-lasting legacy. Preferring to play in salons rather than ballrooms, he adjusted well-established forms of music to suit the setting. His waltzes had faster tempos than those written for dancing, and he was the first composer to write ballades and scherzos as individual concert pieces. Whilst Chopin respected the style of Bach and Mozart, who he regarded as his greatest influences, Chopin also introduced Polish music. As one music historian puts it, “it was Chopin who put the mazurka on the European musical map.”

“Chopin’s unique position as a composer, despite the fact that virtually everything he wrote was for the piano, has rarely been questioned.” (J. Barrie Jones, 1998) Although Chopin’s work does not favour orchestras, his music remains popular and is regularly performed today. An International Chopin Piano Competition is held in Warsaw every five years by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, which is devoted to performances of his polonaises, mazurkas and piano concertos.

To commemorate Chopin’s 100th birthday, Wacław Szymanowski (1859-1930) designed a sculpture of the composer to stand in Warsaw’s Royal Baths Park. Unfortunately, an argument over the design and the outbreak of World War One delayed the erection of the monument, but it was finally put in place in 1926. Sadly, the statue was blown up during World War Two by the Germans. Allegedly, on the following morning, a handwritten sign was found in the rubble, which said, “I don’t know who destroyed me, but I know why: so that I won’t play the funeral march for your leader.” The statue was rebuilt after the war and placed on a plinth featuring the inscription: “The Statue of Fryderyk Chopin, destroyed and plundered by the Germans on 31 May 1940, rebuilt by the Nation. 17 October 1946”. Also etched into the monument is a line from a poem by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), which reads, “Flames will consume our painted history, sword-wielding thieves will plunder our treasures, the song will be saved…”

Although Chopin only lived for 39 years, his influence on the world through music is evident. Over 80 societies across the world dedicate themselves to the composer and musician, and more than 1500 videos of performances of Chopin’s works are on Youtube. You can listen to some of the music mentioned in this blog through the following links:
Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1
Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2
Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3
Revolutionary Etude No. 12, Op. 10
Etude No. 2 in F minor “The Bees”, Op.25
Prelude in E Minor No. 4, Op. 28
Prelude in B Minor No.6, Op. 28
Marche Funèbre (Funeral March), Sonata Op. 35
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op. 38
Scherzo No.3 In C Sharp Minor, Op. 39
Heroic Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op. 53
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor, Op. 65


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The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation and became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel, the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets. Yet, despite these achievements, Caroline is rarely mentioned in history books. Her brother was the more important of the siblings because he was a man. So, let’s rediscover this lost heroine of astronomy.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of ten children born on 16th March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, to oboist Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Not all the children survived infancy, and those that did received a basic education at home. Issak made more effort to teach his sons than his two surviving daughters, who learned little more than reading and writing. Her father never thought Caroline would amount to much, particularly after she caught typhus at the age of ten. The illness stunted her growth, never growing taller than 4 feet 3 inches, and affected her eyesight.

Typhus put an end to Caroline’s regular education, and her mother did not expect her to find a husband. She insisted Caroline train as a house servant, although Issak continued to teach his daughter in secret. Following her father’s death in 1771, Caroline’s older brothers William and Alexander invited her to move with them to Bath in England, where they worked as musicians. They thought Caroline could work with them as a singer and perform in churches. It took some time to persuade their mother to let Caroline travel to England, but she eventually joined her brothers in August 1772.

As well as singing, Caroline looked after William’s household at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline found it difficult to mix in society but soon gained the opportunity to continue her education. Caroline’s brothers taught her arithmetic and to play the harpsichord, as well as regular singing lessons. She became the lead singer at William’s oratorio concerts, although only agreed to perform if her brother conducted. She gained a reputation for her voice after singing a solo in Handel’s Messiah in 1778, but her reluctance to work with other conductors led to a decline in her singing career.

Alongside infrequent public performances, Caroline focused her attentions on looking after her brother’s home. William left his music career behind, choosing to focus on his passion for astronomy. Whilst William studied, Caroline did “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded…” As time went on, Caroline grew interested in her brother’s work and shared his excitement for the stars. During the 1770s, William built several telescopes, grinding the lenses by himself rather than purchasing inferior ones. It was with one of these that William discovered the planet Uranus on 13th March 1781.

In 1782, Caroline and William agreed to a final musical performance, after which William accepted the position of court astronomer to King George III (1738-1820). They moved to a shabby cottage in the village of Datchet, from where William could be on hand for the king at Windsor Castle. Her brother wished Caroline to be his assistant, which involved spending hours polishing mirrors, positioning telescopes and recording William’s astronomical observations. Initially, Caroline hated this work but soon grew to enjoy it after William asked her to “mind the heavens” with a telescope for interesting objects.

Caroline started keeping a record book in which she noted all her observations. These she compared with the Messier catalogue, a list of 110 nebulae and faint star clusters compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). On 26th February 1783, Caroline spotted a nebula that did not appear in the catalogue. After more observation, she discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110, orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the discovery was recorded in Caroline’s name, William did not want to miss out on future discoveries and took over the searching, relegating his sister to note and measurements taker.

Noting his sister’s disappointment, William constructed a telescope for Caroline to use, although he still required her to take notes. Every night, William shouted out his sightings, which required Caroline to quickly look them up in either the Messier catalogue or the Catalogus Britannicus. The latter was a 3,000-star catalogue compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Unfortunately, neither list suited the Herschel sibling’s work, so Caroline created her own catalogue.

On 1st August 1786, while her brother was away, Caroline borrowed William’s telescope to sweep the sky, where she spotted an unknown comet. Over the next eleven years, she discovered eight new comets, although only five appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions under her name. Caroline also observed a comet that the French astronomer Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) had spotted a decade before, yet the Society named it after the third person to detect it, Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865). Unlike Caroline and Méchain, the German astronomer calculated that the comet orbits the Earth once every 3.3 years. Thus, the comet is known as Encke’s Comet.

After Caroline spotted her first comet, William presented her to the royal family at Windsor Castle. For some time, Caroline was known as the first woman to discover a comet, although later evidence proves this incorrect. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) is officially the first woman to spot a comet, but this knowledge remained hidden for many years because her husband, Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), claimed it under his name. Nonetheless, Caroline’s reputation grew, and she reported her second find directly to the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).

Caroline became familiar with several well-known members of the Royal Society, including its president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who rose to fame after accompanying Captain James Cook (1728-79) to Australia. Caroline announced the rest of her comet discoveries directly to Banks, including her eighth and final comet, which she observed on 6th August 1797 without the aid of a telescope. During this time, Caroline received an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021) from the king, making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.

Both Caroline and William continued to struggle to cross-reference their findings with Flamsteed’s catalogue, frequently resorting to Caroline’s previous notes instead. Other astronomers also faced similar difficulties, so William recommended his sister write a cross-index for all to use. The project, which took Caroline 20 months to complete, resulted in Catalogue of Stars, Taken from Mr. Flamsteed’s Observations Contained in the Second Volume of the Historia Coelestis, and Not Inserted in the British Catalogue, published by the Royal Society in 1798. This new catalogue included all the stars listed by Flamsteed and 560 new findings. Unfortunately, rules forbade women from writing scientific documents, so the catalogue appeared under William’s name.

The payment for the new catalogue supplemented Caroline’s income, affording her more independence. Her brother’s marriage in 1788 to a widow named Mary forced Caroline to move into external lodgings, but she still returned to the main house to work with her brother. Unfortunately, William denied her a copy of the key to his observatory and workroom, meaning she could never work alone. Caroline destroyed her journals from this period, so her true feelings are unknown, but biographers suggest Caroline felt bitter and jealous of William’s wife, the usurper of her position in the household. On the other hand, French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), who befriended the siblings, claimed they worked well together. Caroline also looked after the house and observatory whenever William was away. Letters sent to and from Mary in later life also indicate a loving relationship, often writing fondly about her nephew John (1791-1871).

Although Caroline had restricted access to her brother’s observatory, she continued to make independent discoveries and contributed to many astronomical projects. In August 1799, Caroline received an invitation to spend a week in Greenwich as a guest of the Royal Family, which she readily accepted. Despite being a woman, Caroline’s fame grew, and many respected her as the true author of the Catalogue of Stars and discoverer of comets.

When William passed away in 1822 after a long illness, his grief-stricken sister returned to Hanover, Germany. Caroline later admitted she regretted leaving England, but she continued her astronomical studies from her new home. Using her brother’s notes, Caroline verified William’s work and produced another nebulae catalogue to aid her nephew John in his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Due to this work and the determination to write her memoirs, Caroline made no further original discoveries in the night sky. Nonetheless, she continued to attend events with other scientific luminaries and remained a respected astronomer.

In 1828, Caroline received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her “recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the [2,500] Nebulæ discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour.” She was the first woman to receive such an honour and remained the only person of her sex until 1996 when Vera Rubin (1928-2016) received the medal for her work on galaxy rotation rates.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Three years later, Caroline achieved the same status at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. At the age of 96, Caroline also received recognition from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). “In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations,” Caroline accepted another Gold Medal for Science.

“The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” This is the inscription on Caroline Herschel’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, where she was buried after passing away peacefully on 9th January 1848, at the age of 97. Forty years later, the Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa (1848-1925) named a comet after Caroline’s middle name Lucretia, proving her reputation lived on after her death. Two of her independent discoveries also share her name, Caroline’s Cluster and Caroline’s Rose, as well as a crater on the moon. Yet after this, Caroline Herschel’s fame faded away until the second half of the 20th century.

Caroline Herschel reappeared in 1968 when feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) penned Planetarium, subtitled, “Thinking of Caroline Herschel … astronomer, sister of William; and others.” One verse of the poem refers to “a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’ in her 98 years to discover 8 comets”, which presumably refers to Caroline’s work, although she passed away just short of her 98th birthday. Yet, Rich’s work is only loosely inspired by Caroline Herschel and does not highlight her achievements or reveal anything about her life.

During the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) honoured Caroline with a table setting in The Dinner Party. This installation artwork, which is on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, symbolises the work of 39 women throughout history. The artwork consists of tables in a triangle formation, each side representing a period of time. Caroline Herschel sits between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the Native American woman Sacagawea (1788-1812) on the American to the Women’s Revolution side of the table. Another side represents women from prehistory to the Roman Empire, for instance, Boadicea and the Hindu goddess Kali. The third side seats women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, including Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Each place setting in The Dinner Party features an embroidered cloth featuring the sitter’s name and images to represent their accomplishments. Upon this sits a napkin, cutlery, a goblet, and a decorated plate. Chicago painted an eye in the centre of Caroline Herschel’s plate to represent the astronomer looking through a telescope. The tablecloth features stars, clouds, sun and eight comets.

Whilst Judy Chicago recognised the talents and achievements of 39 women, including Caroline Herschel, the artwork does little more than introduce their names and hint at their career. To fully appreciate these forgotten women, people need to read, learn and talk about them to keep them alive. In Ancient Egypt, a soul never died whilst someone remained alive to speak its name. Although this belief is not a part of modern religions, the premise is the same. Without educating others about historical figures, they will metaphorically die, just like Herschel almost did before poets and artists like Rich and Chicago resurrected her. Fortunately, several books concerning Caroline Herschel have appeared during the 21st century, so her memory continues to live.

Last year, Argentina released several satellites named after women of science, including Caroline Herschel, and in 2016, Google remembered her 266th birthday with a “Google Doodle”. Other than this, little else has helped return Caroline to her former glory. Famous during her lifetime, Caroline’s achievements have since gone unnoticed. This is largely due to society’s attitudes towards women in the 18th and 19th century. Unable to publish her work under her own name, Caroline’s brother took the credit. Whilst this was not a problem at the time, because friends and acquaintances knew it was Caroline’s work, the people of the future wrongly assumed William Herschel made the discoveries. In the 21st century, it is time for women of the past to reclaim their achievements and receive the same respect as male figures.


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The Enchantress of Number

Contemporary computers have a history that dates back five millennia to the abacus. Great minds, such as the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c.287-212 BC), developed theories that led to modern calculus and, eventually, to the invention of the computer. The devices we are familiar with today emerged during the 20th century, but the first “computer programmer” lived a century earlier. Not only does that surprise many, but the gender of this programmer also raises eyebrows. Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, or “The Enchantress of Number”, as the polymath Charles Babbage (1791-1871) called her, went against social norms to study mathematics and receive the accolade of the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840,

Generally, but incorrectly, known as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer is gradually earning recognition in the 21st century. In 2009, the non-profit organisation The Ada Initiative marked the second Tuesday of October as the annual Ada Lovelace Day. The goal of this event is to “raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” particularly those written out of history. Whilst their achievements are significant, it is also important to learn about their lives and the obstacles they overcame as women to fulfil their ambitions.

The Honorable Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10th December 1815 in London to Lord and Lady Byron. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), the renowned poet and politician, expected a “glorious boy” and did not hide his disappointment when Lady Byron gave birth to a girl. He named his daughter after his sister Augusta Leigh (1783-1851), but insisted on calling her by her middle name Ada. Just over a month after the birth, Lord Byron commanded his wife to leave and set about organising a legal separation.

Ada Byron, aged four

Happy to escape from her immoral husband, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron (1792-1860), moved to her parents home in Leicestershire with her 5-week old daughter. She refused to let Byron see his child, not that he protested, and Ada never knew her father. Although Ada lived with her mother, she did not have a loving relationship and spent the majority of her childhood in the care of her grandmother, Lady Judith Milbanke. When in public, Lady Byron acted like the perfect mother, but in private, she did not even mention Ada’s name. In a letter to her mother, Lady Byron wrote, “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”

Ada was a sickly child, often confined to her bed due to migraine-like headaches. At 14, she contracted measles, which paralysed her legs. In the year that followed, Ada spent her time in bed but kept herself amused by reading about and practising mathematics. Although usually reserved for male students, Ada’s mother insisted she receive lessons in maths and science. Lady Byron feared her daughter becoming an “insane” poet like her ex-husband.

During one of her long bouts of illness, Ada dreamed of flying. Using both her imagination and logic, Ada studied the anatomy of birds, analysing the right proportions between wings and body. She even went as far as to consider suitable materials and wrote about her experiments in a book called Flyology. Ada also envisioned a winged flying machine containing a steam engine for power. Little did she know that 76 years later, the Wright Brothers would take their first flight in a similar construction.

Ada Byron, aged seventeen

At 16, Ada regained the use of her legs, although she relied on crutches for some time. Evidence suggests she was fully mobile by the age of 18 when she attempted to elope with a male tutor. Since Lady Byron covered up the scandal, the name of the tutor is unknown. Ada had many tutors for mathematics and science, including the English clergyman William Frend (1757-1841) and British physician William King (1786-1865). Augustus De Morgan (1806-71), a mathematician and logician, encouraged Ada’s passion for numbers and noted she had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

Ada’s favourite tutor was Mary Somerville (1780-1872), the Scottish researcher and scientific author, who introduced her to many notable people, including Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Charles Dickens (1812-70). She also met lots of people at Court after she was presented at the age of 17, where she met her future husband Lord William King-Noel, 8th Baron King (1805-93).

Intrigued by Ada’s mathematical prowess, Babbage invited her to view the prototype of his Difference Engine: a type of calculating machine that is described today as the first computer. Fascinated by his work, Ada persuaded Somerville to take her to visit Babbage as often as possible. Ada liked to watch Babbage work while taking notes but soon started to voice suggestions.

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)

Meanwhile, Ada’s social life continued at Court, where she attended many functions and events. Enamoured by her brilliant mind, men considered her “a popular belle of the season”. She caught the eye of the 8th Baron King, whom she married on 8th July 1835, thus becoming Lady King. They honeymooned in Somerset and ten months later welcomed a son, Byron (1836-62). The following year, Ada gave birth to a daughter, Anne Isabella (1837-1917), but became unwell with “a tedious and suffering illness, which took months to cure.” Her third child, Ralph Gordon (1839-1906), was born on 2nd July 1839.

In 1838, Ada learned she was a descendant of the Barons Lovelace, of Hurley in the County of Berks, the last of whom passed away in 1736. The Peerage of England decided to revive the title, making Ada’s husband the Earl of Lovelace and Ada the Countess of Lovelace. It is due to this title that Ada is often mistakenly referred to as Ada Lovelace.

After the birth of her youngest child, Ada returned to working with Babbage. In 1842, the English scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) commissioned the countess to translate an academic paper from French into English. This was a transcript of Babbage’s talk at the University of Turin written by Luigi Menabrea (1809-96), the future Prime Minister of Italy. The papers introduced Babbage’s proposal for another machine, the Analytical Engine, which he described as a simpler version of the Difference Engine.

Lovelace’s diagram from “note G”, the first published computer algorithm

As well as transcribing Menabrea’s transcript, Ada added notes to the article. She explained what made the hypothetical Analytical Engine different from the Difference Engine and demonstrated how the machine could calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. These numbers are the result of a complicated formula that only the elitist mathematical brains could fathom. After writing both an explanation and a demonstration of the Analytical Engine’s potential output, Ada’s notes were three times longer than the original article. Although the Analytical Engine has never been built, Ada’s work is regarded as the world’s first published computer programme.

Ada also argued that “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” In other words, a machine or computer can only work with the input provided by its maker and cannot surpass the knowledge or intelligence of the collective human race. This idea computer scientists continue to debate today during their strive to develop Artificial Intelligence.

As well as numbers, Ada believed the Analytical Engine had the potential to “act upon other things besides number”, for instance, music. Babbage’s machines only used numbers, but Ada believed these digits could represent other entities, such as music tones and letters. The Analytical Engine was never constructed, although British software engineer John Graham-Cumming is determined to build it, so Ada’s theory has not been tested. Yet, 100 years after Ada expressed the idea, computer scientists developed the modern computer using a similar approach.

Despite being a woman, many mathematicians respected Ada, particularly Michael Faraday, who described himself as a supporter of Ada’s work. Unfortunately, science journals published Sketch of the Analytical Engine containing Ada’s translations and appendices under her initials rather than her full name. For decades after her death, the initials hid Ada’s true identity, and many assumed the mathematician was a man.

Painting of Lovelace seated at a piano, by Henry Phillips (1852)

In 1852, Ada was diagnosed with uterine cancer, with which she suffered in agony for several months. During this time, her mother forbade visits from friends, including Babbage, and encouraged her daughter to turn to religion. On 30th August, Ada confessed something to her husband, which upset him enough to abandon her bedside for the remainder of her life. To date, no one knows what Ada said to cause such a reaction. She eventually passed away on 27th November 1852 at the age of 36. As per her final strange request, she was laid to rest next to her father, a man she never met, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

After her death, people remembered Ada more for a series of scandals rather than her mathematical genius. During the 1840s, several rumours of extra-marital affairs surrounded Ada, but more scandalous was her love of gambling. After forming a syndicate with her (male) friends, Ada lost more than £3,000 by betting on horse races. In 1851, she attempted to create a mathematical formula to guarantee successful bets but failed and lost thousands of pounds.

Rumours of Ada’s romantic affairs resurfaced after the reading of her will. Rather than leaving the Byron family heirlooms to her children, she left them to John Crosse, the son of British scientist Andrew Crosse (1784-1855). Most correspondences between Ada and John were destroyed after her death, so the truth of their relationship will never come to light.

Ada’s eldest son Byron became the 12th Baron Wentworth after his grandmother’s death in 1860. Unfortunately, he did not have long to enjoy it before his sudden death two years later, aged 26. The barony passed to Ada’s youngest child, Ralph, who also became the 2nd Earl of Lovelace after his father’s death in 1893. Ralph avoided public life as much as possible and spent his 22nd year in Iceland learning about Icelandic and Norse literature. He also enjoyed mountain climbing and became an accomplished linguist. Rather than becoming a mathematician like his mother, Ralph preferred to write and, shortly before his death, published Astarte: A Fragment of Truth concerning George Gordon Byron, first Lord Byron, which divulged his grandfather’s incestuous nature.

Lady Anne Blunt, in Bedouin dress, and her favourite riding mare, Kasida 1900

Lady Anne Blunt, Ada’s middle child, married the poet Wilfrid Blunt (1840-1922), with whom she co-founded the horse breeding firm Crabbet Arabian Stud. She travelled extensively around the Middle East purchasing Arabian horses, many of which she brought home to England despite her husband’s protests that the horses preferred warmer climates. After Anne’s death, her only child, Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957), continued the horse breeding business. A descendant, John Lytton (b.1950), is currently a crossbencher in the House of Lords.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, did not regain her reputation as an extraordinary mathematician and computer programmer until the 1970s with the production of Childe Byron by playwright Romulus Linney (1930-2011). Unfortunately, this play focused more on the non-existent relationship between Ada and Lord Byron than on her career. Ada’s mathematical genius came to the fore in William Gibson (b.1948) and Bruce Sterling’s (b.1954) 1990 steampunk novel The Difference Engine, and in the 1997 film Conceiving Ada. Other plays and books include Ada and the EngineThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, and The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency. The Countess of Lovelace also appeared as a character in an episode of Doctor Who in 2020.

An illustration inspired by the A. E. Chalon portrait created for the Ada Initiative

Dying at such a young age, Ada did not have the opportunity to receive praise for her work, nor did she know how much it would change the future. As a woman, it is unlikely she would have gained adequate recognition at the time, as is the case for many of her sex. She finally received the long due commemoration over a century after her death. In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named their computer language “Ada” in her memory, and the following year, the Association for Women in Computing inaugurated its Ada Lovelace Award. Also named after the mathematician is the Lovelace Medal for the British Computer Society, Ada College in Tottenham Hale, the Ada Initiative, and the Ada Developers Company.

Blue plaque to Ada Lovelace in St. James’s Square, London

In November 2020, Trinity College Dublin announced the plan to add four busts of famous women to their library, which until now has contained only statues of men. Ada Countess of Lovelace will make history once again alongside Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97).

It is a great shame that Ada Countess of Lovelace died before she could develop more groundbreaking theories in computer science. It is an even greater shame that, for a hundred years, her gender was hidden behind her initials, leading thousands to believe technology a man’s science. Although she did not build a machine or get the chance to test her hypothetical programme, Ada’s genius ideas greatly assisted the development of modern computers.

“They say behind every great man there’s a woman,” and this is indeed true in the professional relationship between Babbage and Lovelace. Ada’s “poetical science” mindset asked questions about Babbage’s machines, and she developed visions that none of the top scientists in the industry could imagine. Whereas they saw what was in front of them, Ada realised the potential of such machines and, as we can confirm today, she was right.


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The African Mahler

Many have heard of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), but how many people know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer and conductor? Known in America as the “African Mahler”, Coleridge overcame the constraints of his race to succeed in his career as a classical composer and musician. African people considered Coleridge-Taylor a beacon of hope for the future and continue to remember him as an iconic figure of Black British history.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born on 15th August 1875, the son of a white British woman and an African-American man from Sierra Leone. His father, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, met his mother, Alice Hare Martin (1856-1953), whilst studying medicine at King’s College London. After a short relationship, Taylor returned to Africa, unaware that Alice was pregnant. Alice, who lived with her father and step-mother in Croydon, South London, named her son after her favourite poet, although she preferred to call him Coleridge.

Coleridge’s grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, worked as a farrier, but also taught the violin. After his fifth birthday, his grandfather began giving Coleridge violin lessons and, after noticing the young boy’s talent, insisted he receive professional training. Coleridge also enjoyed singing and joined the local church choir.

In 1887, Alice Martin married a railway worker called George Evans and moved out of her father’s home. Although he no longer lived with his grandfather, Coleridge’s maternal family encouraged him to continue his music studies and arranged for him to attend the Royal College of Music. At only 15 years old, Coleridge began studying under the composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), one of the founding professors of the college. For his degree, Coleridge opted to focus on composition rather than the violin and, after graduating, began teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He also worked as a professional musician and became the conductor of the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. Due to a printing error in which a hyphen was added to his name, people came to know him as “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor”, which he kept as his professional name.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor c. 1893

In 1893, Coleridge-Taylor published his first composition, Piano Quintet in G minor. Following this success, he produced nonets, suites and symphonies for a variety of instruments. In 1896, his growing reputation caught the attention of English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Noticing the young man’s talent, Elgar recommended Coleridge-Taylor to the annual Three Choirs Festival, one of the oldest classical choral music festivals in the world. Dating back to 1715, the festival was instrumental to the careers of some of the most famous composers in history, including Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

After Coleridge-Taylor premiered at the Three Choirs Festival with Ballade in A minor, Elgar introduced him to August Jaeger (1860-1909), an Anglo-German music publisher. Impressed, Jaeger called Coleridge-Taylor “a genius” and offered to guide the young man in his professional career. With the help of this influential editor, Coleridge-Taylor produced one of his most successful series of works, The Song of Hiawatha.

Written between 1898 and 1900, Coleridge-Taylor based the trilogy upon his favourite poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). The Song of Hiawatha relates the fictional adventures of a Native American called Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha, whose life comes to a tragic end. The first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), consists of nine sections for orchestra and voice. The premiere, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford, took place on 11th November 1898 at the Royal College of Music and was attended by many famous names.

Before the performance, the English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote to Coleridge-Taylor, “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried.” He later mentioned in his diary, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original – he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour – at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done.” Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), a contemporary of Elgar, also praised Coleridge-Taylor and described the performance as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.”

Initially, Coleridge-Taylor did not plan to compose a trilogy, but the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned him the commission for a sequel. The first part rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity, but the second part, The Death of Minnehaha (1899), did not receive as much praise. The third part, Hiawatha’s Departure, which premiered in 1900, received the least admiration due to Elgar and Jaeger’s open criticism.

Christmas greeting card displaying the Coleridge-Taylor family, 1912

In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, who he met while studying at the Royal College of Music. Her parents tried to prevent the marriage because they did not want a man of mixed-race to marry their white daughter, but they soon relented, most likely on account of Coleridge-Taylor’s musical success. In 1900, Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie welcomed a son named Hiawatha (1900-80) after the protagonist of Longfellow’s poem. Three years later, Jessie gave birth to a daughter, Gwendolen Avril (1903-98). Both followed in their father’s footsteps to have careers in music.

Invitation to the Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, London, 23–25 July 1900

The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned Coleridge-Taylor the opportunity to tour three times in the United States of America. He also participated in the 1900 First Pan-African Conference, of which he was the youngest delegate. Organized by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1867-1911), the conference took place at Westminster Town Hall (now Caxton Hall) between the 23rd and 25th July. According to the chair, Bishop Alexander Walters (1858-1917), it was “the first time in history black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.”

The conference aimed to improve the treatment of Africans in Britain and the British Empire but also attracted many American attendees. Coleridge-Taylor became acquainted with the civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), who inspired the young composer. Working together, the 37 delegates penned a petition to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) to look into the treatment of African people, particularly in South Africa and Rhodesia, where they faced segregation, could not vote and had difficulty purchasing properties. The Queen responded positively towards the cause but passed away not long after.

In 1904, on a tour of the USA, Coleridge-Taylor met President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) at the White House. Whilst Roosevelt invited Coleridge as a result of the success of his music, African-Americans also viewed this as an achievement. At that time, black people very rarely received invites to meet the President. Encouraged by this, the American civil rights movement adopted The Song of Hiawatha as their “battle song”. Coleridge-Taylor also met with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who despite his skin colour, often advised the President on racial matters. Coleridge-Taylor shared his experiences of racial abuse with Washington and other members of the Black community, which inspired him to demonstrate his African heritage through his music.

In England, Coleridge-Taylor collaborated with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems represented the lives of African Americans. Coleridge-Taylor set many of Dunbar’s works to music, which they performed in London at a joint recital under the patronage of John Hay (1838-1905), the US Secretary of State. Encouraged by the praise and support he gained from black people, Coleridge-Taylor endeavoured to integrate African music and themes into his compositions. In doing this, Coleridge-Taylor said, “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

As well as introducing African culture to classical music, Coleridge-Taylor based some of his compositions on historical events, for instance, his concert overture Toussaint L’Ouverture (1901). François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was a prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave in the French colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, Louverture rebelled against the government and led a successful revolutionary movement, earning him the epithet “Father of Haiti”. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor’s overture did not prove as successful as The Song of Hiawatha. Whereas the BBC Proms have performed the latter over 60 times, Toussaint L’Ouverture only appeared at the music festival once in 1919.

In 1902, Coleridge-Taylor composed the march Ethiopia Saluting the Colours to commemorate the Ethiopian victory over Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The outcome secured Ethiopia’s independence and made the country a symbol of Pan-Africanism. A few years later, Coleridge-Taylor composed Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1905), which also celebrated Pan-Africanism. Coleridge-Taylor based the melodies on 24 tunes sung by slaves across Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America. Slaves sang while labouring in the fields or in the evenings to express their pain and weariness. The songs also spoke of hope for the future and encouraged all slaves in the vicinity by letting them know they were not alone in their plight. In concert, the orchestra tended to play all Twenty-Four Negro Melodies in one sitting, but each piece differs in sound and style. Many Thousands Gone, for example, was based on a Negro spiritual, whereas Deep River sounded like a church-hymn and Warriors’ Song like a battle cry.

Coleridge-Taylor’s third tour of the USA took place in 1910 when he performed at the Litchfield Festival in May 1910. He also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which at the time was directed by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Initially, the musicians expressed concern about having a black conductor, but only one person refused to play. The success of the concert earned Coleridge-Taylor the sobriquet “African Mahler”.

When in England, Coleridge-Taylor worked at the Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music in London. Many described him as a shy person but an effective conductor, particularly for the Rochester Choral Society and the Handel Society. He often received invitations to judge music competitions around Britain, although he still faced racist abuse due to his mixed heritage.

Despite the racist judgements, Coleridge-Taylor’s works were undeniably successful, and he became an inspiration to a new generation of musicians. Unfortunately, composers earned very little, often selling their compositions outright when low on funds. Coleridge-Taylor sold his most successful work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a mere 15 guineas. The publishers, on the other hand, sold many copies of the music, thus reaping all the royalties. Although Coleridge-Taylor learned from this mistake and insisted on retaining his rights for future compositions, his financial situation remained precarious.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s grave at Bandon Hill Copyright © Peter Hughes

In 1912, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor contracted pneumonia and passed away at the age of 37. Many blame the stress of his finances for his early death. On his gravestone at Bandon Hill Cemetery in Wallington, Surrey, are engraved the words of his friend and poet Alfred Noyes (1880-1958): Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him.

Concerned for the welfare of Coleridge-Taylor’s wife and children, King George V (1865-1936) granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual pension of £100. A memorial concert held at the Royal Albert Hall raised an additional £300 for the family. Although they could not benefit from the sales of the Song of Hiawatha, which soared following the composer’s death, musicians formed the Performing Rights Society in his honour, which campaigned to gain revenue from all performances and publications.

A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review

The death of Coleridge-Taylor attracted attention across the world with news reports and obituaries appearing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church ReviewSierra Leone Weekly News and Crystal Palace Reporter, amongst other papers. He was mourned by many, particularly those who considered him a beacon of hope for Black lives as well as those who admired his music. Schools in Kentucky and Maryland were named in his memory, and the 200-voice African-American chorus established in 1901 continued singing under the name of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. In London, a blue plaque adorns the wall of his childhood home in Dagnall Park, South Norwood, and another where he lived and died in St Leonards Road, Croydon.

Both Coleridge-Taylor’s children followed in his footsteps to attain a career in the music industry. Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor adapted many of his father’s works for various performances, and his daughter, Gwendolen Avril, became a composer and conductor. Coleridge-Taylor did not live to hear his daughter’s first composition, which she wrote aged twelve. This song, Goodbye Butterfly, won her a scholarship at Trinity College of Music.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

In 1924, Gwendolen married Harold Dashwood but continued to compose under her maiden name. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and, after her divorce, she officially dropped her first name and worked professionally as Avril Coleridge-Taylor. In 1933, she made her first debut as a composer at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by becoming the first female conductor of H.M.S. Royal Marines.

During her career, Avril composed many successful songs, orchestral pieces, chamber music and keyboard compositions. Yet, Avril did not have as much success as her father due to her gender. On occasion, this forced her to compose under the pseudonym Peter Riley. Unlike her father, Avril did not experience racial abuse in England, so she was unprepared for the reaction she caused during a tour of South Africa in 1952. South Africa, which was in the grips of apartheid, treated Avril as a white woman until they learned of her one-quarter black ancestry. Immediately, the government banned her from composing and conducting in the country. From then on, Avril supported the efforts of Black African movements and composed the Ceremonial March to celebrate Ghana’s independence in 1957.

History books record little else about Avril’s career other than she wrote a biography of her father in which she recorded her memories. She passed away aged 95 in 1998 at a nursing home in Seaford, Sussex. Until recently, her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was also an unfamiliar name, but the Black Lives Matter movement has unearthed him from the archives. Whilst Coleridge-Taylor is celebrated for his involvement with Pan-Africanism, we ought to remember him for his talent irrespective of his skin colour.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor produced over 80 compositions during his short life, which is more than some composers write during a much longer period. Nicknamed the “African Mahler”, Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way to joining Gustav Mahler amongst the ranks of top composers and conductors. Unfortunately, he died before he could fully realise his potential, but his surviving achievements are evidence of his talent and genius.


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Lady Godiva

Famed for her naked ride through Coventry, Lady Godiva has inspired many artists and storytellers, but how much of the legend is true? According to Anglo-Saxon legend, Lady Godiva or Godgifu rode through the streets of Coventry covered only by her long hair in protest of the taxes imposed by her tyrannical husband. Today it is uncertain whether this event really occurred or if a pagan myth became medieval propaganda. Nonetheless, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry owns dozens of artworks on the subject, suggesting Lady Godiva is one of the most popular figures in ancient British history.

It is difficult to write of Lady Godiva’s life to any degree of accuracy since much remains uncertain. According to records, Godiva married Leofric, an Earl of Mercia, who established a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Evidence suggests that Leofric and his wife, whose name meant “gift of God” in Old English, donated generously towards religious establishments and they are listed as benefactors of several monasteries. English monk and chronicler John of Worcester, who died in c.1140, wrote about Coventry, “He and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.”

Leofric had nine children, including Ælfgar, who succeeded him as Earl of Mercia. Whether Lady Godiva was the mother of these offspring is unknown but records state she was a widow when she married Leofric at Ely Abbey. Godiva allegedly encouraged her husband to construct the monastery at Coventry, at least according to the 13th-century monk Roger of Wendover (d.1236) and appeared on the deeds of land belonging to other religious buildings. Reports of Godiva’s generosity are abundant, particularly in the form of jewellery, which she donated to the people of Coventry, Evesham and St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, all traces of these gifts became lost after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Lady Godiva lived for some time after the death of her husband in 1057. Her name appears on a survey taken shortly after the Norman Conquest, which lists her as the only woman to remain a major landholder. Yet, her name is missing from the Domesday Book compiled in 1086, suggesting she died before the “Great Survey”. The whereabouts of her body are still under debate. The Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, a medieval chronicle about Evesham Abbey between 714 and 1539, insisted Godiva rested in the Church of the Blessed Trinity, which no longer stands. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography disagrees, saying, “There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry.” Leofric’s burial took place at St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral.

The surviving documents from Lady Godiva’s lifetime mention nothing of her alleged naked ride through Coventry. The story first appeared in writing in the 13th-century book Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), created by Roger of Wendover and continued by other medieval historians. According to the story, Lady Godiva felt sorry for the people of Coventry, who suffered under the oppressive taxes imposed by her husband. Given the records of Leofric’s generosity, this claim is suspect. Nevertheless, in the tale, Godiva appealed to Leofric to lower the taxes, but he refused. Godiva continued to plead until her husband, growing weary of the argument, agreed to her request, but on one condition: Lady Godiva must remove all her clothes and ride a horse through the town.

If the legend is true, Leofric did not expect his wife to take him at his word. Yet, according to the typical version of the story, after issuing a proclamation instructing everyone to stay in their houses with their windows closed, Lady Godiva rode through Coventry with only her long hair to protect her modesty. Roger of Wendover’s record, on the other hand, states people filled the streets to watch Lady Godiva. Presumably, the outcome remained the same, and Leofric lowered the taxes.

Not included in early accounts of the legend is the character of Peeping Tom. He first appeared in written narratives during the 18th-century but the people of Coventry included Tom in verbal and dramatic versions of the story much earlier. When Lady Godiva instructed “all Persons to keep within Doors and from their Windows, on pain of Death”, everyone obeyed except a tailor named Tom. This “Peeping Tom” could not resist looking at the naked woman and, according to the historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), was instantly blinded by God. Other writers suggest the Coventry natives blinded the man for his insolence.

Many historians dispute the reality of Godiva’s naked ride and relate the incident to a pagan fertility rite where the participants led a maiden to “Cofa’s Tree”, from which Coventry got its name. The history of this ritual is undetermined, but a similar tradition, known as the “Godiva Procession” began in 1678. A woman dressed in flesh-coloured clothing reenacted the Lady’s legendary ride, while a grotesque wooden effigy represented Peeping Tom. In an 1826 article by W. Reader, Tom wears a style of armour dating to the time of Charles II (1630-85).

There are many alternative tellings of the legend of Lady Godiva. One suggestion is she did not ride naked but rather in her underwear. At the time the event purportedly took place, the Church instructed penitents to prove the purity of their soul by publically appearing in their “shift”, a sleeveless white garment. At the time, seeing someone in their underwear was akin to nudity. The name of Peeping Tom also differs between storytellers. A 17th-century letter, for instance, suggests his name was Action or Actæon, Lady Godiva’s groom.

In 1586, the County of the City of Coventry commissioned Flemish artist Adam van Noort (1561-1641) to produce a painting of Lady Godiva. The artist, famed for teaching the influential Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), depicted Godiva as a voluptuous woman with long golden hair sitting upon a white horse. In the background, which the novelist Dame Marina Warner (b.1946) describes as a “fantastical Italianate Coventry”, a figure peers out of an upstairs window. This could be the earliest reference to Peeping Tom.

Adam van Noort’s painting is the earliest artwork of Lady Godiva, but the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum contains many more on the theme, which Warner described in an article for The Times as “an oddly composed Landseer, a swooning Watts and a sumptuous Alfred Woolmer.” The majority are by Victorian artists who took inspiration from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem Godiva, published in 1840.

A painting of Lady Godiva by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Collier (1850-1934) portrays Godiva as a romantic heroine rather than an Anglo-Saxon woman. Her slender body is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite style, as is the red-tone of her hair. Despite her nudity, Lady Godiva conceals her modesty by the placement of her arms and riding position. Traditionally, women rode side-saddle, but Collier depicts Lady Godiva sitting astride her horse. She appears young and shy, although no one is on the street to see her pass by.

In contrast to the nude woman, Collier decorated the white horse with a silk cape and decorated reins. Although Lady Godiva wears no jewellery to mark her as a member of the upper class, the luxuriousness of the horse’s “clothing” indicates her wealth. These elements add to the romantic heroine appearance of Godiva and emphasise her purity. Leofric did not expect his wife to agree to his challenge due to the shamefulness of the task, but there is no sense of humiliation in this painting.

Marshall Claxton (1811-81), a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted Lady Godiva as she mounted her white horse to ride naked through Coventry. Similarly to Collier’s painting, the horse is covered with an ornate red blanket, indicating Godiva’s wealth. Claxton painted the lady from behind, wrapped in a white sheet from the waist down to protect her modesty. Although the legend usually indicates Lady Godiva removed all her jewellery, Claxton’s Godiva wears a gold crown on her head and a gold armband.

Whilst there is no one else in the painting, Godiva glances over her shoulder as though fearful of being caught. The dog in the painting, is the “barking cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem, but the small animal is also a symbol of marital fidelity. Nudity is often associated with sexual relations, but in this story, nudity is a sign of purity.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) took inspiration from a different section of the story. The English painter decided to depict the moment Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to abolish the taxes. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum does not own Leighton’s painting but rather a copy by Frank Albert Philips (1831-1905). Nonetheless, it shows that Leighton paid close attention to Tennyson’s poem and tried to make the painting historically accurate. He dressed Lady Godiva and Leofric in authentic clothing, or at least what he believed Anglo-Saxons wore. Leighton also made the setting look convincing, basing it on medieval English architecture.


Alfred Joseph Woolmer (1805-1892), on the other hand, did not attempt to make his painting historically accurate. Inspired by the 16th-century artist Titian (1488-1576), Woolmer used rich colours, emphasising the animal furs and silks of Godiva’s clothing as well as the sunset in the background. The half-dressed Lady Godiva, who Marina Warner describes as “sumptuous”, takes on the appearance of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, thus presenting her as an object of desire. This is a stark contrast to the woman in the story who wished no one to see her ride through Coventry.

Woolmer’s paintings typically portrayed the concept of “ut pictura poesis“, which means “as is painting, so is poetry”. He wanted people to interpret his work as they would a poem. Although the image is static, it tells the story of Lady Godiva undressing before her ride through Coventry. No one else is in the painting because she has instructed everyone to remain at home. Unfortunately, Woolmer’s depiction of Lady Godiva evokes eroticism rather than her pious nature.

A plaster sculpture by John Thomas (1813-62), of which the museum owns a miniature copy by Philip Pargetter, depicts the naked woman sitting side-saddle on a horse. Walking on a cobbled ground, the horse, a stallion, is caught mid-step with its head straining forward. The visible veins on its body are suggestive of his exertion.

Upon the horse, Lady Godiva bows her head in modesty, obscuring one side of her face with her loosely braided hair. This meekness gives off an air of piety rather than shame and embarrassment, which along with her youth and natural beauty, matches the Victorian ideal of femininity.

John Skinner Clifton (1822-89) attempted to illustrate a faithful representation of a verse of Tennyson’s poem. “…he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’ She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before, and his hair A yard behind…” Clifton depicted Leofric as a large man with similar hair to his wife in length and colour. His blond beard rests on his chest, and one of his large dogs sits at his feet. Beside him, the pale Lady Godiva stands with a crowd of mothers and children on whose half she pleads.

Clifton used bright coloured paint made from aniline dyes, a relatively new invention at the time. Whilst these colours are historically inaccurate, they emphasise the difference in classes. Lady Godiva and her husband are dressed in rich colours, whereas the poor women and children wear dull, dirty tunics. The vivid dyes also contrast with Godiva’s pale skin, emphasising her beauty and purity.


Lady Godiva’s Prayer by Edward Landseer (1802-73) introduces another character to the story: Lady Godiva’s maid. The scene depicts Godiva sending up a prayer before setting off on her journey. In the background is the spire of St Michael’s Church, the cathedral of Coventry, which unfortunately makes the painting historically inaccurate because the church was built in the 14th century. During Lady Godiva’s life, St Mary’s Priory, of which she was a benefactress, was the only cathedral in the city.

Critiques suggest Landseer took inspiration from Marshall Claxton’s painting of Lady Godiva because there are some similarities. Landseer protects Godiva’s modesty by depicting her from behind, and he included the dog or “cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem. The horse, whilst not white, is draped with material, but this is where the similarities end. Landseer may have added the ermine drape at a later date after Queen Victoria (1819-1901) viewed the painting at his studio in 1866. The artist was the Queen’s favourite, so the ermine likely honours her visit.


The actress Eliza Crowe, better known as Madame Wharton, posed as Lady Godiva for Landseer. In 1848, Crowe played the part of Godiva in the annual Godiva Procession in Coventry, so she was an obvious choice of model.

English oil painter David Gee (1793-1872) produced several paintings of Lady Godiva but based these on the processions rather than Tennyson’s poem. One artwork from 1829 shows Lady Godiva starting on her journey. Unlike other paintings on the subject, the lady wears white, and several people carrying banners follow in her wake. The identity of the actress in this painting is unknown, but presumably, she is a woman. In earlier processions, a boy played the role of Lady Godiva.

Gee’s paintings reveal the Godiva Processions were popular events attended by crowds of people. The processions often became rowdy and, on several occasions, ended with riots. Whether the legend is true, the people of Coventry take great pride in their history. Processions still regularly take place in the form of a carnival on Dame Goodyver’s Daye. Coventry also organises a Godiva Festival, offering three days of music, food and drink, and a funfair.

It is impossible to prove the myth of Lady Godiva. Whilst there is no evidence of the famous ride through Coventry, the legend must stem from some form of truth or story. Coventry do well to honour a woman who may (or may not) have saved their ancestors from extreme poverty, but the legend is likely much altered and embellished since its first telling several centuries ago.

Mentioning Lady Godiva today raises a few eyebrows. She is often associated with scandal and eroticism, which those familiar with the story know is not the case. Lady Godiva is one of several legends that people have passed down through generations, but we cannot rely on them for historical accuracy. Evidence suggests Godiva existed, but did she really ride naked through the city? We will never know.


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Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler c. 1908

Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a well-known name amongst classical musicians, but far less are aware that his wife, Alma Mahler, was also a talented composer. During her career, Alma wrote approximately 50 works for voice and piano, but only 17 survive today. Unfortunately, Alma’s reputation in society had little to do with her talent, but rather her romantic liaisons with many men, three of whom she married. As singer and satirist Tom Lehrer (b.1928) said before singing a song about the lady, “Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe.”

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well,
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.
Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between…

Alma – The loveliest girl in Vienna – Tom Lehrer (1965)
Alma, Anna and Grete

Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was born in Vienna on 31st August 1879 to landscape artist Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-92) and Anna Sofie Bergen (1857-1938). Alma and her sister, Margaretha Julie (Grete, 1880-1942), received home tuition rather than enrol in a school but regularly attended the Catholic Church, which played a significant role in their early upbringing.

In 1886, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (1858-89) commissioned Alma’s father to paint landscapes of the Adriatic coast. The whole family accompanied Schindler on this trip, and his artworks featured in the Kronprinzenwerk (Crown Prince’s Work). This encyclopedia, officially named The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, is a 24-volume written and visual description of the countries, regions and people of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Lands. Schindler was one of 587 contributors, and his paintings joined the 4,529 images that illustrated the work.

Despite spending a year travelling with their father, Alma and Grete saw little of his work after Schindler rented Castle Plankenberg, near Neulengbach, as his studio, where he also established an artist colony. Yet, Schindler adored his two daughters and arranged for them to have piano lessons with Adele Radnitzky-Mandlick. Their mother had a musical background but retired from public performances shortly after marriage. Some believe Schindler felt jealous of the attention his wife gained from her career, so forced her to quit the stage. Nonetheless, he encouraged his daughters to perform, and they made their public debut at the ages of ten and nine. Although the girls received homeschooling in their early years, their father insisted they obtain the best education, so he enrolled them in a private women’s academy, which was not common practice at the time.

Schindler monument by Edmund Hellmer

During a family holiday to the German isle of Sylt in 1892, Schindler passed away. Following his death, Alma concentrated on her musical education, studying composition with a blind organist called Josef Labor. Despite his disability, Labor also provided Alma with education about a “great deal of literature”. Although Alma attended school, she quit at the age of 15 in favour of Labor’s teaching. Yet, learning to play and compose music had its difficulties due to Alma’s decreasing hearing following childhood measles.

Max Burckhard (1854-1912), the director of the Burgtheater in Vienna and friend of Alma’s late father, became Alma’s music mentor. He also catered for her passion for literature and presented Alma with two large baskets of books on her 17th birthday. Shortly before this, Alma’s mother married Carl Moll (1861-1945), a former student of Schindler. In 1899, Alma gained another little sister, Maria (1899-1945).

Alma’s step-father Carl Moll was one of the founding members of the Vienna Succession, an Austrian art movement closely related to Art Nouveau. They were “a group organized for the purpose of breaking with Vienna’s tradition-bound Imperial Academy of the visual arts.” Through Moll, Alma met several painters associated with the Succession, including the symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who professed his undying love for her. Alma enjoyed the attention but did not desire him as a lover or husband. Nonetheless, they remained firm friends for the rest of Klimt’s life.

In 1900, 21-year-old Alma began composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), who also fell in love with her. Alma reciprocated his feelings but wished to keep their relationship secret. Zemlinsky had a Jewish background, of which Alma’s Catholic family disapproved. The few friends who knew about their romance urged Alma to end things, which she eventually did after the relationship grew strained.

Gustav Mahler 1909

Through her musical connections, Alma met the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) at a party in November 1901. By early December, Alma and Mahler were engaged, although they kept this secret for a while. Alma and Zemlinsky’s relationship had not long ended, and it went against societal etiquette to fall in love so soon. They eventually announced their engagement two days before Christmas.

Friends of both Alma and Mahler expressed surprise about their engagement, especially because Mahler was Jewish. Also, Mahler’s family thought Alma a flirtatious, unreliable young lady. Nonetheless, they married on 9th March 1902, and the birth of their first daughter, Maria Anna (1902-07), followed in November. Their second daughter, Anna Justine (1904-88), became a successful sculptor, despite her parent’s musical backgrounds.

Alma Mahler with her daughters Maria (left) and Anna (right), 1906

“The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner.” This was Mahler’s view of marriage, and he refused to allow Alma to compose music. Alma expressed in her diary, “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart”, but obeyed her husband’s wishes. As time passed, Alma grew resentful of Mahler, who insisted his music career came before his family’s needs.

In Vienna, anti-semitic activities made it difficult for Mahler to work in operatic theatres, so he took his family to Maiernigg in 1907 to have a break from the hostilities. Unfortunately, not long after arriving, both daughters contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria. Whilst Anna recovered, Maria grew steadily worse until she passed away on 12th July. Soon after this tragedy, Mahler learned he had a defective heart and needed treatment from specialist doctors in Vienna.

The death of Maria left Alma depressed and placed a strain on her marriage. She sought attention elsewhere, beginning an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1910. On learning of this, Mahler sought the advice of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), although the precise reason is unknown. Some suggest Mahler asked for help with his troubled feelings, whereas others believe he wanted marriage advice. The film Mahler on the Couch (2010) takes a different view, suggesting Mahler wished to curb Alma’s musical passion. Whatever the reason for the visit, family life changed a little in the Mahler household.

In an attempt to save his marriage, Mahler paid more attention to his wife, particularly her musical abilities. He claimed to regret his earlier attitudes towards Alma’s compositions and insisted on studying and editing them for publication. Mahler also encouraged her to write five more songs, which, under his guidance, were published at the end of 1910. Sadly, this newfound affection in their marriage lasted only a year, after which Mahler fell ill with an infection in February 1911. By May, he was dead.

Following Mahler’s death, Alma entered a stormy affair with the Austrian expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Lasting from 1912 to 1914, the relationship grew from one of passion to one of possessiveness. In 1913, Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut), an allegorical artwork featuring the figures of Kokoschka and Alma in a loving embrace. Realising that Kokoschka was obsessed with her, Alma brought the relationship to an end.

Alma Mahler Fan

Kokoschka’s infatuation with Alma continued long after their breakup. In the early months of their relationship, Kokoschka produced portraits of Alma, such as one in the pose of Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, and later, romantic paintings featuring them as a couple. He illustrated stories about their time together, which he printed on fans and gifted to Alma as presents. He described them as “love letters in pictorial form” and continued to produce them after Alma had left him.

Dramatic sketches of Alma and Kokoschka suggest they conceived and lost a child in 1912. Some interpret from the images that Alma had an abortion, which caused Kokoshka emotional pain. Nonetheless, this event did not diminish Kokoschka’s love for Alma, and he continued to produce portraits of her. After their breakup, Kokoschka expressed his heartbreak and depression through his artwork, often using rapid brushstrokes.

Alma Doll

Unable to get over his obsession, Kokoschka commissioned Hermine Moos (1888-1928), a German doll maker, to produce a life-size doll of Alma. He wished to use the doll as a replacement for Alma, both in his portraits and, presumably, in his bed. “Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly.” He sent Moos strict instructions and several paintings of Alma, hoping for a replica of his former lover. Unfortunately, Kokoschka’s expressionistic painting style was hardly realistic, and neither was the doll. After expressing his disappointment, Kokoschka tried to make the best of it, including the doll in his paintings.

At the end of 1918, Kokoschka declared the doll had “managed to cure me completely of my Passion”. He held a champagne party, during which he displayed the doll dressed in beautiful clothing. The party lasted well into the early hours of the following day and, as dawn broke, a drunken Kokoschka took the doll into the garden and beheaded it.

Gropius and Alma with their daughter Manon, 1918

Meanwhile, Alma resurrected her relationship with Walter Gropius, who she married on 18th August 1915 in Berlin. In 1916, Alma gave birth to their daughter, Alma Manon (1916-35). Manon, or “Mutzi” as she was often called, spent the majority of her infancy with her nurse, Ida Gebauer, with whom she followed her mother between her many houses. Alma owned three homes in Vienna alone, and the family often visited Weimar in Germany, where Gropius founded the first Bauhaus school of art.

In 1918, Alma gave birth to a premature son, Martin Carl Johannes (1918-19). After a few months, rumours reached Gropius that the child did not belong to him. For some time, Alma had conducted an affair with the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Alma eventually admitted that Werfel was the father of her child. Naturally, the relationship between Alma and Gropius broke down, and they agreed to divorce. Sadly, before these divorce proceedings could be set in progress, Alma’s son developed hydrocephalus and died before his first birthday.

To protect Alma’s reputation, Gropius staged a meeting with a prostitute so that he could be caught in the act of infidelity, thus giving Alma the means to file for divorce. He did not do this out of kindness, but in the agreement that he would have custody of their daughter. After the divorce became final in 1920, Gropius took Manon to Dessau, where he married her step-mother, Ise Frank (1897-1983). Alma fought back over this decision and brought her daughter home to Vienna, where she allowed Manon to do as she pleased, including running around naked as much as possible.

Werfel, Alma and Manon

After divorcing Gropius, Alma openly lived with Franz Werfel, although she refrained from marrying him until 6th July 1929. During this time, she supported Werfel’s career, helping him become an accomplished novelist, playwright and poet. Alma encouraged her daughter Manon to play the piano like her older daughter Anna, but Manon prefered performance arts over music. Unfortunately, Manon’s soon-to-be stepfather did not think Manon had the talent for acting and discouraged her dreams.

Alma’s early years as Mrs Mahler-Werfel were made difficult by the increasing activity of the Nazi party in Europe. Werfel, who lectured across Germany on the topic of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government, was branded a propagandist. Nazi members burned many of his books, and he lost his job at the Prussian Academy of Arts. To escape the antagonism, Alma took Manon to Venice for a short holiday in 1934. Little did Alma know, life was about to become much worse.

While in Venice, Manon contracted Polio, which left her paralysed. After returning to Vienna, Manon regained some movement in her limbs but remained severely disabled. Alma tried to boost her 18-year-old daughter’s morale by arranging frequent visitors to the house. She also instigated a romance between Manon and the young autocrat Erich Cyhlar (d.1969), hoping for a future wedding. Despite Werfel’s dissuasion, Manon never let go of her desire to act, so Alma arranged for well-known acting teachers to make house calls. Almost a year after contracting Polio, Manon acted out a private performance for her mother and step-father. Sadly, she passed away a few days later from organ failure on Easter Monday, 22nd April 1935.

Manon’s grave in Grinzing Cemetery

Manon’s death greatly affected Alma, who outlived three of her four children. Werfel, who had been like a father to the young woman, dedicated his future novel The Song of Bernadette (1942) to Manon. Anna Mahler sculpted a young woman holding an hourglass to mark Manon’s grave, but Nazi activity prevented it from being installed. The triangular slab that now marks Manon’s resting place was designed by her father, Walter Gropius, and put in place during the 1950s.

Life continued to grow difficult for Werfel, who had Jewish roots, and after the Anschluss in 1938, Alma and Werfel decided to flee Austria. With the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry (1907-67), they secretly fled to the French Riviera, where they stayed until 1940. Finding themselves in danger again, Fry organised a secret crossing over the Pyrenees on foot, from where they made their way to Spain then Portugal. On 4th October 1940, Alma and Werfel boarded the S.S. Nea Hellas and arrived in New York nine days later.

Alma and Werfel finally settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel found work as a playwright. One of his successful plays, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, later became the 1958 film Me and the Colonel, and his book The Song of Bernadette became a film in 1943. Alma, meanwhile, opened their home to visitors, many of whom were also escaping persecution from the Nazis. Guests included German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Austrian film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). As Werfel’s reputation grew, so did their social circle, but before he could publish his final science fiction novel, Star of the Unborn, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945.

Alma with a score of Gustav Mahler’s

Although a widow twice over, Alma did not shy away from society. Thomas Mann nicknamed her the “Great Widow”, and people easily recognised her from her gigantic hats with ostrich feathers. In 1946, she became a US Citizen and eventually moved to New York, where she befriended composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). Bernstein greatly admired the music of Alma’s first husband, and Alma often attended the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic to watch him conduct. Alma also met the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76), who dedicated to her his Nocturne for Tenor and Small Orchestra.

In 1947, Alma briefly returned to Vienna to settle some financial matters. Her mother had passed away in 1938, her sister Grete had died in a mental institution in 1942, and her half-sister Maria, a member of the Nazi Party, committed suicide in 1945. Back in New York, Alma celebrated her 70th birthday and received a birthday book full of greetings from past and present friends and acquaintances. Amongst the signatures were messages from her ex-husband Gropius and former lover Kokoschka, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, and Igor Stravinsky. German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) composed a birthday song containing the lyrics “Centre of gravitation of your own solar system, orbited by radiant satellites, this is how your life appears to the admirer.”

And the Bridge is Love

During the 1950s, Alma worked on her autobiography And the Bridge is Love. She based it on the diaries she kept throughout her life, although employed ghost-writers to help her put them into book format. The first ghost-writer, Austrian writer Paul Frischauer (1898-1977), fell out with Alma over her anti-semitic ideas, which had become ingrained in her character from her parents’ strong opinions. Her second ghost-writer, E. B. Ashton (1909-83), also pointed out the discriminatory terminology and suggested censoring some of her thoughts, especially sections about those people still alive. 

Reactions to Alma’s biography were varied. Walter Gropius felt hurt about Alma’s portrayal of their relationship, and others felt awkward about her racist political views. Before the German version entered print, Alma told the editor to “Please remove all traces of the whole Jewish question.” The German biography was published under the title Mein Leben (My Life) but did not garner any praise. Critics called it salacious and egocentric, pointing out that Alma contradicted herself many times. She lost many long-term friends as a result.

Alma Mahler, New York 1962

Alma Mahler-Werfel passed away on 11th December 1964 at the age of 85. Her funeral took place two days later, but it was not until 8th February 1965 when her body was buried in Grinzing Cemetery, Vienna, in the same grave as her daughter, Manon. Many obituaries appeared in newspapers following her death, although they were based upon her autobiography and focused on her love affairs. Tom Lehrer wrote the song Alma in response to one of the obituaries, singing about Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel “as each in turn came under her spell”. 

Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg (1908-79) offered an alternative view in his obituary about the late Alma Mahler-Werfel. He claimed that, although there is no denying she had many lovers, Alma was not the flirtatious, promiscuous woman the world observed. Creative men were attracted to her because she inspired them; she was their muse. She enthused over their work and made personal sacrifices to ensure they achieved their goals. Once her husbands and lovers became successful, Alma no longer felt needed and moved on. Only those who acknowledged Alma’s contribution to their careers retained her friendship, for instance, her third husband, Werfel.

Alma on her deathbed

It is difficult to ascertain Alma’s true character because her memoirs are considered an exaggerated truth. For years, Alma’s account of Gustav Mahler was the basis of the composer’s biography but recently discovered letters and documents suggest an alternative history. Was Alma Mahler-Werfel the woman her obituaries claimed or was her outward persona a mask to cover the tragedies she experienced? Alma lost three children, four if you include the miscarriage, she lost her home, she lost two husbands, and she had to flee from danger more than once. Life was certainly not kind to Alma.

A young Alma once aspired to be a composer. She learned to play the piano as a child and began composing in 1888. Up until her marriage to Gustav Mahler in 1902, Alma produced several songs, twenty piano pieces and a scene for an opera. Her husband put an end to her aspirations, and Alma did not compose again until Mahler attempted to save their relationship in 1910. After 1915, Alma stopped composing altogether. The work of her husbands always took precedence, and only seventeen of Alma’s songs survive today. Attempts to reestablish Alma as a composer in her own right have been underway since the early 21st century.

Whatever personal opinions people hold about Alma Mahler, it remains certain that she did not receive the opportunity to realise her talent as a composer and musician. Arguably, the main reason for this is that she was a woman, and by marrying, she gave up her right to have a career. In today’s world, Alma could have had more success than her husbands, but the world will never learn of what she was capable. Some of Alma Mahler’s surviving compositions are available to listen to on Youtube, for instance, Die stille Stadt, Kennst du meine Nächte? and Hymne.


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