Women in Science

posted in: biography, Science | 0

The Gaskell Society recently received a question via Twitter concerning connections between Molly Gibson (Wives and Daughters) and Eleanor Omerod, an entomologist. Omerod was born in Gloucestershire in 1828, moving to Torquay, then Isleworth and finally St Albans where she died in 1901. Omerod’s birth date puts her nearer in years to Gaskell’s children than Gaskell herself and it might be worth noting that Meta Gaskell also took a keen interest in science which her mother claims not to share, despite the visiting Great Exhibition three times! In a letter to Nancy (Anne Gaskell) Sept 1851, EG writes:

Of course, we did the Exhibition (London). I went 3 times & should never care to go again; but then I’m not scientific nor mechanical. Meta and William went often, but not enough they say. (Chapple and Pollard p. 159). 

William was also a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and helped arrange the 1861 exhibition in Manchester. 

However, these were not the only connections with women and science in the mid-19th century. The Wedgewoods were related to the Holland family, Elizabeth’s mother was a Holland from Sandelbridge near Knutsford, and, of course, Charles Darwin married a Wedgewood. Gaskell mentions Darwin in a letter which details the plot of Wives and Daughters. 

Roger is rough, & unpolished- but works out for himself a certain name in Natural Science, – is tempted by a large offer to go round the world (like Charles Darwin) Chapple and Pollard, p. 732).

Moreover, Meta Gaskell had a close friendship with two of Wedgewood’s great-granddaughters, Snow (Frances Julia) and Effie – the former was the most intellectual. So scientific connections were strong within the Gaskell family and many women who started as amateurs in the field of natural science became public figures in their field during this period, as did Eleanor Omerod. Therefore, the links to women and science in Gaskell’s novel may be more a general examination of the subject rather than being based on any particular figure.

My view is that it was Gaskell’s way of showing the boundaries between expected male and female behaviour and then suggesting, as she always did, ways in which these boundaries could be negotiated. Gaskell consistently illustrates how women could gain autonomy without becoming ‘unfeminine’, possibly Margaret Hale is the best example of this; however, Margaret Hale’s autonomy was intrinsically connected to her independent income!

Also, have any of you thought about the illustrations to Gaskell’s work. Certainly, in Wives and Daughtersthey add a further dimension to ‘The Woman Question’ as it has been named – the social construction of women’s roles in the nineteenth century? How might you interpret this excellent accompanying illustration showing Molly Gibson sitting in a window seat. The artist was George Du Maurier. Let us know your thoughts.

You can read Omerod’s autobiography at internetarchive.org  

Diane Duffy