Sexual chemistry

Pandora's Breeches: women, science and power in the Enlightenment

Patricia Fara <em>Pimlico, 212pp

Patricia Fara's thesis is that although science has usually been seen as a male preserve, women have often shared in its greatest achievements. Women, she asserts, have consistently been written out of history, surfacing only as helpmeets, archivists or muses, and praised for their skills as housekeepers, wives or mothers. The idea of women as equal collaborators has been regarded as preposterous, at best, and at worst socially destabilising. Women might appear in literature as allegories of Science or Wisdom or Progress, but their real achievements have been mostly ignored.

This is nothing new in the fields of politics or the arts - though I was surprised to discover that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire canvassed for her favourite, Charles Fox, and that Dickens's lover Nelly Ternan read over his manuscripts. But in science, we tend unquestioningly to accept the attribution of the discovery of oxygen to Antoine Lavoisier or the exploration of the heavens to William Herschel. This book sets the record straight.

Fara's approach is to recount the life of a man of science as legend has it, and then retell it with the woman's role restored. In some cases the woman was indeed the respectable note-taker, for instance in astronomy, where the man typically scanned the sky in darkness and the woman scribbled down his observations by the light of a candle, writing them up neatly later. This was the working method of the Herschels, William and his sister Caroline, and of the Hevelius couple, Johannes and his second wife, Elisabetha. It transpires that wives were frequently so employed - Margaret Flamsteed in England was another example - while in Germany, between 1650 and 1720, roughly 14 per cent of stargazers were women. Sometimes they were the brilliant sisters of famous brothers, who by accident or design acquired an education. Sometimes they were wealthy women who defied convention and married their tutors. More often, especially in England, where women could not gain admission to university, they were self-taught. The saddest part often came after the man's death, when the only person certain of the importance of his papers struggled to get them published: so it was for Mistress Flamsteed and Frau Hevelius, who then presented the records as if they were the man's own, thus destroying their own reputations.

Some of Fara's female subjects get solo billing. Mme Lavoisier was a scientist to rival her husband; together they disproved centuries-old assumptions about phlogiston - the principle of flammability thought to be liberated from matter as it burns - thus setting out rules on chemical combination, the conservation of matter and the science of life itself. Despite their fame, their aristocratic status led to his being guillotined in 1794. She escaped execution, as it was assumed she had merely run the household. The exquisite copper engravings of their laboratory equipment were her own; she always signed herself "Paulze Lavoisier", to distinguish herself from her husband. After his death, for 27 years, she ran a scientific salon that was renowned for freedom of thought.

Other women discussed in the book were wealthy patrons, though I think this is pushing the definition of responsibility a bit far. Queen Kristina of Sweden, for instance, was feted throughout Europe for her learning; during her reign she "tried to convert remote Stockholm into a metropolitan centre fit to rival Paris and London", and invited many savants to join her. One who did, Descartes, survived the harsh winter by only five months and died there in 1650. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia played a more fruitful part in his life: she translated English medical texts for him, and together they studied Machiavelli in Italian. In their long correspondence, she attacked the flaws in his arguments; his struggles to satisfy her produced improvements vital to the triumph of Reason. At least three scholars dedicated their work to her. She sounds like quite a dame, and it is a pity these letters exist only in French, while the sole biography of her in English is more than a hundred years old. Time for another? I hope so.

Patricia Fara knows her stuff. This is a sound academic study written with insight and wit.

Edwina Currie's novel Chasing Men is shortly to be reissued by Little, Brown