When we started discussing Power of Invention, I knew I wanted to write a female character but as the Lunar Society didn’t allow women to join, or even take part in their meetings, I knew it was probably going to be a tough call. I then read about 18th century scientist LADY CATHERINE WRIGHT who’d instigated a postal correspondence course in chemistry with Lunar Society member Dr William Withering (even though he suggested she should perhaps pursue the more suitable, and ladylike, pursuit of botany). Researching female subjects is, of course, always tricky as they rarely feature in the records but Catherine’s association with Withering thankfully meant that some of her letters remained in the public domain.
Catherine comes across as a witty and driven individual, and her frustrations at not being allowed to take part in mainstream scientific enquiry are plain. She complains that men will only ever be prepared to offer women ‘crumbs’ from their table, saying that “the Generality of Men have Agreed that Women ought to be kept in perpetual Ignorance & the most profound Darkness, respecting every part of Literature beyond a Book of Cookery, is to be accounted for, & not greatly to be wondered at.”
Her interest in chemistry results from her husband buying a box of old books at auction and giving her ‘the rubbish’ he doesn’t want. When she finds herself fascinated by century old theories of alchemy and chemistry, she quickly moves on to contemporary authors including Joseph Priestley. Before long she is writing criticisms of the latest scientific books and developing her own theories. When she sets up her own laboratory, she is frustrated by her slow progress: “I should be somewhat quicker in my proceedings, but a Married Woman cannot always act just as she pleases,” she complains – a sentiment which remains familiar to many women who continue to manage that tension between career and the domestic.
My research was helped by a great doorstop of a book called ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science’, now sadly out of print. I managed to get hold of a second-hand copy and would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to discover more about these now forgotten women of science. Nicola Jones
Nicola’s play, ‘Too Many Crumbs’, can be seen as part of Power of Invention at Soho House in Handsworth on the 30th, 31st July and 7th August, at 12, 3 & 6pm each day.
The site-specific production is a collaboration with Birmingham Museums Trust and is funded by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.