I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me…the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.
~ Jane Austen
Despite their under-representation in history, 19th-century Britain had notable women in the arts, in science, in math…and even in the Royal Navy. Many lived long enough to become contemporaries of Queen Victoria, who began her rule in 1837 and arguably became the most famous woman in the British Empire, with influence felt around the world.
1. Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
Author of six novels, her works are read and loved around the world. Her wit and gift for satire shone through even in her childhood, when she wrote her very own “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st.”
2. William Brown (c. 1815)
William Brown was an alias used by the first black woman known to have served in the Royal Navy. Her true name is unknown. She sailed on the warship Queen Charlotte and contemporary newspapers report that she was discharged after her gender became known. (More about William Brown and the Queen Charlotte.)
3. Katherine Cochrane (1796 – 1865)
I’m in love with Kate’s story and at work on a novel based on her life. Kate Cochrane rose from penniless orphan to countess, but more remarkable than that is her extraordinary life. She traveled widely in South America and Europe, was highly persuasive (she got Thomas Cochrane, her firebrand husband, a pardon from the British government) and survived multiple assassination attempts (her husband helped support revolutionary activities by South American nations against Spain). Kate herself may have lent a hand to revolutionary activities; there’s evidence that she carried “dispatches” on her South American travels.
4. Maria Graham (1785 – 1842)
An intrepid traveler, author, and science buff, Maria Graham became widowed as she sailed to South America with her husband. She bucked convention by staying on in Chile alone, and her adventures there included surviving an earthquake, cruising with Admiral Cochrane, and befriending the Brazilian empress, Maria Leopoldina. Maria wrote widely about her travels and became a popular author and illustrator.
5. Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Ada’s mother insisted on a disciplined academic program for her young daughter, fearing that Ada would develop a moody temperament like her father, Lord Byron. Ada had a natural gift for mathematics and was thrilled by the idea of the idea of an “analytical engine.” She created formulas and codes for how the engine could perform calculations – in essence, the world’s first computer program.
6. Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877)
A talented author, Caroline nevertheless could not access the money she received from her writing due to laws that gave husbands legal rights to their wives’ income. Her husband’s mistreatment included physical brutality and in 1836, she left him. He retaliated by preventing her from seeing her three children. Caroline promoted laws that would extend the social rights of women, especially married and divorced women – laws that were eventually passed in 1839, 1857, and 1870. She also supported better working conditions for children in factories. However, Caroline did not support full equal rights for women, writing “The natural position of woman is inferiority to man… I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.”
7. Mary Prince (c. 1788 – after 1833)
Born into slavery in Bermuda, Mary was sold away from her family when she was 10, and was subsequently sold three more times. She performed backbreaking labor to manufacture salt, and was frequently beaten by her owners. She married a free black man, Daniel James, in 1826. In 1828 she came to England with her master’s family. There Mary fled and sought help from the Anti-Slavery Society. Though slavery was illegal in England, it had not been abolished in British colonies and Mary feared that is she returned to Bermuda, she would be re-enslaved.
Her book, The History of Mary Prince, is the first account of a black woman’s life published in England. It was widely read and became highly influential in the British abolition movement. It is unknown whether she returned to Bermuda.
8. Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
Mary Shelley was just 20 when she wrote Frankenstein. Her father, who disapproved of her relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, nevertheless praised the book “”[Frankenstein] is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of. You are now five and twenty. And, most fortunately, you have pursued a course of reading, and cultivated your mind in a manner the most admirably adapted to make you a great and successful author.”
Frankenstein not only sparked the horror genre, but shows a keen understanding of the scientific theories popular at the time – especially the potential of electricity. In her later years she wrote plays, poetry, and books about travel, though her finances remained precarious.
9. Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)
As a child, Mary used her brother’s assistance to learn algebra. Her interest in math and science continued for the rest of her long life. She conducted experiments and presented her findings on magnetism to the Royal Society in 1825. She also translated scientific works and her translations became widely-read academic texts at British universities. She continued working, writing, and researching; her final scientific book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, was published when she was 89. Mary also served as a tutor to Ada Lovelace.
10. Elizabeth Creighton, Lady Wharncliffe (1779 – 1856)
Lady Wharncliffe was a prolific artist whose works include drawings and paintings. At the age of about 20, she married James Stuart-Wortley, 1st Baron Wharncliffe. The couple had four children. Many of her works are in the Tate Collection, and her letters are preserved in Britain’s National Archives at Kew.