Elizabeth Tollet and Her Scientific Sisters: Though Lacking Opportunities to Be Taken Seriously, Bright Women from the 17th Century Onwards Were Developing Their Interest in Science. Patricia Fara Investigates the Life and Work of One Such Woman, Elizabeth Tollet, Whose Poetry Reflects a Passionate Engagement with Natural Philosophy and a Firm Grasp of Newtonian Ideas

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In A Room of One's Own (1929) Virginia Woolf wondered what would have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally gifted sister, Judith. Such an ambitious young woman might, speculated Woolf, have followed William's example and run away to the London stage, but she would have encountered a very different destiny--mockery, pregnancy and a lonely suicide. Woolf explained that her imaginary Judith was doubly shackled. Most obviously, she lacked her brother's education, having been taught the domestic skills her parents felt she needed for attracting a wealthy husband. More insidiously, this phantom Judith had been conditioned from birth into accepting the confining norms of 16th-century society, so that the very act of trying to break free would drive her mad.

Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754) provides a real-life example of the numerous clever sisters who got left behind at home while their brothers went off to pursue exciting careers. A published poet of some renown and an acquaintance of Sir Isaac Newton, Toilet is remarkable for her interest in scientific investigation and natural philosophy. Her life and poetry provide fresh evidence about women and changing attitudes towards natural philosophy in 18th-century England.


Because not much importance was attached to recording women's lives, little biographical information about Toilet survives and her dates are mostly vague. We know that she was brought up in London, the eldest of three surviving children, and that her mother died before she was ten. From 1702 to 1714, her father, George Toilet, served as Extra Commissioner of the Navy, and the family resided in the Tower of London. Toilet, who never married, later moved to her father's country home Betley Hall in Staffordshire; after that at some stage she went to Stratford (in Essex) and then to Westham (now West Ham), where she died, bequeathing to her youngest nephew the substantial fortune she had inherited from her father after he died in 1719.

Despite the frustrating paucity of facts about her, Toilet's poetry provides an invaluable source for reconstructing her life. She wrote in varied styles on a range of topics. Interspersed between her scholarly poems on religion, natural philosophy and women's education there are playful elegies on the pleasures of music, academic translations of Psalms and classical poetry, brief epigrams, light-hearted verses and sad epitaphs for lost friends: in 1732, mourning the death of an intimate acquaintance identified as D.D.D., she wrote a poem lamenting that 'sorrow has untun'd my voice to sing'.

   'To my Brother at St John's
   College in Cambridge'
   Blest be the Man, who first the
   Method found
   In Absence to discourse,
   and paint a Sound! ...
   ... But when the Sun
   declines the Task I change,
   And round the Walls and
   antick Turrets range ...



Tollet's poems demonstrate her extraordinary erudition, which is instantly apparent both from the learned references within them and her footnote amplifications to them. For example, the following lines from 'The Microcosm' (I 727 or later) reveal her familiarity with the natural philosopher Robert Hooke's (1635-1703) magnificent illustrations of the insects and plants he examined through his microscope:

   When in the Microscope
   thou canst descry
   The Gnat's sharp Spear,
   the Muscles of a Fly ...
   There the gay Down of
   Insects to behold,
   Or Millions crowding in
   the Plumb's blue Mold

And in an elegy to Newton (1727) she summarises his experiment showing how light is refracted into coloured rays as it passes through a prism:

   Alike exact to penetrate the Ways
   Of subtile Light, and fine aethereal
   What obstacle compels them,
      as they pass,
   To march diverted thro' the pervious
   What various Hues the lucid Pencils
   How deep or glaring soften into faint:
   By what Degrees their hindred
      Shades unite,
   And bow their equal Mixture spreads
      a White. … 


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