Friday, August 16, 2013

Answer: Can you find a Victorian domestic scene of music AND (science OR magic)?

Now THIS was a difficult challenge.  Recall that Nell’s original question was to find:   “…find a description, program, or announcement for a meeting that took place in someone's home combining singing with science or magic in London from 1835-45…”  

Nell worked on this question for a while.  Here’s how she describes finding the answer: 

I started by searching the British Library for the category [Popular science British nineteenth century ] The third result, Science in the Marketplace (2008) looked likeliest, so I clicked on details to see its contents. It's a collection of papers, and James Secord's chapter "How Scientific Conversation Became Shop Talk" looked good. Though I read it in hard copy, it's also available online -- See:
 In his article, Secord mentioned Mary Somerville and social gatherings in her home that hosted many soirees dealing with science.  They belonged to a circle of “learned couples who became central to metropolitan science…”  That’s a great lead. 

I noticed that this article also mentions that the books of George Augustus Sala and Richard Doyle gave a broad view of mid-Victorian London society, with “At Home” musical evenings; political banquets, art sales, clubland dinners and so forth.  Doyle created a wonderful engraving of “Conversazione: Science and Art” (in his book, Bird’s Eye Views of Society (1864), p 45) showing a room packed with “all kinds of novel, curious interesting and instructive objects” such as telescopes and diving bells. 

Conversazione: Science and Art” (in his book, Bird’s Eye Views of Society (1864), p 45, by R. Doyle.  Link to image on the VictorianWeb.

Nell continues…

So I looked to see if Mary Somerville had memoirs.  I found an edition that works here by searching for "Mary Somerville Recollections."  (Which I had picked up from the Secord paper.)   Eventually I found her daughter's "Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville" from 1872 on Google Books.

I searched inside of that book for "music" and found accounts of Mary's musical education in Edinburgh (4-5h of practice in the mornings, fashionable composers like Pleyel, Clementi, Mozart and Beethoven), of her adult musical taste (Italian), and finally, of evening entertainments with her friends at home in Hanover Square, London:

"Somerville and I used frequently to spend the evening with Captain and Mrs. Kater. Dr. Wollaston, Dr. Young, and others we are generally of the party; sometimes we had music, for Captain and Mrs. Kater sang very prettily. All kinds of scientific subjects were discussed, experiments tried and astronomical observations made in a little garden in front of the house." (67).  
I went back to the Secord article, and found the initial reference to Mary Somerville. That was by Charles Caldwell, in his autobiography from 1855, available on Google Books. The other women mentioned in the gathering of intellectual women that impressed him are Mrs. Fry, Miss Edgeworth and her sisters, and Elizabeth Lamb. I searched each of them for memoirs that mentioned Mary Somerville. Volume two of Maria Edgeworth's "Life and Letters" had six hits for Somerville, however, some of the pages were not included in the preview, but which included promising things like "party." Since there were only six results for "Somerville," I found it easiest to see how things fit together by clicking "see all" and "order by pages." This let me figure out that there were three pages in a row on Mrs. Somerville, and that the Katers, who appeared on page 74, might be connected to the evening party on page 76, which wasn't available. Searching the book for "Kater" somehow made that page visible, and described a party that took place on April 5, 1822 (the yesterday of April 6, when the letter was written) during which Mrs. Kater sang and played Handel.

Though we don't know that Mrs. Kater sang Handel at one of the scientific and musical evenings mentioned by Mary Somerville in her Recollections, we have an idea of what those evening parties looked like, and what the repertoire could have been, as well as a date for residence in Hanover Square and association with the Katers. Searching for [ Captain Kater Mrs ] brings up Francis Trollope's "Life and Literary Works" vol III, which mentions a Captain Kater dying in April of 1835. The next result is for the wikipedia article on "Henry Kater," a physician who was in London at the right time. Searching for "Henry Kater 1835" brings up genealogy results and biographies, which include his wife's name (Mary Frances Reeve) and her death in 1833. I used the result from the village of Wickersley website, which was held by Mrs. Kater's family. From all that, we know that the gathering with the Katers that involved telescopes and singing couldn't have happened after 1833, and that it probably happened in the 1820s, which is when Mrs. Somerville and her family lived in London as well and when Maria Edgeworth spent time with them.

The result isn't exactly what I started out looking for, but it's close enough to do. The other result that I came up with that was slightly wrong, but close enough,  described a gathering of scientists at Cambridge in honor of Mrs. Somerville in 1834 which included musical festivities. I found that reference through the hard copy of Elizabeth Patterson's "Mary Somerville and the Cultivation of Science" (1983) and the online database of Charles Darwin'scorrespondence. [Dan:  It's worth knowing that Mary Somerville was the author of a book on Physical Geography that Darwin recommended to friends.] 

 My next step is to determine exactly when she lived in Hanover Square, and then look for gossip in newspapers as well as searching for other memoirs and letters by her acquaintances to back it up 
The ecstatic experience of playing the piano, or is it the arsenic?

When I followed Nell's approach, I was happy to find the same books and discover the most remarkable texts... Mary wrote: 
“It was a great amusement … to arrange the minerals we had collected during our journey.  Our cabinet was now very rich…. With crystals of sapphire, ruby, oriental topaz, amethyst, &c., &c.  Somerville used to analyze mineral with the blowpipe, which I never did.  One evening, when he [ Mr. Somerville ] was so occupied, I was playing the piano, when suddenly I fainted… a thing I had never done such a thing.”  Turns out the mineral Mr. Somerville was analyzed contained arsenic, causing poor Mary to faint on the piano bench."
“..I could play long pieces of music on the piano without the book, and I never forget my mathematical formulae.  In looking over one of my MSS., which I had not seen for forty years, I at once recognized the formulae for computing the secular inequalities of the moon.”

My approach: 

By contrast with Nell's method, I started by looking for diaries: 

   [  london diarists OR diaries OR diary music science OR magic 1835..1845 ]

This search gave me a possible lead. I found the A’Becket family diaries and prompt books (they were a theatrical family in London 1840—1890) at the New York Public library.  There's possibly something in there, but the contents are not digitized, just the metadata.  

Looking back at the results, I spotted another possible lead: Yale publication about Ada Lovelace and where women published scientific articles in the mid-1800s. 

This web page includes: “At a tea party one afternoon, she recalled years later, young Mary Fairfax had been given a ladies' fashion magazine that contained a puzzle, the answer to which was given in strange symbols. These symbols turned out to be algebra. And that magazine became her introduction to the world of Euclidean geometry and number.” Can’t date that precisely, but it seems to be mid-19th-century, right around the desired dates. 

Checking the various biographies of Ada Lovelace.  It’s clear that she attended musical concerts and scientific lectures, but I haven’t yet been able to place any of these events in the home, nor all at the same time. 

I continued reading various biographies of Lovelace (also known as Lord Byron’s daughter) until I found the book “Charles Babbage and theCountess” (by Patricia Warrick).  It’s a novelization of Ada’s life, but in it I found a detail:  Babbage and Lovelace met on June 5, 1833 at a party at the Duke of Somerset’s house.   The relevant bit here is that at this event there was definitely music, definitely science, and definitely math.  But, alas, no program or announcement that I could find. 

I then tried the query:

     [ Victorian London "at home" music OR musical ]

(The quoted phrase "at home" was something I'd seen used a few times in Victorian writing, often quoted in the various letters as in  Thank you for the "At Home" time with you... ) 

When I did this query, I quickly came upon the VictorianWeb’s chapter about “Music and Social Class in Victorian London.”  This article describes the shift from music-in-the-home (performed by amateurs) to professional-music (performed in music halls and similar) during the latter part of the 1800s.  Music at home, with discussions of science and/or magic (especially the then-popular version of spiritualism that was a craze at the time), seem to have been inevitable. 

Another approach came from my colleague Dan Brickley, who told me that:

My first thought was to find some Victorian occultist who matched queries for music/singing. The name "Madame Blavatsky" came to mind. A plain old search for her name led me to which has multiple mentions of music/piano.   So then I switched to Books search. In order to improve my search experience, I switched to expert search and restricted to matches with full view available.   [Dan: A handy trick indeed.]  
I didn't find a domestic scene yet by following the Madame Blavatsky angle, and the dates are a bit later than the original post requested, but something like this method seems promising to me: 
First, find the likely entities (people, places, events of the time) then look for books that talk about them...  [Dan: Emphasis mine.] 

By following this tactic (identify a person of the time, then do queries with that person included), I did this query: 

     [ Charles Darwin music home ] 

Big tip: Look for someone famous from that same time.
In this case, I'm using Charles Darwin.  
and found in the book, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin that he had "...acquired a strong taste for music...sometimes hiring chorister boys to sing my rooms."  His friends knew he loved music, but was not especially musical.  So they'd play a game and have him identify tunes that they played such as "God Save the King."  For all of Darwin's gifts, apparently he wasn't a natural musician.  

Point is, this strategy worked quite quickly to locate a co-mention of music and domestic life. Since this is Darwin we're talking about, there's no doubt that scientific talk entered into these scenes of music + science at his Cambridge rooms while he was there (1828-1831).  

Finally, I then asked my friend (and the author/curator of the Victorian Web,  George Landow for how he would approach this problem.  

He wrote with this sage advice: 

"Ask your readers to consider where similar images of music and science in the home might appear today, and then ask them to think of the equivalents.  For example, in 2013 we’d think of People, other magazines, blogs, Facebook, and so on.
 What were the Victorian equivalents?  Answer: Illustrated periodicals (e.g., Illustrated London News, The Graphic, Punch, Fun)
Consider also searching Victorian-age books about such subjects: music and magic at home. Think also about using a term of art at the time—“sheet music” 
 Then there are genre paintings of life at home. It’s useful to know that there are one or two painters who specialize in scenes along the lines of what you seek." 

This is great search advice.  As we've discussed before, put yourself in the mind of the writer. What would they write?  And where would they publish it? 

So… I have found the Illustrated London News and magazines such as Punch online.  My next task is to browse through them looking for images of domestic tranquility with music and/or science and/or magic going on simultaneously.  But I've run out of time for this today.  

Search Lessons:  

1. Foremost, as Nell says herself, while she began this quest looking for documentation from a very specific time (1835—1845), she was satisfied with material from a time very nearby, but not exact.   This kind of search revision happens all the time.  As you search, you learn more and more about the topic at hand, often causing a modification in the definition of the original goal.  Again, this kind of thing happens to reference librarians all the time.  A patron might really want something from this exact date, but ends up learning that an ever better example can be found on a different date (say, 3 years earlier). 

2.  A good strategy is to fix as much as you can, then search. In this case, choosing a particular person (e.g., Mary Sommerville or Ada Lovelace or Madame Blavatsky) gives your searches a certain grounding in that time and place.  Another version of this would be to examine the archives of a particular museum dedicated to Victorian London, or an archive that specializes in the location. 

3.  Looking for equivalents between now and then often leads to insights.  Landow’s suggestion of finding the illustrated periodicals of the time is brilliant.  It still requires looking through a lot of content, but doing it online in your home is much faster than going to London and searching through materials manually. 

(That’s not to say that original archival searches aren’t valuable or necessary—it’s just a good idea to check the online materials FIRST before you go!) 


That’s a bit long for a blog post, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the search.  We didn’t quite get what Nell was looking for, but we got very close, and learned a few new search methods besides. 

I’m still searching.  If I get a great hit, I’ll post it.  (And if you find one, let me know so we can share.)


  1. So I wasn't able to follow through on the full search but my initial queries found some good leads.

    I started similar to Dan but I focused on seances, because I remembered that seances were a popular thing to host at home in the victorian era.

    I focused on terms "seance", "at home", "living room" or "parlour", and, of course, "London". In order to narrow the time range I actually started my search in google books and limited the publication range to 1835 to 1850. I was able to find numerous articles in society magazines as well as specialty occult magazines of people hosting or attending seance parties (magical, yes?) where there was music as part of the entertainment. I was pressed for time and didn't get to complete the challenge to my satisfaction, but this is just another approach that seemed pretty successful to me. What I did find I found pretty quickly.

  2. I have reviewed the answers including the links. I did learn several things along the way. What I would like to ask is if others had the one obstacle I ran into many times. Restricted or Subscription access only. Restricted usually meant you had to be a member of an institution. I had visited the London Illustrated News which seems online and free but I haven't been able to access readable text. The British Library was accessible on a limited basis meaning you have to register and then have limited acess and then its not searchable text. Newspapers except a couple were either not online/accessible or subscription.

    For a project like this searchable/readable text is essential. My point is are there are tips to getting access? I recall you had shown us how to access Scholar journals (right side search results link to institutions. So perhaps there are ways to get access. Is there the possibility of being a registered institution afterall we are students of research?

    1. You're correct--online open access is critical for this kind of work.

      Not always, but often, there's a paid way, and there's an open way. For newspapers, the answer is mixed. Always check Google News Archives first to see if you can get it that way. But if not, then do a search for an archived version of the paper. (Example: California Digital Newspaper Archive, )

      For other texts, I usually check Google Books first. For something like the London Illustrated News, again look on Google Books. I was able to find most (all?) of the LIN collection there. Example:

      I like your suggestion that SearchResearch become an institution, giving us all rights and access to "institution-only" content!

    2. Yes, a promising line where I ran into access difficulty was Johns Hopkins Libraries - seems a typical occurrence for research materials, papers, academic research and the visual arts - ©, ™, intellectual property, trade secrets, legal considerations are all factors in accessing information. Perhaps class data access stratification is inevitable - need to know/afford to know/pay to know basis only? the paradox of knowing you can't know unless you are in the know…
      Don't know what your fashion sensibilities are Rosemary, but a black hat® might work…;-] CovertSearchReSearch
      black hat
      search engine watch

      JH Libraries

    3. @Remmij - Your last link (to JH Libraries) is intriguing. I was able to find the first document in the hit list by looking it up on the Internet Archive directly (rather than trying to use the JH library connection). See:

    4. @DMR - thanks, good to know. See that the Internet Archive copy you located seems to be out of the NYPL Research Libraries so will remember to check there in the future too.
      Have admired Patience and Fortitude but this is a new favorite image from the NYPL:
      Golden Lion
      from: (was excited to see this on Flickr, then disappointed at the small offering. See Patience & Fortitude @ the bottom of the page.)

      any thoughts on why this type of access has to be so cumbersome? Is it all those "painted ladies" in San Francisco that fuel the Victorian search fires, albeit relocated to London and surrounds? ;^]
      warning from the JH (Do Not Bookmark) Enterprise Authentication page:
      "Computer System shall be solely for the business purposes of the Johns Hopkins Institutions. Unauthorized use may subject you to criminal prosecution. Use of this system is monitored. Evidence of unauthorized use collected during monitoring may be used for administrative, criminal or adverse action. Use of this system constitutes consent to monitoring for these purposes, and for any other purpose related to the business interests of the Johns Hopkins Institutions, or as needed to protect system resources."
      the guardian:
      seeming acknowledgment that Google Search is the expected norm:
      JH search services

  3. I didn't have time to try this challenge, but I thought it was a really good one, and I got a lot from reading the answers. Thanks!