Not just an elder sister

How do you write a biography of an intellectual woman, who was a major, significant figure in the scientific, social, and political circles of her time, but who, although she wrote extensively, published almost nothing and whose personal papers were scattered following her death and have over time mostly disappeared, leaving only faint traces of her existence dispersed in obscure archives spread over a handful of countries? In her biography of Lady Ranelagh, Michelle DiMeo delivers up a masterclass in how to achieve this seemingly impossible task. Once again, many regular readers of this blog are probably thinking, who is Lady Ranelagh and why is Thony writing about her? All becomes clearer if I quote the full title of DiMeo’s book, Lady RanelaghThe Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister.[1]  

Lady Ranelagh was born Katherine Boyle, on 22 March 1615, the seventh of fifteen children to Catherine Fenton and Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, an important and influential Anglo-Irish politician. She was twelve years older than her more famous brother Robert, who was the fourteenth child and seventh son born in 1627. If people know anything at all about the relationship of the two it is the fact that they shared a house in London from 1668 until they both died in 1691. However, as my title states Katherine was not just Robert’s elder sister but was a significant and influential figure in intellectual circles in England in the second half of the seventeenth century, in her own right and definitely exercised that influence in Robert’s own developments, in particular as a chemist. It is this story that DiMeo has carefully and skilfully excavated from the seemingly meagre sources available to the historian for Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh’s fascinating life.

Katherine’s life falls roughly into seven segments and after an introduction in which DiMeo discusses previous work done on Katherine’s life and work and also lays out her own decisions on technical matters, our author deals with each of those segments chronologically, always embedding the available information about Katherine in a rich web of historical context, which allows the reader to create a full picture of what it was like to be an intelligent, forceful and resourceful woman from an aristocratic background in seventeenth century Ireland and England.

The first segment deals with her childhood and young adulthood as a daughter of a politically power-hungry aristocrat. She would have received little education, which makes her later achievements all the more remarkable, and she was basically just a bargaining chip in Richard Boyle’s strategies to win more power and wealth. Bargained off in marriage to the son of one potential ally, at a very early age, in a deal that fell through when the potential father-in-law died, she was then delivered up to the son of another in the power brokerage game and became the wife, at the age of fifteen, of Arthur Jones, the future Viscount of Ranelagh. Unfortunately, Arthur Jones proved to be anything but a good husband and father and in 1642, it should be noted aged just twenty-seven, following trials and tribulations in a Catholic uprising, Katherine took the extraordinary step of leaving both Ireland and her husband, and taking her four children with her, decamped for England.

It is now that the Lady Ranelagh, who is interesting for those concerned with the history of science, comes into being and the next two sections of DiMeo book are devoted to this blossoming of an influential seventeenth century woman of science. Katherine became a member of the Hartlib Circle. Samuel Hartlib (c. 1600–1662) was a German polymath, who actively promoted his ideas on science, medicine, agriculture, politics, religion, and education within an informal group of like-minded thinkers and supporters, mainly in England but also in continental Europe, largely through correspondence. This informal group was, unusual for the time, open to women and Katherine became an active member, taking an informed interest in all of the topics listed above. This was for me the most interesting part of the book, because far too little attention is in general paid to the Hartlib Circle, one of the important predecessors to the more formal, later Royal Society. 

Katherine was recognised as a well-informed, intelligent and above all pious correspondent within this loose conglomeration of thinkers. Her ability to balance complex scientific and philosophical concepts with a devout moral attitude was much admired. One should always bear in mind that peoples religious beliefs played a significant role in the development of the sciences in the seventeenth century. I won’t go into detail, for that you will have to, and should, read the book, but her thoughts and advice were particularly sort on questions of medicine and chemistry/alchemy, interconnected fields in which women, guardians of a family’s health and welfare were considered knowledgeable. It was also in this phase of her life that Katherine took up the mentorship of her younger brother Robert helping to steer him also towards the deep interest in medicine and chemistry that would characterise his career as a natural philosopher, a common interest that the siblings would share for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, Katherine’s strong moral and religious convictions prevented her from ever allowing her fruitful ideas to be published, which would have been unseemly for a woman in the seventeenth century. However, Robert did acknowledge her influence and input in his own writings, whilst never referring to her by name, but always as his sister. DiMeo contrasts and analyses Katherine’s propriety with this famously brazen public performances of her near contemporary Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

In the 1650s there was a brief interlude where Katherine returned to Ireland to try and assist in sorting out the Boyle family affairs, which had been much disturbed by the uprising that had led to her leaving Ireland at the beginnings of the sixteen forties. Here we see Katherine’s political and diplomatic abilities on display, abilities that she would have to exercise upon her return to England.

Not long after her return to England, Katherine’s role in the intellectual community changed with the dissolution of the Hartlib Circle following the death of its central figure in 1662 and the foundation of the Royal Society in the early sixteen sixties. Unlike the Hartlib Circle the Royal Society remained firmly closed to women. Katherine, however, managed to exercise some influence within intellectual circles through her personal connections and her not inconsiderable diplomatic skills. During the plague and disaster years of 1665-1667, Katherine suffered more trials and tribulations but also continued to exercise a strong social and political influence in English society. It was also here that Robert paid his greatest tribute to his sister’s influence with the publication of a collection of his spiritual reflections, Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects, which is dedicated to Katherine under the pseudonym, Sophronia. 

Ironically, we know the least about the interaction between Robert and Katherine during the last twenty-three years of their lives, when they shared a house in London. Living together, they no longer needed to correspond and so there is no collection of letters informing us of their exchanges. Nevertheless, even here DiMeo manages to paint a vivid picture of their life together.

DiMeo delivers up in her book a powerful portrait of a very impressive woman who played a significant role in the intellectual life of seventeenth century England and by no means just because she was the elder sister of one of the periods most significant natural philosophers. Having excavated Katherine Jones née Boyle’s life out of the archives DiMeo poses both indirectly and directly the question, as to how many other strong intellectual seventeenth century women have been neglected up till now in our accounts.

Applying meticulous research and equally meticulous analysis of the results of that research, Michelle DiMeo has written an extraordinary book about an extraordinary woman. Expertly written and highly readable, all of DiMeo’s statements are carefully documented in extensive endnotes referencing the primary and secondary sources listed in the equally extensive bibliography. The book is rounded off with a detailed index. This is a book that should be read by anybody and everybody, who expresses an interest in the intellectual, social , and political life of the seventeenth century in both Ireland and England. 

[1] Michelle DiMeo, Lady RanelaghThe Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2021


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Chemistry, Ladies of Science

6 responses to “Not just an elder sister

  1. Yes, Prof DiMeo has given some wonderful talks on Lady Ranelagh at the Robert Boyle Summer School here in Waterford. You must pop over sometime, Thony!

  2. P.S. I once stupidly asked Prof DiMeo why there was so little correspondence between Boyle and his sister in later years. It’s lucky that it’s rare for important figures in the history of science to share a house!

    • I actually have that problem with the Nürnberg Renaissance mathematici, who all lived within walking distance of each other and some within spitting distance, so they tended to exchange very few letters, although they mention each other in their correspondence with others outside of Nürnberg.

  3. “…just a bargaining chip in Robert Boyle’s strategies…” Richard Boyle?

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