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Shepherd [née Primrose], Lady Mary (1777–1847), philosopher, was born on 31 December 1777 at Barnbougle Castle, Linlithgowshire, the second of five children of Neil Primrose, third earl of Rosebery (1728–1814), and his second wife, Mary (1752–1823), daughter of Sir Francis Vincent of Stoke d'Abernon and Mary, née Howard. According to her eldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, Lady Mary's upbringing was ‘chiefly at Barnbougle (though sometimes in London at Holland House), on the old fashioned Scotch plan with a Dominie—one Mr. Pillans’ (Brandreth, 25–6). She married Henry John Shepherd QC (1783?–1855), on 11 April 1808. Her father-in-law, , was a well-known and widely respected lawyer, and a friend of Walter Scott. She had three children. Her son, Henry Primrose Shepherd, became an invalid in his youth, and her younger daughter, Maria Charlotte, lived only fifteen years.

Rosebery family papers describe Lady Mary as ‘remarkable for her high attainments, humour and agreeable society’. At her ‘salon’, her ‘humour seems to have been as well known as her logical powers, and occasional causticity’ (Brandreth, 4). Above all, she was passionately interested in metaphysical debate. Both she and her husband corresponded over many years with Charles Babbage, the philosopher and mathematician, who encouraged her philosophical interests. He sent his Essay on Induction and other treatises in 1825. She, in return, often asked for his opinion of her latest theories and speculations.

Lady Mary's two metaphysical works, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect (1824) and Essays on the Perception of an External Universe (1827), challenged the conclusions of the philosophers George Berkeley and David Hume concerning ideas of the external world. These conclusions, she believed, could be used as a foundation for atheism. She countered Hume's scepticism, arguing that reason, not ‘fancy’ or ‘custom’, leads to knowledge of cause and effect. In ‘Lady Shepherd's metaphysics’ (Fraser's Magazine, July 1832) she continued her criticism of Berkeley's philosophy that ‘to be is to be perceived’ (or that nothing exists outside the perception of mind). She admitted that her own views might appear at first sight to have much in common with his, since she too accepted the necessity of metaphysical reality as the ground of material or phenomenal reality. Berkeley's error, she argued, was a confusion of ideas with their external causes; ideas are incapable ‘of the application of the definitions belonging to extension and to materiality’ (‘Lady Shepherd's metaphysics’, Fraser's Magazine, July 1832, 698); this led Berkeley to deny the existence of objects that are independent of mind.

The power of Lady Mary's intellect and argument was respected among her contemporaries; for example, Robert Blakey discusses and praises the ‘great acuteness and subtility’ (Blakey, 40) of her work. Her criticisms of the conclusions of John Fearn, a retired naval officer with philosophical interests, were published in Parriana (1828), together with Fearn's inadequate and condescending reply: her article in Fraser's Magazine was a further response to Fearn and demonstrates the superiority of her intellectual grasp.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge records meeting Lady Mary at a gathering of British philosophers and scientists at Cambridge in November 1833. Also present were the astronomers Sir John Herschel and Sir George Biddell Airy. Having expressed admiration of the wives of these two men, Coleridge adds the following scribbled lines:
Lady Mary Shepheard,
As restless as a Leopard
Tho' not so lithe and starry,
Did wait on S. T. Coleridge
To learn the extreme polar ridge
Of Metaphysic Scholarship.
(Coleridge, fol. 73)
The remainder of the comic verse suggests his admiration of Lady Mary's views, as opposed to the materialist positions of, for example, Herschel.

Her daughter's memoirs include an account of Lady Mary's friendship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and report that William Whewell ‘made one of … [her] books a text book at Cambridge’. He, and Sir Charles Lyell, had spoken of Lady Mary as an ‘unanswerable logician, in whose argument it was impossible to find loophole or flaw’ (Brandreth, 29). She died on 7 January 1847 at Hyde Park Terrace, London. Her will contains a ‘special Admonition’ relating to the £10,000 settled on her at her marriage by her father.

Mary Anne Perkins


letters to Charles Babbage, BL, Add. MSS 37183, 37201 · M. E. Brandreth, Family and friendly recollections (1884–5) · S. T. Coleridge, Notebook “Q”, 1833, fol. 73 · R. Blakey, A history of the philosophy of the mind: embracing all writers on mental science from the earliest period to the present time (1850), 40 · M. Atherton, ‘Lady Mary Shepherd's case against George Berkeley’, British Journal of the History of Philosophy, 4 (1996), 347–66 · GM, 2nd ser., 28 (1847), 209 · ‘Shepherd, Sir Samuel’, DNB


NA Scot., family MSS

Wealth at death  

£10,000—from father's settlement on her marriage: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/2055, sig. 361