Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 21 February 2020

Marcet, Jane Haldimandfree

  • Elizabeth J. Morse

Jane Haldimand Marcet (1769–1858)

by unknown engraver

Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Library

Marcet, Jane Haldimand (1769–1858), writer on science and political economy, was born in London, one of twelve children and only surviving daughter of the Swiss merchant and banker Anthony Francis Haldimand (1740/41–1817) and his wife, Jane (d. 1785). She was baptized on 23 June 1769. The Haldimands' was a wealthy, comfortable household, which fostered intellectual achievement in its children together with business acumen, a combination typified by the career of Jane's younger brother William Haldimand, who became a merchant banker, director of the Bank of England, and member of parliament. Jane shared in the excellent home education provided for her brothers. A serious, lively child, highly intelligent but constitutionally literal-minded, Jane read widely and with discrimination in English and French. Her later career indicates that her parents respected her curiosity and encouraged her development as a reader and an intelligent listener, if not as an original thinker in her own right. When Jane was fifteen she took over the running of the family household upon the death of her mother (in October 1785), including the care of her brothers and a sister who appears to have died in childhood. She developed a close, companionable relationship with her father, who was to live with her even after her marriage. Together they travelled to Italy when Jane was seventeen, where she became interested in painting. Through her father she met and studied with Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence. Jane served as her father's hostess when he entertained scientists, politicians, and intellectuals.

On 4 December 1799 Jane Haldimand married the amiable and attractive physician Alexander John Gaspard Marcet (1770–1822); this was a highly successful marriage which was to allow them both to develop as intellectuals. Marcet was born in Geneva, had been imprisoned there for political activities as a young man, was exiled from Geneva after 1794, and studied medicine in Edinburgh. Although Marcet had a successful practice he preferred research and writing in the field of physiological chemistry, to which he made important contributions. For the first twenty years of their marriage he continued to practise medicine, and he and Jane entertained some of the most distinguished scientists and thinkers of their time.

Jane Marcet gave these men her intelligent and undivided attention, sat openly at their feet, remembered every word they uttered, and, if she did not understand a nuance, sought an explanation from her husband. Alexander Marcet appears to have understood the depth of her need both for information and for inclusion in his circle, and to have supported her efforts to become literate in the unfamiliar language of science. During this time their four children were born—their son François Marcet (1803–1883) was to become a well-known physicist—and Jane's friend Maria Edgeworth describes a happy home, their children lively and intelligent, the house full of welcome visitors who were on occasion entertained with elaborate home theatricals, written by Jane and performed by parents and children. Despite their domestic felicity, Jane began to suffer from depression, the cure for which lay in hard and useful work. Encouraged by her husband, she wrote, but did not publish, a textbook on the basic components of scientific knowledge: physics, mechanics, astronomy, the properties of fluids, air, and optics. Later published as Conversations on Natural Philosophy (1819), the book established a format which she was to use successfully in future works. She presented her information in the form of a dialogue among three characters, Caroline, the flippant pupil, Emily, the serious pupil, and Mrs Bryan, their teacher.

Like many fashionable London women, Jane Marcet attended Sir Humphry Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution; unlike many of these, she paid attention to their content rather than to the charms of the speaker, discussed what she had heard with her husband, repeated the experiments at home, and invited Davy and his wife to dine. Inspired by the knowledge she had gained and wishing to impart it to other women, she published her Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex anonymously in 1805. The work had taken her about three years to write and illustrate and was carefully edited, probably with the help of Alexander Marcet and his friend John Yelloly (Crellin, 459–60). It was one of the first elementary science textbooks and became enormously popular. It went through sixteen editions in England, which Marcet updated meticulously, adding new discoveries and deleting those for which she felt she had made over-optimistic claims. It was translated into French and went through twenty-three editions in America, where it was widely plagiarized. Although not intended as a school text, the Conversations was adopted in England by students at mechanics' institutes and by medical apprentices, and it became a successful text in the women's seminaries established in America after 1818. There, its insistence on demonstration by experiment and its theoretical rigour appealed to teachers who wished to give girls a sound scientific education, not merely a gloss on more obviously feminine preoccupations such as domestic science or theology. At the same time Conversations, though presented in the form of a classroom dialogue, was read with respectful interest by adults of both sexes and all walks of life. Most notably, it was read by the young bookbinder's apprentice Michael Faraday, who credited Marcet with introducing him to electrochemistry and with giving him the courage to propound his early theories. Faraday was to become a friend of the Marcets, and Jane incorporated his work in later editions.

Although Jane Marcet continued to update Conversations on Chemistry (lastly at the age of eighty-four), her next publication took another direction, exploring the new science of political economy. As she had done before, Marcet profited from her friendships with a circle including Brougham, Malthus, Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and, most significantly, Ricardo. Her Conversations on Political Economy (1816) utilized principles of Ricardian economics before the publication (1817) of Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy. As in all her works Marcet laid no claim to original thought, but she wrote in a lucid, pleasant style, incorporating the latest, often controversial, theories in her popular works. Conversations on Political Economy was praised by Macaulay and Say, and was approved by Malthus, McCulloch, and Ricardo. Her confident presentation of complex ideas in the form of appealing dialogue repelled later economists (notably Alfred Marshall) and led others to conclude that hers was economics for schoolgirls (Schumpeter), but the book's popularity with adult readers grateful for a simple introduction to a new and forbidding field of knowledge indicates Marcet's accurate perception of a wide and generally sophisticated readership for an introductory economics text. The book inspired Harriet Martineau to begin writing fiction with economic themes. Martineau became a close friend of Marcet, though an occasionally critical one, for Marcet's secure position at the heart of the whig literary establishment sometimes infuriated the radical outsider Martineau.

Emboldened by the success of her first books, Marcet published her Conversations on Natural Philosophy in 1819. It had been written before Conversations on Chemistry and was intended as an introduction to it. It, too, proved highly successful and remained in print well after Marcet's death. The Marcets meanwhile inherited a large fortune from Anthony Haldimand, enabling Alexander to resign his position at Guy's Hospital and devote himself to research. They travelled to Geneva in 1820 and intended to settle there, but Alexander died suddenly while on a visit to Britain in 1822. His death threw Jane into a state of nervous prostration, through which she was nursed by her children and by a large circle of friends in Geneva. Her adult children having dispersed in England and Switzerland, she returned to London after a few years in Geneva but retained close ties with her Swiss friends. In London she continued her family tradition of entertaining a wide circle of famous men and women.

Although Jane Marcet continued to write some works on scientific themes (her Conversations on Vegetable Physiology was inspired by her friendship with the naturalist Candolle) and finally abandoned her anonymity as the author of her works, it appears that her work took a less challenging direction after the death of her husband. She wrote one important collection of stories with economic themes for working people and many stories for the education and amusement of young children. The former, John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy (1833), was a product of the climate of fear of working-class rebellion that characterized the early 1830s. Possessing none of Martineau's radical sympathies, Marcet believed implicitly in the community of interest between rich and poor; she supported the abolition of the corn laws and was scolded by her friend Malthus for the simplicity of her belief that wages could remain high as the price of corn fell (Malthus to J. Marcet, 22 Jan 1833; Polkinghorn, Unpublished letter, 845). Her choice of format made the little book impossible for working people to afford; rather, it was intended to be bought by landowners and distributed to the poor in their neighbourhoods, as Malthus appears to have done. When the panic of the 1830s subsided, sales of Hopkins slumped. It never approached the popularity of her Conversations and has not remained readable over time. While she is known for her ability to address young women without patronage, the same can not be said of her tone in speaking to the working man.

Marcet was more successful in her works for children, which made up the bulk of her literary output after 1833. In her widowhood she spent a great deal of time in the company of her grandchildren, and this undoubtedly inspired her interest in writing for the very young. Her works for children were very well received, including Mary's Grammar (1835), which became a classic text. They include many stories of the family life of a boy named Willy and his sisters. Willy's curiosity leads him to investigate everything from the building of a new house to the working of a coalmine. In these books working men are polite but not deferential, confident, and proud of their skills; children are boundlessly curious and not overly obedient; parents are kind, tolerant, and endlessly willing to support their children's quest for information. It seems reasonable to suppose that, in her old age, Marcet turned to writing for children in order to recreate in imagination her happy family life, both in her father's house and with her husband.

In the last seven years of her life Jane Marcet increasingly inhabited a world of her own, untouched by events in the outside world. Presumably she suffered a recurrence of the nervous complaint which had always afflicted her in periods of stress; her friend the Swiss physicist and naturalist Auguste de La Rive described it as a 'shadow enveloping an energetic and active spirit' (La Rive, 464). She died peacefully at her daughter's house, 14 Stratton Street, Piccadilly, London, on 28 June 1858, where she had been living, having asked her children not to allow her to be forgotten in Geneva. She was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Harriet Martineau wrote of Marcet's almost excessive modesty and humility, commenting rather slightingly on the narrowing effects of her conventional way of life upon her thought. Maria Edgeworth wrote that while others talked endlessly of what they knew, Mrs Marcet sat quietly and listened. Her modesty has usually been accepted by critics at its face value, to the detriment of her reputation. After Marshall's denunciation of both Marcet and Martineau as mere popularizers Marcet's work received little attention. More recent writers have tended to view her either as a figure in the history of chemistry (notably as the inspirer of Faraday) or in the history of political science (less exclusively as a popularizer of Ricardo). She may more justly be seen as a figure of great importance in the history of women's education. In her prefaces Marcet addresses the presumed unsuitability of her topics for study by women and dispenses with objections, stating bluntly that public opinion has come to accept these subjects as appropriate for women. For Mrs Marcet writing was the outcome of her restless search for truth, rather than merely a rather canny appreciation of a gap in the market which she could fill. In Conversations on Political Economy Mrs B's flippant pupil, Caroline, says that she would have thought a woman could be excused ignorance of that topic. Mrs B replies tartly, 'When you plead in favour of ignorance, there is a strong presumption that you are in the wrong' (Marcet, 11). By her sheer refusal to accept that scientific subjects lay beyond women's grasp, Jane Marcet used her position as hostess to great thinkers, coupled with great energy, a formidable intelligence, and the ability to express complex ideas clearly, to bring the new developments in science and political economy within the reach of ordinary women.


  • A. de La Rive, ‘Madame Marcet’, Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, 4th ser., 4 (1859), 445–68
  • H. Martineau, Biographical sketches, 1852–1875, new edn (1885)
  • M. S. Lindee, ‘The American career of Jane Marcet's Conversations on chemistry, 1806–1853’, Isis, 82 (1991), 8–23
  • E. V. Armstrong, ‘Jane Marcet and her Conversations on chemistry’, Journal of Chemical Education, 15 (1938), 53–7
  • W. Henderson, ‘Jane Marcet's Conversations on political economy: a new interpretation’, History of Education, 23 (1994), 423–37
  • J. R. Shackleton, ‘Jane Marcet and Harriet Martineau: pioneers of economics education’, History of Education, 19 (1990), 283–97
  • B. A. Polkinghorn, ‘Jane Marcet and Harriet Martineau: motive, market experience, and reception of their works popularizing classical political economy’, Women of value: feminist essays on the history of women in economics, ed. M. A. Dimand and others (1995), 71–81
  • J. K. Crellin, ‘Mrs Marcet's Conversations on chemistry’, Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1979), 459–60
  • B. A. Polkinghorn, ‘An unpublished letter from Malthus to Jane Marcet, January 22, 1833’, The American Economic Review, 76 (1986), 845–7
  • N. G. Coley, ‘Alexander Marcet (1770–1822), physician and animal chemist’, Medical History, 12 (1968), 394–402
  • Harriet Martineau's autobiography, ed. M. W. Chapman, 3rd edn, 1 (1877)
  • J. Marcet, Conversations on political economy (1816)
  • B. Polkinghorn and D. L. Thomson, Adam Smith's daughters: eight prominent women economists from the eighteenth century to the present (1998)
  • B. Polkinghorn, Jane Marcet: an uncommon woman (1993)
  • burials register, All Souls, Kensal Green
  • private information (2017) [H. Vivian-Neal, Friends of Kensal Green cemetery


  • Archive Guy de Pourtalès, Etoy, Switzerland
  • NRA, papers
  • University of Geneva Library, Switzerland, Salle Senebier
  • University of Pennsylvania, Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection


  • engraving, University of Pennsylvania Library [see illus.]
  • portrait, Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chemical Heritage Foundation
  • several likenesses, repro. in Polkinghorn, Jane Mercet

Wealth at Death

under £18,000: probate, 11 Aug 1858, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Historical Manuscripts Commission, National Register of Archives