Mary Somerville's Letter to her Sister in Law

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Letter from Mary Somerville

When Graham Clark of St Albans, a postal history enthusiast, bought an item which was described as "A letter to Mrs Riddell of Carlton on Trent, posted in Rome in 1845", he little realised that the writer was Mary Somerville and that the recipient was Mary's sister in law, Christian. Graham has kindly provided the following transcription of the letter, which gives interesting insights into both the life of Mary's family and her own life in Italy at that time.

The 'William' referred to in the letter is Mary's second husband, Dr William Somerville, whose poor health had prompted them to move to Italy in the first place. 'Christy', the recipient of the letter, is William's sister, who was married to Walter Riddell. 'Mary', who has recently given birth to a son, is Mary Hutton, Christy's daughter. 'Woronzow' is Woronzow Greig, Mary Somerville's son by her first marriage, and Agnes is Woronzow's wife. Sadly, Mary's pessimism about their ability ever to have "a living child" was to prove well founded.


                                                                                                                    Rome 10th Decr 1845

          My dear Christy

                            We were all delighted to hear by your most kind and welcome letter of dear Mary's safe delivery and that she and her little Lad were doing well - Tell her with my kindest love that I heartily congratulate her on getting so disagreeable a job well over and that I trust her health will now be better than it has been for a long time - What a fine family she has. I am sure you must be very proud of them. I never saw prettier well brought up children, and then Mary showed such good luck in their dress always so nice and simple - I am glad she has got a governess to save her the fatigue and bore of teaching which would have been too much for her strength and many things must have prevented her from being as regular with them as a person must be whose business it is - I take it as a mark of great affection Marys kind wish and intention of giving me her name had the little stranger been a girl and I thank her most kindly for it - I am glad that you have left Jedburgh for a time as all that has happened has been very trying to you and the change of scene and a new occupation are good both for your health and spirits. I cannot tell you how much I have been struck at the great blanks made in the family during the short time that has passed since I saw all well and happy. Poor Martha's was so unexpected and is so severe a loss to her family, to the girls especially it is irreparable - Mrs Elliot must be very solitary but her health being good is a source of much comfort to us all -
     I am sure you will be happy to hear that I never saw William looking better, this climate agrees particularly well with him, and even in summer when people thought we were imprudent in remaining here he never had a complaint nor indeed had any of us though the heat was sometimes great, but we shut it out by closing all the windows and blinds during the day and then went out to enjoy the glorious bright evenings or delayed our walk till the moon & fire flies enlightened us. You who are a florist  would be charmed with this country. In spring the fields are covered with violets of the sweetest perfume, anemonies of all colours, irises, & orchids. Wild migneonette abounds in the Campagna and on the banks of the river the fields or rather meadows are white with the narcissus often 18 & 20 flowers on a stem. There on the banks among the brushwood the large single damask rose, and the large orange coloured spotted lily make a great show. The woods are full of the purple cyclamen and in the hedges the commonest jessamine honeysuckle roses and even the scarlet pomegranate abound. I [illegible word] you the girls and I used to come home loaded with these. Martha and Mary used to copy the fine pictures in the Borghese gallery in the mornings while I was busy making experiments on light and your Brother amused himself in reading - In October we went a days journey into the mountains for a change of air and remained a fortnight in one of the most picturesque towns possible. It is built on a sugar loaf hill exceedingly steep surrounded by vineyards and a fine clear trouting stream longer than the Jed in the valley. It was the time of the vintage and all the roads were covered with women and donkeys loaded with such grapes as I have not seen even in Italy. They never passed without asking us to take some, and every day we made expeditions to the neighbouring towns which are beautifully situated generally through the vineyards & helping ourselves to grapes & figs without asking leave a ceremony not necessary in this country. We were all much the better for it and since we returned the [illegible word] have arrived on [illegible word] and we find many old & agreeable acquaintances.
     The winter has now set in which here consists of thunder storms and rain instead of frost and snow - we had a storm three weeks ago which lasted 20 hours during which time you could not have counted ten between the flashes of lightning and for 15 hours the rain fell in such torrents that the whole country for miles was under water and boats were plying in the streets of Rome to supply the people with provisions by their windows. It was the lower part of the town that was so inundated & many accidents happened to travellers coming from Florence -
     I had a good  account from Henry of [illegible word] & his children & he mentions Major Riddell being remarkably well.
     How unfortunate Agnes Greig has been. I fear she never will have a living child, but it is a great comfort to see that Woronzow's health is so much better & that he is now able to attend to his business. - We saw a great deal of Admiral Elliots family when we were here last winter. They are now in Paris & have lost a son on the coast of Africa. The Northesks and Melgunds are at Rome, Lord & Lady Douglas and several other Scotch families, & here everybody meets on easy terms & the Roman families are very kind and invite us to every thing they give - the Emperor of Russia is coming in a few days but as no dancing or gaiety is allowed in Advent his visit will be a quiet one - William and the girls join me in affectionate love to Mary & you and every kind wish to Mr Hutton
                                          Yr affect. Sister    Mary Somerville


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