H.E.R.O. Profile--Jane Haldimand Marcet
As the child of the prominent banker Antoine Haldimand and his wife Jane Pickersgill in 18th century London, Jane Haldimand Marcet had opportunities that few other young women afforded at the time—namely, an education (Forget, 2016, p. 16). Because of her family’s immense wealth, Marcet was able to be taught by a plethora of tutors alongside her nine siblings (Tikkanen, 2017, para. 2). Marcet was acutely aware of her privilege and understood that the social conditions of the 18th and 19th centuries did not grant most women such opportunities. This conviction led her on a long journey trying to reach women through her writing.
With her father ranking high amongst the banks of London, many of the events hosted at Marcet’s childhood home allowed her to interact up close with popular economic thinkers of the time (Forget, 2016, p. 16). It was not, however, until she married her husband Alexander Marcet in 1799 that she was able to capitalize on these important connections and begin thinking about shaping her own legacy (Lindee, 1991, p. 17). With the chemist Humphry Davy, writer Harriet Martineau, and even controversial political economist Thomas Malthus being amongst those in her new husband’s social circle, it was inevitable that Marcet would take interest in the topics being discussed in her home (Lindee, 1991, p. 17). These connections greatly improved her ability to comprehend and interact with the subjects of the books she would later pen in a way that would not be as compelling had she not had those close social ties. Looking ahead, it was after hearing a lecture given by Humphry Davy when Marcet found the language being used to describe chemistry somewhat convoluted, causing her to begin writing what would be known as her most famous work—Conversations on Chemistry (Tikkanen, 2017, para. 2).
Throughout her career, three of Marcet’s works garnered considerable amount of attention from the public including Conversations on Chemistry (1806), Conversations on Political Economy (1816), and Conversations on Natural Philosophy (1819) (Tikkanen, 2017, para. 2-3). As the titles might suggest, these books were conversational in nature with female characters Mrs. B, Emily, and Caroline taking complex topics from great thinkers and using more colloquial language to increase their comprehensibility (Sippel, 2020, para. 4). These titles were huge successes and gained both national and international attention as people discovered the valuable insight they contained. Despite the successes of her works, it was not until the 1830s that Marcet’s name appeared on any updated additions—a nod to the patriarchal times she was living in (Tikkanen, 2017, para. 2). Specifically targeting a female audience, Marcet was attune to the importance her childhood education had on her life and hoped to lessen the educational gap between the sexes—particularly in the sciences. In taking the ideas of many classically educated theorists and boiling them down so that the masses could understand them, Marcet effectively created the first “textbooks” that existed on these topics in the modern world.
Conversations on Political Economy
Taking a deeper dive into her Conversations on Political Economy, Marcet writes in her preface that “As to the principles and materials of the work…they have been obtained from the writings of…Dr. Adam Smith, of Mr. Malthus, M. Say, M. Sismondi, Mr. Ricardo, and Mr. Blake” (Marcet, 1827, p. iv). This is clear evidence of Marcet’s awareness of her position in the political economics arena and a nod to the economists whose theories allowed her to create this work. Among the first to recognize and congratulate Marcet on her unique ability to distribute such information in an engaging way was economist Jean-Baptiste Say writing, “You have worked much more efficiently than I to popularize and spread extremely useful ideas; and you will succeed Madame…” (Forget, 2016, p. 22). This early recognition is important as it showcases the wide-reaching scope of how many individuals, well known or otherwise, were reading her works.
Using Marcet's Works
Though Marcet intended for these books to be used as supplemental guides for those attending lectures (as they were used in Britain), in the United States, they began to be used as standalone textbooks in laboratories and classrooms (Lindee, 1991, p. 23). Her legacy began taking shape when in 1865, the Boston Girl’s High School began using her Conversations on Chemistry as a textbook in their laboratory classrooms (Lindee, 2016, p. 30). Due to its popularity, her Conversations on Chemistry went through twenty-three editions in the United States (Lindee, 1991, p. 16). Similarly popular and influential, her Conversations on Political Economy underwent six editions (OL liberty fund). Being continuously updated and later used in schools was extremely important for women who were now able to be taught these subjects in a more formalized setting as opposed to by a man in their family.
As put by University of Manitoba economist Evelyn Forget, a compelling way to reflect on Marcet would be as a knowledge-broker, or an individual who was able to create and maintain knowledge networks that she could utilize to educate the public (Forget, 2016, p. 15). In terms of her legacy, many will immediately think of the story of Michael Faraday, a prominent chemist who later credited Marcet’s Conversations for introducing him to the subject (Forget, 2016, p. 21). While this is important, her way of bringing Adam Smith’s, David Ricardo’s, and Thomas Malthus’s economics to the forefront of people’s minds is something that cannot be forgotten. Though she was primarily targeting women, her Conversations was able to reach an audience of less educated male laborers and children—likely an unimaginable thought at the time (Sippel, 2020, para. 30). Later in her career, through the publishing of John Hopkins’s Notions on Political Economy (1833), Marcet was able to solidify this connection using the character of a poor male laborer to answer questions and explain political economics through his eyes (Forget, 2016, p. 26). Jane Haldimand Marcet and her commitment to giving knowledge to women and those less equipped than her was of unparalleled importance to the early disciplines of political economics and the natural sciences.
Forget, E. L. (2016). Jane Marcet and the Scholarship of Popularization. History of Economics Review, 65(1), 15-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/10370196.2016.1267550
Haldimand Marcet, J. (1827). Conversations on Political Economy (6th ed.). A. & R. Spottiswoode. https://oll resources.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/oll3/store/titles/2048/Marcet_1411_Bk.pdf
Lindee, S. M. (1991, March). The American Career of Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry, 1806-1853. Isis, 82(1), 8-32. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/355635
Online Library of Liberty. (n.d.). Conversations on Political Economy | Online Library of Liberty. Online Library of Liberty. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/marcet-conversations-on-political-economy
Sippel, A. (2020, December 31). Jane Marcet’s lessons to the lesser educated about the political economy of foreign trade. XVII-XVIII, 77(2020). https://doi.org/10.4000/1718.6191
Tikkanen, A. (2017, September 11). Jane Marcet | Biography, Books, & Facts | Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jane-Marcet