Clemence Royer was "almost a man of genius". She made astonishing contributions to 19th-century French science. She was a major force for the popularisation of Darwinism in France, who wrote extensively on evolutionary theory and anthropology and offered some fundamental reinterpretations of matter and life. But she was also an unmarried mother and (quelle horreur!) a feminist who strove to find "a feminine expression of science". She was patently no gentleman, and, therefore, by the masculine scientific code of the day, no scientist.
Interest in Royer has been revived by feminists, who have accorded her heroic status among those few prominent 19th-century women who challenged women's traditional roles and masculine social and scientific authority, and by historians of science who have tended to dismiss Royer as an arrogant upstart who "betrayed" Darwin. Joy Harvey's biography is the first full-length study in English of Royer and she gives us a more interesting and complex Royer than either of these accounts would suggest - a feisty, passionate, opinionated woman, outspoken in the advancement of her own views, one who put far more trust in her own interpretations and abilities than the implicit "gentlemanly" rules of scientific evidence and debate would allow.
Royer was a clever, rebellious, ambitious girl who rejected the royalist politics and Catholic beliefs in which she was raised, to "recreate" herself as republican, atheist and feminist. As an antidote to the oppressive "myths" of religion, she immersed herself in the study of the liberating "positive truths" of science, emerging as a committed social Darwinist, a biological determinist who sought to explain all of human morality and society in evolutionary terms. Harvey shows how, in her evolutionary writings, Royer reinterpreted those aspects of Darwinism that were antithetical to her feminist beliefs. At the same time, Royer's feminism was tempered by her racism, her advocacy of eugenics and her elitist politics.
In 1861, with Darwin's permission, Royer undertook the formidable task of producing the first French translation of The Origin of Species. She added a vehemently anti-clerical preface that proselytised Royer's own social Darwinist views and extensive footnotes giving her own interpretations of Darwin's text. A bemused Darwin pronounced Royer "one of the cleverest and oddest women in Europe". But by the time of the second Royer edition, she had become "the Verdammte Mlle Royer". When, without consulting him, she published a third edition in 1869, Darwin revoked his authorisation of Royer's "blasphemous" work and arranged for a competing translation of the Origin by a professional naturalist.
Harvey attributes Darwin's action to his increasing resentment of Royer's lack of respect for his authority, her insistence on inserting elaborate explanatory notes which Royer insultingly argued facilitated understanding and improved the accuracy of Darwin's science, her aggressive anti-clericalism that he was concerned might hinder the spread of Darwinism in France and, the final straw, her ridicule of his cherished theory of heredity. Her sins were compounded by the fact that she was a woman, a Frenchwoman, and an immoral one at that. Darwin, suggests Harvey, had heard of Royer's irregular union with the married Marcel Duprat, a prominent republican and free-thinker, and of the birth of their child.
These same factors contributed to the tensions in Royer's relations with the Societe d'Anthropologie. Although she was granted membership of the society in 1869 (its first and only woman member until 1884) and was an active participant in its debates, Royer never won proper professional credit for her work. In 1875 the society suppressed her paper on Women, Society and the Birthrate, a translation of which Harvey appends to her biography. Here Royer advocated the education of women in their sexual and political rights, the reformation of male sexual behaviour, the regularisation of illegitimate births, eugenic measures designed to prevent the birth of the unfit and the need for France to increase its population if it were not to be overrun by the "teeming yellow race". Harvey adduces from this episode that Royer's outspoken feminism and anti-clericalism, her personal crusade for the recognition of extra-marital relationships and children, had begun to be seen as compromising the social aspirations of the society's core members.
The marginalised Royer wrote on regardless, producing works on morality, animal psychology and cosmology, struggling to survive on grudging government grants. In her final years, through the efforts of French feminists and a few supportive scientists, she won a belated measure of recognition, and in 1900 she was awarded the Legion of Honour.
Harvey's sympathetic but properly critical biography points up the difficulties and contradictions experienced by those women who seek to make an impact on such a male-dominated profession as science. They are with us yet.
Evelleen Richards is honorary visiting professor of science and technology studies, University of New South Wales, Australia.
"Almost a Man of Genius": Clemence Royer and 19th-Century Science
Author - Joy Harvey
ISBN - 0 8135 2397 4
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 294