Tales from the Hidden Grove

Tales from the Hidden Grove
"Amongst the finest short story writers in the UK right now" ~ Black Pear Press

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A Lady Electrician



As part of my research for my ongoing work-in-progress, the Angelio series, I have been reading Charles Burney's Life and Writings of Metastasio (1796).  Metastasio was a poet, a writer of librettos for opera during the 18th century, who spent much of his career at the Hapsburg court of Vienna.  He was also a lifelong friend of the castrato Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) to whom he wrote many letters.

I couldn't help bring caught up short, though, by a couple of letters to a Signora Giacinta Betti Onofri, who was acquainted with Farinelli in Bologna.  According to Burney, "this lady...was a poetess, a musician, and an electrician." (Vol. 3, p. 57)

An electrician!  I couldn't help picturing a lady in towering 18th-century headdress and blue overalls, knocking on the door and saying she'd come to fix the wiring!  

Of course, what Dr Burney meant was something even more intriguing.  On p.60, he goes on to call her: "a smatterer in natural philosophy and electricity."  Evidently, she was an amateur scientist, very interested in the fashionable, "new" phenomenon of electricity.  Apparently, she wrote to Metastasio, "having expressed her terrors at a slight shock of an earthquake at Bologna in strong and violent terms, and her transports of joy on the opportunity which it had afforded for electrical experiments to illustrate the system which ascribes to that power this tremendous effect."  Metastasio wrote back saying: "I know not whether I ought to condole or congratulate you on this event." (p.60)

Electricity was a hot topic in the 18th century.  "In 1750, the electrical nature of lightning was the subject of public discussion in France, with a dissertation of Denis Barbaret receiving a prize in Bordeaux" (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kite_experiment).  1752 was the year of Benjamin Franklin's supposed experiment with a key and a kite in a thunderstorm, although other scientists argued that they did it first.  

By the time Metastasio and Signora Onofri corresponded, it was the 1770s, but there were still many discoveries to be made.  Ampère and Faraday didn't make their breakthroughs until the 1820s.  And - needless to say - women do not feature highly on the electrical roll-call of honour.  It would be fascinating to see what Signora Onofri recorded in Bologna in the 1770s, and whether it fed into her poetry and music.  This was the age of sensibility, after all.  The Gothic novel was invented in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto, and Mrs Radcliffe's famous Mysteries of Udolpho came in 1794, with many more in between.  Giacinta Onofri's mixture of horror and scientific curiosity at the earthquake perfectly captures the spirit of the age.

And, of course, it's impossible to think of a creative woman fascinated by electricity without thinking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).  Mary herself might have been far from conception in 1771, but the impulse that lead Signora Onofri to brave the earthquakes in Bologna was the same impulse that lead to the creation of that classic cautionary tale.