Authors: Etta Stark
Lady Westbrook’s Discovery
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Table of Contents:
Lady Margaret Westbrook gave a barely perceptible sigh of annoyance before welcoming the Duchess of Waverley.
“Your Grace,” she
said, thrusting out her hand. “I see you have arrived early.”
“My dear Lady
Westbrook,” responded the Duchess, taking the proffered hand somewhat reluctantly. Margaret knew that the Duchess disliked the practise of shaking hands, preferring to bow in the more traditional manner. It was the reason Margaret always made sure to do it. “As Chairwoman of the Waverley Ladies Society, it behooves me to assist my members in any way I can. I thought you might appreciate some assistance in preparing for your guest speaker.”
Margaret suspected that the Duchess’s concern
had less to do with being helpful and more to do with being nosy. She bit back a desire to say something to that effect, reminding herself to behave like the forty-one-year-old widow and respected member of Waverley society she was. “Mr Oliver has not yet arrived,” she told the Duchess, “although I am sure I shall be able to cope sufficiently when he does.”
“I appreciate you hostin
g this week’s meeting at Westbrook Manor,” said the Duchess. “But, I must say, your choice of speaker is a little ... unusual.”
It was most fortunate that he agreed to come. Felix Oliver is one of the best regarded experimental physicists working in this country today. His books on harnessing electrical power and the properties of electromagnetism have been well received by his peers.”
. Still, it’s hardly the usual topic of discussion for a society of well-bred gentlewomen, is it?”
“The purpose of the society is to educate and inform, is it not?
” said Margaret. “Surely we wish our members to be well-informed in all subjects. It can’t be all flower arranging and cultivation of one’s rose garden. Although, of course, I enjoyed the talk on that subject at your house last week immensely.”
The Duchess bristled slightly.
“All the same,
. Will he be bringing it here? How do we know it is safe? What if some of it gets out?”
Mr Oliver has demonstrated his work all over the country. He is a Fellow of the Royal Institution in London and regularly lectures there. All his demonstrations have passed without incident. I am sure we will be perfectly safe.”
, just make sure that he takes all his electricity back with him. You don’t want any of that stuff being left behind.”
Unsure of how to
even begin responding to the Duchess’s worries, Margaret was fortunately spared having to do so by the arrival of Felix Oliver himself.
Margaret was a
keen follower of scientific advancement, and she had met a good number of scientists before. Mr Oliver didn’t look like any of them. Men who devoted themselves to study were usually solemn, earnest men, she’d observed, with a tendency towards owlishness. She had expected her guest to be bookish, and somewhat shabby, with the blinking look of one who spends too much time indoors on his own. Mr Oliver, however, looked like the sort of fashionable young man one might see in any London member’s club. One could almost describe him as a dandy. He wore a frock coat, a wide-winged shirt and an ascot tie secured with a pin. He removed his top hat as he strode forward to greet his hostess, revealing a mass of curly brown hair that complimented his pleasant, open features and deep blue eyes.
Lady Westbrook! I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be here,” he said.
delighted to have you here. Thank you for agreeing to speak to our little group,” replied Margaret. “Please allow me to introduce you to the Duchess of Waverley, our chairwoman.”
afternoon, your Grace” said Mr Oliver, bowing slightly.
“Good afternoon, Mr Oliver. I trust we can expect an edifying few hours?”
“I promise I will do my best. I was most gratified to be invited to speak by the Waverley Ladies Society. It is quite unusual for me to have women in my audiences in any significant numbers. Far too few women are interested in the sciences –experimental physics in particular. I believe this is largely due to them having so few opportunities to hear about it. I must commend you on your very forward-thinking Society.”
The Duchess of Waverley smiled almost coquettishly. “Well
, we must do what we can to educate our ladies,” she said, causing Margaret’s eyes to widen slightly in outrage.
“As I recall
, you were concerned that my speaker’s specialism might be somewhat dangerous for the ladies of Waverley,” Margaret said.
, Lady Westbrook! I am sure I said no such thing,” said the Duchess hurriedly. “I am sure Mr Oliver is highly competent in his mastery of electricity...”
“I assure you, your audience will be quite safe,” replied Mr Oliver,
a smile twitching on his lips, “Now, if you will excuse me, ladies. I need to prepare for my lecture. I have some apparatus I need to set up.”
The ballroom was
arranged for Mr Oliver’s talk. Margaret had originally planned to hold the event in the drawing room, but the response had been so enthusiastic that she had decided instead to convert the ballroom into a temporary lecture theatre, moving all available chairs from the dining room and throughout the house. It seemed all the ladies of Waverley were keen to see Mr Oliver demonstrate the wonders of the electrical sciences.
They were not disappointed.
Mr Oliver had a wonderful gift for showmanship. He talked the ladies through the scientific discoveries that had brought man’s understanding of electricity to where it was today, paying great tribute to Michael Faraday, who had passed on a few years before and who had done so much to increase the world’s understanding of electricity.
He was an engaging public speaker
, and his talk was peppered with a number of practical demonstrations to illustrate his subject matter and engage his audience. He had brought along with him an electric battery and an arc lamp consisting of two carbon rods between which the bright white electricity crackled; both were used to impressive effect. His piece de resistance, however, was the item on which he was currently working: the incandescent light bulb.
The assembled audience
were treated to a display of a glass dome illuminated before their eyes using the power of energy. “Believe me when I say that this object will be commonplace in all our homes by the end of the century,” he finished.
The applause that followed was spontaneous and enthusiastic. Margaret couldn’t help
noting that the lecture had been rather better received than the Duchess’s talk on rose-growing the week before.
“So why do we need to wait so long before we can have a light bulb in every home?” Margaret asked Mr Oliver as the guests mingled afterwards.
“We do have the technology to make light bulbs, but unfortunately, they don’t last very long. The platinum filaments burn up, and the bulb glass blackens after only a few uses. Not to mention the small fortune that it takes to make them. It would cost hundreds to light your home in this way. I can’t see people falling over themselves to get rid of their gaslights just yet.”
“Is that what you’re
currently working on? Are you looking for ways to make the light bulb more reliable and affordable?”
“Yes. I’m conducting a number of experiments to that end.
There’s an inventor in America called Edison who I am very keen to work with. You see...”
Mr Oliver was cut off at that point by the appro
ach of Lady Catherine Hockering wanting to thank him for his splendid talk. Lady Catherine was a beautiful young member of Waverley society, and Margaret had no doubt why she was so eager to talk to the dashing scientist. For all his accomplishment, Mr Oliver was still very young - he was not much older than Margaret’s own sons – and he was certainly very good-looking. It seemed likely that Lady Catherine was anxious to discover his suitability as a social companion rather than a scientist. Margaret excused herself quickly to allow the two young people to get to know one another better.
, there were any number of eligible young women of Waverley who seemed eager to make the acquaintance of Mr Oliver, and he was not short of an adoring audience for the rest of the afternoon.
the afternoon progressed, the party dwindled. Only a few guests still remained when Mr Oliver approached Margaret. “Lady Westbrook,” he said, “I wonder if you could assist me? I had planned to spend the night at the Coach and Horses in the village. However, my driver has just been there to drop off my equipment, and apparently they never received my letter and have no rooms available at any price. Do you have any recommendations of any other inns that might be able to put me up for the night? I’d prefer not to have to drive back to London.”
no need to find an inn, surely,” said Margaret. “I have more spare rooms than I know what to do with. You’d be most welcome to stay here as my guest.”
“Thank you so much,
Lady Westbrook. I shall go and let my driver know straight away.”
“Really, do you think that’s wise?”
The Duchess of Waverley was beside Margaret in a moment, having apparently overheard the whole conversation. Margaret wasn’t surprised she’d been listening in. There was little enough excitement in Waverley.
er do you mean?” asked Margaret.
“Having a strange man to stay in your hou
se when you live here all alone? Surely you’ll need a chaperone.”
“A chaperone!” Margaret laughed. “Don’t be absurd. I am a
middle-aged widow, not a debutante in her first season. I am sure we can manage the situation without a scandal.”
After Margaret had
said goodbye to the last of her guests, she joined Mr Oliver in the drawing room. “Would you care for another cup of tea, Mr Oliver, or perhaps something stronger?”
“I certainly wouldn’t say n
o to a brandy and soda. Charming as the ladies of Waverley are, they can be a little overwhelming en masse. Lady Catherine in particular appears to hold very strong opinions on every inconsequential topic imaginable and has a strong desire to share them all. I believe I have been brought up to speed on every social event and scandal in the Waverley district and know exactly what Lady Catherine thinks about all of them.”
Margaret allowed herself a small smile. She was not altogether surprised that Mr Oliver would find Lady’s Catherine conversation slightly tedious. Clearly the lady’s good looks alone were not enough to hold his attention.
“It was good of you to stay to talk to the ladies of our society. We certainly enjoyed your lecture. I must thank you again for accepting the invitation to come and speak today.”
“I always enjoy giving practical demonstration
s of my work. It’s my passion and it’s nice to have the opportunity to show it off. I am more than happy to encourage women to take an interest in science.”
“You don’t consider it an unsuitable
profession for a lady?” asked Margaret.
“Not at all. Science is important to everybody
. Jane Marcet, for example, is a great heroine of mine. She demonstrates that it is entirely possible for a woman to make a significant contribution to the sciences.”
“I agree,” said Margaret. “It seems preposterous that
certain subjects such as painting watercolours or learning French are considered as suitable for a woman as a man, yet others such as a study of electromagnetism or higher mathematics are considered positively dangerous. Women are told that it will affect their ability to breed if they devote too much time to thinking of such things.”
“Perhaps if people weren’t so preoccupied with coming up with foolish reasons why women shouldn’t study and accept that they are just as capable
as their brothers, the world would be an improved place for it,” Mr Oliver said.
“You think women should be permitted to attend University?”
Margaret asked, intrigued.
, yes. I have met plenty of women who were more than a match for any man in terms of wit, reason and understanding. There is a whole body of untapped genius out there. By not allowing women the same opportunities as men, we are attempting to solve the mysteries of the universe with one arm tied behind our backs.”
would we have female undergraduates get accepted into universities?”
“We need to start much younger. There’s no point in expecting an 18 year old to be ready for university if she hasn’t received the education for it. Eton and Harrow should throw their
doors open to female scholars. Give them the same educations their brothers receive.”
“Exactly the same?” asked Margaret. “Team sports, cold showers and beatings from prefects? The works?”
Felix Oliver raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think girls should be beaten?”
“I hadn’t considered
“You have sons, don’t you?”