An ambitious EC-funded research initiative on epigenetics advancing towards systems biology 46

The hermit of Paz-Perez

Name: Clémence Augustine Royer
Nationality: French
Lived: 1830-1902
Fields: Philosophy, economics and natural history
Claim to fame: Produced first French translation of Charles Darwin’s The origin of species, which included her personal interpretation of his ideas

A writer and lecturer on a wide range of topics, Clémence Royer (1830-1902) made several contributions to anthropology and economics but is perhaps best known for her French
translation of Charles Darwin’s The origin of species. A self-taught natural philosopher, she was a dedicated feminist and believed that reason would always triumph over religion.

Religion and reason

Clémence Royer was born in Nantes, France. Her father participated in the royalist uprising of 1832, after which the family was exiled to Switzerland. When Clémence was ten years old, she was sent to a convent school where she experienced severe psychological strain and was forced to leave. After that, she was largely responsible for her own education, although her father helped her with mathematics.
In 1849, he died and Clémence looked for a teaching job. She prepared herself to teach music, French and maths and, in 1853, went to Wales to teach at a girls‘ boarding school. There, she learned English and was exposed to Protestantism. On her return to France a year later, she studied the works of Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot and experienced a kind of non-religious conversion. In 1856, she broke with her family and moved to Switzerland where she eventually settled on her own in Paz-Perez, near Lausanne.
Royer spent the next two years living in relative isolation, studying in the public library and supporting herself by selling her needlework. Keenly aware of her ignorance, she began to devour texts on almost every subject: philosophy, physics, anthropology, economics, mathematics, geology, law and natural history. She came to believe that reason, and not religion, mattered most.

Living and working in ‘sin’

In 1858, while writing for an economics journal edited by Pascal Duprat, the two fell in love and stayed together for 27 years until his death in 1885. However, Duprat was already married, could not divorce and had a child. In addition, he did not make enough to support two households, so the family struggled financially.
In 1865, three years after she translated Darwin, Royer and Duprat moved to Italy to live together openly and she gave birth to their son, René. She continued to lecture and publish and, in 1870, the family returned to Paris. When Duprat died, Royer was left with very little income. With the help of friends, she moved into a boarding house in the suburbs of Paris, where she continued her work. In 1902, she died in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Science in 40 lessons

Royer began her career as a writer and lecturer in Lausanne in 1857. Two years later she offered a salon series for women entitled ‘Course on the philosophy of nature and history in 40 lessons’, which proved very popular. She expanded her course to other Swiss cities and eventually to Italy.
Royer became interested in the works of Lamarck, whose view that all species adapt to their environment over time was unpopular. When she discovered the works of Charles Darwin she was eager to write the French translation, believing his ideas vindicated those of Lamarck.

Shattered windows

Royer‘s translation of Charles Darwin’s The origin of species was published in 1862, the year she also published a two-volume work on economics (an essay of hers on taxation and social inequality had received a prize in 1860). Her translation included notes and a lengthy preface in which she offered a personal analysis of Darwin‘s ideas. She wrote about the potential consequences of his hypotheses, and followed his ideas to their natural conclusion.
French anthropologist Charles Letourneau said that her translation had “shattered the windows”; her comments could not have failed to influence the way French scientists viewed Darwin‘s theories. Royer took particular exception to Darwin‘s view that women were naturally inferior to men, and commented: “Woman is the one animal in all creation about which man knows the least”. Darwin was shocked by her daring but called her “the oddest and cleverest woman in France”. By the third edition of Origin, Darwin had become unhappy with Royer‘s translations, not only because of her criticisms but because she refused to accept some of his changes. Her word choice favoured her own views, and sometimes she appeared to miss the point. He chose another translator but, in 1882, he went back to Royer for a translation of a popular edition of the work.

Anthropology and feminism

In 1870, Royer was the first woman to be invited to join the Anthropological Society of Paris. Her election as a member caused an uproar, but she contributed several important papers and discussions over the years. In the late 1880s, the society invited her to lecture on mental evolution in its new series of conferences on evolution.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, she contributed to economics journals, anthropology reviews, encyclopaedias and the feminist newspaper La Fronde, which she helped found. By 1897, she had become a major figure in the feminist movement and was awarded the Legion d‘Honneur in 1900.

Scientific achievements

Clémence Royer did not have a scientific speciality. She was an autodidact whose lectures and publications strived for a synthesis of ideas across topics. She made no distinction between science and philosophy; she believed that science should be the fundamental basis for philosophy, and that it should be used to guide society. She is best known today for her French translation of Darwin‘s The origin of species, which included her personal interpretation of his ideas. But she also made important contributions to anthropology and was celebrated twice in her lifetime by the feminist and scientific communities.