William and Lucy Clifford

A Story of Two Lives


The CELEBRATION OF TWO LIVES CONFERENCE took place in Rutherford College at The University of Kent on May 6th 1995. The conference was planned to mark the 150th anniversary of William Kingdon Clifford's birth. It was organized and presented by four people involved in research into the lives and works of the Cliffords . Professor Roy Chisholm and Dr Ruth Farwell have worked on Clifford algebras for many years. Dr Marysa Demoor of the University of Ghent on Belgium became interested in Lucy Clifford while working on the indexing items published in the Victorian Journal The Athenaeum. Mrs Monty Chisholm had researched Lucy Clifford and discovered the treasure trove of unpublished letters written to her and saved by her family. She also traced ,and later, working with Dr Marysa Demoor, edited and published the 71 letters from Henry James to Lucy Clifford.

The aim of the conference was to celebrate the life, times and works of William and Lucy, and to recreate the Victorian intellectual scene when a cross cultural mix of literary and scientific interests was not unusual. The glittering team included Gillian Beer, Regius Professor of English at Cambridge; Professor Sir Roger Penrose O.M. of Oxford; Pierre Coustillas, Professor of English at the University of Lille ; Richard Delanghe, Professor of Mathematics and the University of Ghent and Honorary Graduate of the University of Kent; Brian Stewart, Director of Art Exhibitions for Canterbury ; and from the Universities staff Professor Mary Evans and Dr Frank Burnet, Master of Rutherford College. An Exhibition illustrating the contexts of the Conference was prepared by the four organizers and supported by the London Mathematical Society. A separate exhibition entitled 'Quotes and Profiles' was also prepared by the organizers with the support of The Graphic Design Unit at the University of Brighton. The Centre for Cartoons and Caricature at UKC mounted an exhibition of original Victorian illustrations, caricatures and twentieth century cartoons.

The conference was judged to be a huge interdisciplinary success and there follows below an appreciation by Professor Ron Shaw of the University of Hull.

An unusual conjunction  

Q. At which conference, attended by the President of the London Mathematical Society, did the main speakers include the Regius Professor of English Literature, Cambridge, and the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Oxford?

 A. The one-day "A Celebration of Two Lives", organized by Roy and Monty Chisholm and held on 6 May 1995 at the University of Kent at Canterbury, two of the speakers Gillian Beer and Sir Roger Penrose.

The "Two Lives" were those of William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) and Lucy Clifford (1846-1929). I attended because of my fairly recently acquired interest in Clifford algebras, and because I had previously been impressed by accounts of Clifford's scientific achievements and of his full, but tragically short, life. (W.K. Clifford was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, was second wrangler in the Tripos examination, and was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity in 1868. In 1871 he was appointed to the chair of Mathematics and Mechanics at University College, London, and in 1874 he became a FRS. Unfortunately his health soon declined and he died of tuberculosis when aged 33.) However, prior to the Canterbury meeting, I knew nothing of Clifford's wife Lucy, and was surprised to discover that she had quite a high reputation in literary circles. (Her obituary in The Times said she was a "distinguished novelist and for many years an honoured figure in Literary London, a link with the great writers and scientists of the Victorian age." Apparently in the 1910's and 1920's she frequently accompanied Henry James to west-end plays and films, and I believe she was the only non-family recipient of a bequest in James' will.)

The Celebration of Two Lives was introduced by this brief outline of the lives of the Cliffords:

William Kingdon Clifford, genius mathematician and philosopher, was born in Exeter on May 4th 1845, and died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. His outstanding intellect and vibrant personality won the respect and friendship of many leading figures of the age, including William and Henry James, George Eliot , Thomas Huxley and James Clerk Maxwell. These friends were the core of William and Lucy Clifford's salon after their marriage in 1875.

Before her marriage Lucy had published some fiction. As a widow she had to support herself and her two children by writing: some of her novels were best sellers in their time. She lived for fifty years as William's widow. She widened the range of her writings and formed close friendships with many famous personalities in all walks of life. Her correspondence with these friends provides a valuable insight into the changing world of London literary life. She died in 1929.

There were seventy participants at the one day conference and reviews were published in ....(to be continued)