Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Her other work

An opinion which Sofia shared with Weierstrass was that, it is impossible to be a mathematician without having the soul of a poet ... 85 Whilst Sofia's literary talents didn't come close to matching her mathematical abilities, she nevertheless did have a gift in this area. Throughout her life she wrote everything from poetry to theatrical reviews, articles on scientific themes, plays and novellas. Whilst living with Mittag-Leffler for a time in Stockholm she developed a close friendship with his sister Anna Charlotte who was also a well known writer and advocate of women's rights. In 1887 this was to lead to a collaboration on a play entitled The Struggle for Happiness. Anna Charlotte did the majority of the writing for this project, while the idea behind the play itself came from Sofia. One part of the play saw a couple failing in their attempts to love one another despite the lack of any real attraction between them, while the other saw the lead female character sacrificing her work in order to make her husband happy. A number of parallels can be drawn between the issues which the characters in this play are forced to deal with, and Sofia's feelings about her relationship with Vladimir. There can be no doubt that guilt about Vladimir's death weighed on Sofia's mind during the remaining years of her life, and influenced the course which this particular play took. Despite being highly praised by some, this work was not to be a dramatic success. The idea of further collaborations was quashed by Anna Charlotte who found Sofia's friendship to be somewhat stifling, and realised that if she was to succeed she would need to work alone in future. The two were to remain good friends despite this ending of their working relationship.

It was during the 1880s that Sofia would compose the memoirs of her childhood which have been described as, lyrical, evocative, beautifully written.86 Recollections of Childhood as this work became known, details Sofia's early childhood in St. Petersburg as well as her time at the family estate of Palibino. On publication it produced something of a sensation amongst the reading public in Russia. One critic went so far as to say that she, should without doubt occupy one of the most prominent places among Russian authoresses. 87 As is the case with other memoirs which deal with childhood years, large parts of this work which look at her first fifteen years are not particularly accurate representations of the true course of events. Sofia's tendency to overdramatise her life also means that her claims about having had an unhappy childhood cannot be taken completely seriously. This work is nevertheless hugely valuable not only as a guide to Sofia's early life, but due to the fact that unlike works of a similar type by Tolstoy, Aksakov and Tergenev, it deals with the childhood of a Russian girl.

Further enhancing Sofia's reputation amongst the radicals and liberals of Russia was a work called The Nihilist Girl which was repeatedly banned by the Russian authorities. Despite being a work of fiction, as the title suggests it contains a great many autobiographical elements which allow a better understanding of both her childhood, and the manner in which her political beliefs were affected by the socialist sympathies of her early teachers.

Her, tense, matter-of-fact style of narrative,88 was more suited to essay format and the description of events that Sofia herself had actually lived through. Other literary works included articles on her meeting with George Eliot, a description of the hospital conditions in a women's institution, and essays with dealt with other political and social themes. None of these were particularly important or influential however.

Mittag-Leffler and Weierstrass both became frustrated with Sofia at times due to the manner in which they felt she wasted her time and talent on matters other than mathematics. On the subject of both her writing and mathematics, Sofia herself said,

It may well be that in either of these spheres I would have done much more had I devoted myself to one exclusively.89

On the surface this statement would appear to be true, yet it is probable that had Sofia followed through on this idea she would have become bored with what she would have seen as the monotony of the dedication to one discipline. Prior to her death she had been planning to continue the writing of her memoirs through her student years, as well as a historical novel. Her untimely death was to prevent either of these works coming to pass.

On becoming an editor of Acta Mathematica it was Sofia who, took over most responsibility as liaison with the mathematicians of Paris, Berlin and her native Russia.90 The importance of this role should not be underestimated. She was never to lose respect for those problems based in the more applied areas of mathematics which meant that her Russian colleagues such as Chebyshev and Nekrasov came to view her as their representative in the west. As a result of her efforts Chebyshev in particular became more open to the ideas of Weierstrass, and to her surprise and joy even came to speak, with great respect of the Berlin School.91 He was known as a poor correspondent yet came to attach great importance to his contact with Sofia. The role which she played in introducing Western European ideas to Russian mathematicians is viewed by some as, one of her greatest, most enduring contributions to the history of mathematics.92 Chebyshev's gratitude for the manner in which Sofia facilitated the spreading of ideas between Russia and Western Europe is shown by his support of her appointment to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Sofia set yet another precedent when as a result of the growing fame which accompanied her literary and mathematical successes she became the first woman who was allowed to attend lectures at Berlin University having met with the King of Prussia. From her early years on the Palibino estate where her mother established a school for the peasant children, Sofia had always had an interest in education for girls. Throughout her life she would use her reputation to assist many other Russian women in their attempts to attend university and gain doctorates. She was very aware of the fact that she was, a phenomenon in her own time, a symbol of what women could achieve.93 She was nevertheless plagued by guilt that her work did not do enough to benefit the Russian people as a whole, and could only be appreciated by a select group of specialists. In feeling this way she was underestimating just how big an inspiration her life and work would be to a generation of Russian women. Her work and abilities saw mathematical greats such as Hermite, Picard, Poincaré, Bertrand, Schwartz, Weierstrass, Hensel and Kronecker come to regard her as a respected colleague and equal. This fact showed women across Europe just what could be achieved if they put in the necessary hard work and had sufficient talent.


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Leigh Ellison May 2002