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Mrs. Warren's Profession (1894)
George Bernard Shaw
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

This is Shaw's notorious play about poverty and prostitution, the "profession" of the title. (The play itself was not performed in public in the UK until 1925.)

Mrs. Warren has made her fortune on the continent, and sent her mostly estranged daughter Vivie to the best schools, and then Newnham college (of Cambridge), without ever telling Vivie where the money came from.

The play begins with Vivie meeting one of her mother's old friends, and telling him about how she tied with the third wrangler on the mathematical tripos, shortly after one Phillipa Summers had placed above the senior wrangler. (This is based on the real world Philippa Fawcett of Newnham who placed above the senior wrangler in 1890. As a woman, she was not eligible for a degree, hence not on the list of wranglers. (See the biography of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, her mother.)

Vivie complains that while she indeed learned lots of mathematics at Newnham, including calculations for use in engineering and insurance, but no engineering or insurance. She mentions her plans are to go into insurance, while learning law and finance.

Then comes the play, wherein Vivie learns her mother's profession and the role various people had back in the past. In the final scene, she is in her actuarial office. Out of disgust, she is in the midst of cutting off all ties with her mother and her mother's associates. The play ends with Vivie alone, absorbed in actuarial calculations.

Printed as part of Plays Unpleasant

One anonymous visitor to this site wrote "To call it a mathmatical work of fiction is to miss it's point entirley [sic], it a diadactic social satire." I'm afraid I disagree. I would say that to call this a work of mathematical fiction is to discuss something other than the point! I certainly agree that the point of the play from the author's point of view was not mathematics. However, this does not change the fact that the play does implicitly comment on math and in particular on the interesting topic of women in mathematics. It would greatly lessen the significance of literature if we were limited to discussing nothing other than "the point" of each work.

Contributed by Joseph Blanc

I have no idea why anyone should think of this play as mathematics in any context. Only arithmetic (not explicit) appears as money is exchanged and rents are counted.

Contributed by James Bashkin

I remember the play well, or so I thought, and am a big fan of Shaw's. I think that your remarks make a lot of sense, and I appreciated the extra background about the young woman who inspired part of the play.

The social context of mathematics is interesting here, especially with regard to women's rights.

A good inclusion in the list! I wouldn't worry about receiving dissenting emails- provoking a reaction means you provoked some thought, which is rare these days.

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Works Similar to Mrs. Warren's Profession
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw
  2. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. The Odd Women by George Gissing
  5. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  6. Royal Highness (Königliche Hoheit) by Thomas Mann
  7. War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
  8. Inquirendo Island by Hudor Genone
  9. The Invention of Ana [Forestillinger om Ana Ivan] by Mikkel Rosengaard
  10. Incendies by Denis Villeneuve / Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne / Wajdi Mouawad
Ratings for Mrs. Warren's Profession:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (3 votes)

MotifFemale Mathematicians,
MediumPlays, Available Free Online,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)