Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Not to miss, if you're in Diss

Courtesy the Diss Express: 

Diss University of the Third Age’s August meeting will host a talk by author Jennifer Kelsey on the 18th century British writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The talk, on Thursday, at 10.30am, is at Diss United Reformed Church.

Call 01379 642674 for details.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Two Marys, in more radical company

The two Marys, mother Wollstonecraft and daughter Shelley, are to meet in conversation this week, at the radical booksellers of Kings Cross. Joseph Johnson will doubtless be there in spirit, at Housmans Bookshop at 7pm on Wednesday, peering around and reflecting on the changing face of publishing over the centuries.

The Two Marys: A Conversation Piece, accompanied by cello, were heard at the Camden Archive Centre in March; my review is here. They will be reprising the piece, which was first performed in the National Portrait Gallery on 14 September 1997, marking the bicentenary of the death and birth. The change of venue is apt, wrenching the pair from history to current politics. "For the fifth year running Housmans will be giving over our summer events programme to a season of talks and book events celebrating radical aspects of the capital’s social history." Have you ever visited Housmans, in bricks and mortar or online? (I believe they dropped the apostrophe when Kings Cross did.)

Independent bookshops struggle; Charing Cross Road now sells pizza and Chinese medicine; the Amazon river has deluged us all; but there's always a place for specialist booksellers, which invariably attract knowledgeable and passionate people as both staff and customers. From its website:
Housmans is London’s premier radical bookshop – it’s one of the last remaining such shops, as well as having been one of the first (originally opening in 1945). ... Whilst acknowledging its roots in the peace movement – and, specifically, in the radical pacifist end of the movement – it aims to be a broad-based, non-sectarian shop, encouraging the dissemination of a wide range of progressive and alternative ideas. As the shop’s founders recognised, opposing injustice and oppression and the degradation of our planet are prerequisites of a more peaceful society.
You may remember that we popped into Housmans, with the Japanese historian and the Swedish theatre designer. We had just found the Wollstonecraft plaque in Somers Town and were about to board the bus to St Paul's, where Johnson had his publishing house, on our quest for the plaque in Southwark. Kings Cross is handy for transport connections, and was so, even in eighteenth century.

From the official description of A Conversation Piece:
Two months after Shelley’s death, Mary Shelley fights off her anguish for the sake of her remaining child. She clings to her books: Shelley’s poems; the works of her father, the philosopher William Godwin; the feminist writings of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to her.
In her despair, the young Mary pours her heart out in a letter to an English friend who was her mother’s first pupil. If only she could conjure up her mother from the past, if only she could speak to her for an hour...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Reflections on Love

Today at Clare College, Sylvana Tomaselli speaks on "Reflections on Love in the political writings of Wollstonecraft". This concludes a two-day event entitled Cambridge Platonism: Reception and Influence. More information on the conference here and the speaker here.

Thank you, Cambridge and Arts and Humanities Research Council: it's free to attend. I note that once again Mary is getting an airing under a philosophical umbrella, as opposed to a historical or gender studies one. I think this bodes well for the future.

Monday, April 22, 2013

More on Mary's manifestation and Stewy's streetart

Just over a month ago,  Mary manifested!  Overnight Wollstonecraft appeared outside Newington Green Unitarian Church, courtesy the street artist Stewy.

Mary on the Green, the group campaigning for a statue, and Andy Pakula, the minister of the church at the heart of the village that changed the world* (and expanded Wollstonecraft's life), both bask in the reflected glory of the rather lovely life-sized image.

In the weeks since International Women's Day, the stencil on the wall has attracted a lot of publicity, as well as pilgrims and visitors. Here's a round-up (including interviews with yours truly):

There’s something about Mary, Hackney Post, Rachel Bayne

On a Stoke Newington corner, astride the New Unity Church railings, a banner proclaims ‘The Birthplace of Feminism’. In this small, Unitarian congregation beats a radical heart. Here, amongst the pews more than 250 years ago, sat Mary Wollstonecraft.

Last weekend, a mysterious portrait of the radical feminist appeared on the wall of the Church. The stencil, designed by graffiti artist Stewy was put there on International Women’s Day to celebrate the palpable influence Wollstonecraft made on the Newington Green community and far, far beyond.

Stewy’s painting also acts as a ghost-like trace, spearheading the path for a more lasting tribute in Stoke Newington. Roberta Wedge, local activist and member of the ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign, represents that hope with plans to build a statue of the feminist on Newington Green.
“I always say to people, if you were raised by a woman who could read and vote and work, then you owe something to Mary Wollstonecraft,” says Wedge.

Mysterious Banksy-style graffiti welcomed by Newington Green statue campaigners, Islington Gazette

The mural, which is the work of street artist Stewy – whose identity is unknown – emerged as events were staged in Newington Green to raise money for the statue and to celebrate International Women’s Day, which was last Friday.

Andy Pakula, minister of the New Unity congregation based at the chapel, said: “I hope we can leave it here because we think it’s fabulous. There’s different issues about street art, but she’s our guiding spirit. You’ve seen in the US where images of Jesus appear on toasted cheese sandwiches, well for us this is about the best that could happen to have Mary show up. She’s inspired us to work for justice in the world and we absolutely support the campaign for a statue. We would like to see a Mary Wollstonecraft centre for feminist studies in Newington Green one day.”

Writer Bee Rowlatt, 41, who is backing the campaign and recently published a chapter about Wollstonecraft in a new book titled 50 Shades Of Feminism, said: “It’s just unbelievable that there’s no permanent memorial to this incredible woman. The mural is really inspiring. She’s right there life-size on a building where she used to go. We feel like she’s appeared among us and we hope this is a small step towards getting the memorial.”

‘Apparition’ of 18th-century women’s rights campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft appears on church, Islington Tribune, Amy Smith

A MYSTERIOUS apparition on the side of the New Unity church in Newington Green caught the eye of passers-by when it appeared overnight. But it is not the “Mary” that some might expect. Instead, it’s a graffiti stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft, the influential 18th-century author and staunch advocate of women’s rights who was inspired by sermons at the church.

As a young school­mistress Wollstonecraft used to attend the New Unity church and its radical sermons were integral in shaping her political stance. Street artist Stewy was inspired by her message to create the piece. “I’ve been aware of Mary Wollstonecraft’s connection with the Unitarian Church for many years,” he said. “The placing of the image, where she may have walked, was important to me and I decided to make a small edition of 25 screen prints taken from the stencil to help raise money for ‘Mary on the Green’.” 

Mary Wollstonecraft "appears" in street art on her 18th C spiritual home! N16 magazine

New Unity Minister Andy Pakula said ‘This is a mysterious apparition of the mother of feminism - a daring figure who continues to inspire us in the fight for freedom and justice for all people. Without her spirit, it is unlikely that we would have stood forward so boldly for equal marriage, as we have in recent years. Mary's spirit has been with us always. Now her image is as well!’

Newington Green graffiti celebrates Wollstonecraft, Islington Now, Sarah Graham

Fans of famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft are celebrating her surprise appearance in the form of graffiti on the side of a church in Newington Green. The stencilled image of the 18th century “mother of feminism”, by street artist Stewy, is a bonus for a local campaign to get a statue of Ms Wollstonecraft erected in the borough.

Islington-based movement Mary on the Green tweeted a photo of Stewy’s artwork, saying: “What a boost to the campaign! Mary manifests on NG church @newunity.” Newington Green Action Group set up the initiative in 2011 to make her life and work more accessible to local people.

Campaigner Bee Rowlatt said: “[Ms Wollstonecraft] is an internationally renowned champion of women’s rights and there’s no statue to her anywhere." Ms Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, lived locally and attended the “radically-inclusive” New Unity church during her lifetime.

and even in the the newsletter of the National Museum Directors' Council

Street art evens up London’s representation of famous women: The image is clearly based on the John Opie picture of Wollstonecraft, which is on display in the National Portrait Gallery.  Mildmay’s Labour councillor Kate Groucutt says “I absolutely want it to stay. We’ve had confirmation from Hackney Council and they can’t remove it without checking with the owner, and that’s the church.  It’s not going to be painted over, we have secured that.” There are only a handful of statues to women among the hundreds in London. 

And the image is to be found as far afield as the United States UU World magazine: 
British Unitarians rally to save faith from extinction  by Donald E. Skinner

Unitarians in London gathered next to an image of 18th century Unitarian writer Mary Wollstonecraft. The image was created recently on the side of the Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green in north London, where efforts are underway to raise money for a statue of Wollstonecraft.

*The Village that Changed the World is the title of the beautifully illustrated little history produced by the Newington Green Action Group. It's available directly from the charity and no doubt from the online mega-retailer of your choice.
The photo above is, for a change, by me, of a pair of warm churchgoers on a cold day.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Claire Tomalin at the London Literature Festival

Claire Tomalin wrote her first biography in 1974. It was - no surprise - on Mary Wollstonecraft. Before that, she'd been a literary editor, but her success with The Life and Death of propelled her into a new career. She'll be giving a series of five lectures at the London Literature Festival this year on several of her subjects (Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, etc.), concluding on 3 June with our heroine. 
Claire Tomalin concludes her five-part lecture series in the week of the Women's Prize for Fiction with a study of one of the great voices of the Enlightenment - Mary Wollstonecroft. 
Wollstonecroft died in childbirth in 1797 at the age 38, but in her short life she fired the opening shots in the long battle for sexual equality.  
Her 'Vindication of the Rights of Woman' made her famous throughout Europe. Her support of the ideas behind the French Revolution took her to Paris to see it in action.  
In her professional life as a journalist and writer, and in her turbulent private life, she laid out a pattern of difficulties, triumphs and sorrows that every modern working woman can recognise.
Such a difficult name to spell.  The title contains the same error, which means anyone searching through the database risks being stymied by software telling them that there are no events about Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Tickets can be purchased here. I hope you have better luck with the South Bank computers than I did, when I was trying to plan my time at the Women of the World weekend. Good thing the launch of Fifty Shades of Feminism was in an unticketed space. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Brave Woman There Was...

Next week sees another intimate gathering, drawing on the life and works of Mary Wollstonecraft. Truly, London is overflowing with remembrances. Again, three performers; again, words and music; again, a Camden library. But all else is different.

This is billed as "an encounter with Mary Wollstonecraft":
The show has three phases. First you will hear extracts from the Original Stories for Children and meet one of the great, though lesser known, characters of English literature, Mrs Mason. 
Hooray for this long-lived Lost Daughter, who started life as Margaret King, Mary's doubly rebellious charge during that dire year of governessing.
The scene then moves to Paris, during Mary’s stay in France, and introduces you to another outstanding, though perhaps less widely known, feminist writer, Olympe de Gouges.  
Ah yes, Mary in France. Tumultuous years. Did these two ever meet? There is every reason to hope so - certainly they moved in overlapping circles - but, as far as I know, no hard evidence. If this encounter did take place, it must have been in the first half of 1793; Wollstonecraft left Paris in June for a few months, and de Gouges was arrested in August, I believe. 
Finally we see Mary at her birthday tea, formulating ideas for her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, despite some hindrance from a male visitor. 
And who might that be, I wonder? Talleyrand or Godwin? Either way, I expect they get served wine in a chipped teacup.
Nearly all the script consists of the words actually written by the two women, but presented in dramatic form. 
That is much the same approach as last month's The Two Marys: A Conversation Piece, also at a Camden library. The borough has a claim on her (via The Polygon, within Somers Town, and St Pancras). 
Most of the music dates from the period.
Just like the birthday concert!

I'm not sure whether Mary Wollstonecraft spent much time in Highate, then a village as distant from London as Newington Green, and more difficult to get to, in that the muddy hills were worse. Still, in the years since then the good burghers of Highgate have taken advantage of Mr Macadam's tar, and the roads are quite passable these days.

If you are free next Thursday, why not visit Highgate Library? 18 April, 7:15 for 7:30pm.

Photo by Justinc. Used under the 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Simon Schama admires

It's not often that Mary Wollstonecraft appears on television. My British readers have until Saturday to catch her on iPlayer here; the DVDs can be ordered worldwide and indefinitely, I believe.

Simon Schama, the historian and art historian, is probably best known for his BBC2 television project A History of Britain, produced about ten years ago. By series 3 he had worked his way to the late eighteenth century. Its first episode is "Forces of Nature", a curious title, as it deals with very human passions. Why did the British "prove immune to the siren call of liberty, equality and fraternity", as the blurb puts it?

First, twenty minutes of context and back story: 
Richard Price, Tom Paine, Edmund Burke. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was referred to in 1789 with the fall of the Bastille. Liberty and reform were in the air. But the conservatives were afraid of revolution in Britain, and counter-attacked. You can tune in at 23:15, when the camera settles on the dining table of publisher Joseph Johnson, "one place where dangerous thoughts were positively welcome", as were "articulate, intelligent, impassioned women":
Among those women, the most striking was Mary Wollstonecraft. She was the spirit of the time and a one-woman revolution. Living a hand to mouth existence as a writer, Mary burst into print in outrage at Burke's Reflection. She also noticed that the rights of man weren't worth much if they excluded the other half of human society...

There was nothing she saw in her nature that disqualified her from being a full citizen.
The problem with filming history is that they're all dead. So mostly we get paintings, and close-ups of the title pages of books, and Simon Schama lecturing to us as we sit on the sofa. But there are also scenes featuring silent (and, as far as I can tell, uncredited) actors, in groups, pretending to listen to each other, or alone, sucking their quills in thoughtful anticipation of another burst of literary genius. When the action cuts to Paris, the picture editors go crazy for moody black and white shots of the bridges over the Seine:
To begin with, Mary shared the company and the optimism of expatriate Irish, English, Americans, and Scots at White's Hotel. But then, as the despotism of the Crown was replaced by the despotism of a police state, doubts began to creep in.
Schama stands in the Jardin de Luxembourg and recounts how, when Tom Paine was imprisoned there, he narrowly escaped his meeting with the "national razor". The Mary-actor, still with too much hair, sits by a solitary candle, looking scared, writing a letter to Johnson. The 1793 war between Britain and France made everything so much worse.

Mary must have felt it would be her turn any day. Salvation appeared in the good-looking shape of an American businessman and property speculator, Gilbert Imlay, who registered her as his American wife, and thus free from the taint of being one of the enemies of France. Nursing their baby in a quiet garden on the outskirts of Paris, Mary the feminist had been saved from the revolution by motherhood. 
But it was not to be a happy ending. As Mary became more devoted, Imlay's business trips became mysteriously prolonged. When she followed him as far as London, she found a new mistress.
And thus to the Putney Bridge plunge.

But she was not to be allowed her poetic suicide; a boatman pulled her out. She was 37 and she seemed to have lost everything except her child: her faith in revolution, in the virtue of the people, her belief in the possibilities of an independent woman's life, the goodness of nature, must have seemed a cruel joke.
But then, Schama says, she got a second chance: she met Godwin, and "Mary's fire burned bright enough to melt his icy principles." This is where the camera shots get a bit icky: they sit in armchairs on either side of a fireplace. He is reading, not aloud but silently; she sits with her hands clasped over her belly (Look! I am carrying his child!), no book within reach, gazing at her husband in doubly mute adoration.
Though they'd agreed not to cohabit, the sworn enemy of matrimony and the feminist were wedded at St Pancras Church. As her months of pregnancy passed, the two found themselves relaxing into conjugal cosiness to the point where Godwin was prepared, at least privately, to admit the force of emotion as well as thought. Which is what made the end so unbearable.
And then it all gets rather graphic - in Schama's choice of words, not in the images (no puppies, thank goodness). I can't decide if this brutality of expression is the sort of honest dealing that Godwin intended with his Memoirs, or if it is just gruesome titillation:

When the time for her labour came, Mary called a local  midwife. But after the baby was born, another girl, the placenta remained firmly lodged somewhere at the top of the birth canal.  
Obstetric opinion at the time held that unless the placenta was promptly expelled, there was a lethal danger of infection. So a doctor from Westminster Hospital was summoned and he stuck his hand up Mary and pulled. The placenta came away in pieces as Mary lay in agony, hemorrhaging.
She had been through so many terrors, so many ordeals, had come so close to death, and had somehow managed to survive. This time, with so much to live for, there would be no escape. She died a week later of septicemia.
Schama does a good job describing Godwin's immediate reaction, his heart-torn letters that day. And then he concludes these twelve minutes of Mary Wollstonecraft:
She is rightly remembered as the founder of modern feminism, for making a statement remarkable for its bravery and clarity, that the whole nature of women was not to be confused with their biology. But nature, biology, had killed her.
Sic transit. The episode rolls on to other defenders of freedom. The whole series is worth watching; it's as good an overview as you're likely to find, and equally relevant to our American cousins, up until our paths diverge.