Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mary's life in five minutes

Here is the talk I gave at IGNITE London 3. Speaking clearly but swiftly, it took five minutes, as it had to:

Mary Wollstonecraft, an international Londoner, was a remarkable radical. Both her Vindications are still read in politics classes, but her life is less known.  Mary’s father inherited plenty of money, but drank and gambled it away. Mary, hungry for learning, at nine years old fell for Jane Arden, whose father had a library, and more or less taught herself. Sharing a bed was the norm. Mary and Ardent Jane were very close until their mid-teens when she transferred her schoolgirl crush to her new best friend Frances, with whom she wanted passionately to live and work. When they were their 20s they did so. Was this a romantic friendship? A so-called Boston marriage? Lesbian love? We can read into it what we wish.

Mary had left her unsupportive home at 18, and supported herself as a lady’s companion: grim servitude. A fairy godmother discovered her when she was 25, still impoverished and unpublished, and whisked her away to Newington Green.  With her sponsor’s contacts and capital, Mary set up a boarding school, thus providing a home to share with beloved Frances. The village was not a random choice: it was a haven for non-Conformists who respected hard work, sobriety, education, and women. A far cry from Mary’s childhood. Village life centred around the Dissenters’ chapel, and its minister, Richard Price, a gentle radical who supported the American Revolution. He spotted Mary's potential.

Meanwhile, Frances had fallen ill; she and Mary made the agonising decision that she should marry a family friend working in earthquake-ravaged Lisbon, believing the climate would help. Newly wed Frances was soon pregnant, and getting more ill; Mary crossed a stormy sea to nurse her dearest friend, arriving just in the nick of time: Frances was already in labour, delivered her baby into Mary’s arms, and then died. (This is called dramatic foreshadowing, and you couldn’t make it up.)  

By the time Mary got back to London, her school had gone bankrupt, so she had to go governessing to Ireland: grim, grim. Mary decided to write a book on the education of daughters.  In fact, she decided to leave employment altogether, and earn her living by writing. (“I will be the first of a new genus”, she says proudly.) She moved to London, seeking the help of a well-connected publisher named Joseph Johnson. He sets her up, and invites her into his illustrious circle. In these busy five years in London, Mary wrote the two works for which she remains best known. Her first Vindication was in direct response to Burke, who had turned conservative between the American and French Revolutions, and had attacked Mary’s mentor Richard Price. This book made her a star.  The second was built on the egalitarianism preached in Dissenting circles. It too was well received.

Then we come to the episode with the painter Fuseli. Mary became romantically involved, and tried to tell herself it was platonic. Yeah, right. She proposed a menage a trois. Fuseli was interested, his wife appalled. Mary decided to leave the country. Everyone was fleeing the revolution in France, so she went to it, as a freelance war correspondent, arriving in Paris just in time to see the king guillotined.

She fell in love and lust and bed with a tall dark handsome American called Gilbert Imlay. Soon she is pregnant, and walks around Paris with her belly out, because all rules were to be broken and the world to be made anew. Or as Wordsworth wrote later: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” And guess what, Imlay turns out to be a cad, and abandons her, which she takes a long time to realise. He left her and their child alone in France in the midst of the Terror. Could life be more frightening or violent? She follows him back to London, where she discovers him shacked up with a woman of the stage. Mary can take no more. She takes laudanum. Imlay rescues her. She offers to do anything to prove her devotion. He sends her off to Scandinavia in search of a missing ship full of silver (this is a genuine historical mystery). Alone with her babe and maid, Mary braved the risks of storms and shipwreck, not to mention pirates.

Anyway, while on this extended business trip for the man who’d jilted her, Mary found time to compose  essays, pre-dating the Romantics, about how her spirit responded to the sublime with awe, delight, and melancholy. Treasureless, she returned to London, to find Imlay gone. She tried to drown herself from Putney Bridge, but again was rescued. Now she reconciled herself to life with the help of William Godwin, anarchist philosopher, who says their friendship melted into love. She moved in with him. She got pregnant. She could not stand to bear another bastard, so asked him to marry her. They both had reasons not to, but they did the necessary at St Pancras Church. A few months later Mary was brought to bed of another daughter. A few days later she died, aged 38.  But her work lives forever more.

She truly was, as one infatuated man said, both "woman of reason, playful and passionate child of love". What the world needs now is Mary the Movie. I thank you.

[Addendum: finally, the video.]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mary inspires

I've come across a cycle of poems illustrating various episodes in Mary Wollstonecraft's life. Nancy Means Wright has been writing about our heroine for 20 years now. These two dozen were originally published by New Spirit Press in 1992.

Here's a taste from "The Crossing":

I had sailed for Portugal:
thirteen extravagant days
at sea among puling
companions. Myself, I was
never better: I swallowed
sea air like the whale
engulfing Jonah; my brain
punched like a bellyful
of salty men. Then found my
Fanny already in labour,
mother and child
past my keel
like a pair
of bleeding fish.

It's vivid stuff, each poem prefaced by a few sentences placing the episode in the context of Mary's life and times. Many are from her point of view, but others see the world through unexpected eyes: those of her father as an apprentice boy, sleeping under a silk-weaver's loom, or publisher Johnson, opening his door in the cathedral close to find her standing there unannounced, returned from abroad, ready to begin her new life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Memorial sculpture on Newington Green

Newington Green Action Group is a formidable collection of people. They brought the Green itself back from the dead within the past ten years, and for their latest project they have decided that Mary Wollstonecraft, whom they claim quite rightly as a local heroine, deserves a memorial. Some sort of sculpture is envisaged, and because it is this group envisaging it, I have no doubt that the vision will turn into reality. And lo, the word was made flesh. Or, for a better metaphor, I will finally have a graven image to bow down before, a pilgrimage site for Marian adoration. (Full disclosure: I was invited onto the memorial committee at its inception.)

At the meeting yesterday, we agreed the project should be known as Mary on the Green. The timescale is a couple of years, but I have patience, and faith. We have two new and enthusiastic volunteers, with press and admin skills. Longer serving members have expertise from theatre to architecture, and at least one has a classic golden rolodex. I told the group about social media, and will begin that slowly. We dare to hope that one day the great STEPHEN FRY might give us a nod. What were Richard Price and Joseph Johnson if not consummate social networkers, bringing people together to foster creative new projects?

[Update: the official website is .]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Freelance research

I am not a historian, a phrase I abbreviate in emulation of non-legal friends. IANAH. Please bear this in mind. Mary Wollstonecraft is a hobby for me, a passion, but not a source of income, directly or indirectly. Over the last couple of years I've discovered angles on her that aren't mentioned in the standard biographies. Some of these tidbits are established fact, and some are speculation on my part. This blog will spell them out, in between telling the story of Mary's life, and sharing resources for Marian idolatry adoration edification. In today's entry, I'll describe how this non-historian goes about that most rewarding of intellectual pass-times, finding things out, especially things that no one, or hardly anyone, seems to have noticed before.

Beginning my amateur research
I started out by looking for full text, out of copyright, digital copies of her works. I went to and searched the text section for Wollstonecraft. So far, so simple. The first result was, as one might expect, something by our Mary, although not a Vindication, but her work of children's literature, Original Stories. Then, to my surprise, many of the following entries were copies of a biography by Elizabeth Robins Pennell. Here is where I expose my ignorance: remember, IANAH.  I am hardly the first to come across this 1884 work, but, having read the standard modern biographies, I had the impression that Mary had been dropped during the nineteenth century, pretty much from when the dust settled on her distraught widower's well-meaning but ill-judged memoir. (Lyndall Gordan's 2005 Vindication tries to make up for this, and devotes whole chapters to Mary's after-life, as it were, but does not mention ERP in her bibliography or index.) I knew that the early twentieth century Modernists paid homage to her long before the feminism of the 1960s, but I had no idea that she had been exhumed as early as 1884. Clearly, I need to educate myself.

Famous Women
Elizabeth Robins Pennell turns out to be an American author (1855-1936), connected to artists including Whistler, and this was her first book, completed in her late 20s. lists multiple copies, held in different libraries and possibly representing different editions (I didn’t look), which have been scanned. The one I read and cite here was rife with OCR artifacts, which I’ve interpreted and brushed away.  The biography was published in Boston by Roberts Brothers, as part of the Famous Women Series, the next volumes being Madame Roland (supporter of the French Revolution) by Mathilde Blind, and Harriet Martineau (pioneer sociologist) by Florence Fenwick Miller.  A page of publication information states:
"Copyright, 1884, By Roberts Brothers. University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge."
So -- a co-publication on both sides of the Pond? Interesting assertion of copyright....
1884 Preface
The preface grabbed my attention. In its entirety it reads:
Comparatively little has been written about the life of MARY Wollstonecraft. The two authorities upon the subject are Godwin and Mr. C. Kegan Paul. In writing the following Biography I have relied chiefly upon the Memoir written by the former, and the Life of Godwin and Prefatory Memoir to the Letters to Imlay of the latter. I have endeavored to supplement the facts recorded in these books by a careful analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft's writings and study of the period in which she lived.
I must here express my thanks to Mr. Garnett, of the British Museum, and to Mr. C. Kegan Paul, for the kind assistance they have given me in my work. To the first named of these gentlemen I am indebted for the loan of a manuscript containing some particulars of Mary Wollstonecraft's last illness which have never yet appeared in print, and to Mr. Paul for the gift, as well as the loan, of several important books.
E. R. P.
London, August, 1884.
So she is under the impression that nothing serious had been written about MW between Godwin's hasty Memoir and ... who is this C. Kegan Paul chap? That leads me yet further backwards. He turns out to have been a publisher and prolific writer; given his helpfulness to young and unpublished ERP, one is tempted to see him as a Joseph Johnson figure.  His publishing house is now part of Routledge. What drove him to resuscitate MW’s reputation is something I have yet to discover. And Mr Garnett must be Richard Garnett, big wig at the British Library.

So much to look into.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A new audience awaits

I am thrilled to report that Mary Wollstonecraft will soon be exposed to a whole new fanbase. I will be talking on her life at IGNITE London 3, and am in the process of attempting to condense the "sex, religion, and politics" aspects into a very brief five minutes. The USP, or gimmick if you prefer, of Ignite events is that each presenter is alowed 20 slides, no more, no less, and they auto-forward every 15 seconds, hence the time limit. Ignite's motto is "Enlighten us, but make it quick."

I have no problem coming up with the words, although compressing and selecting is a challenge. (A mere 300 seconds!)  "Remember to focus on the audience": always good advice for speakers or writers. What is a whole different kettle of metaphors is choosing relevant and compelling images. There are only a couple of portraits of Mary. I don't want to bring more people than necessary into the story (Ardent Jane - Fanny Blood - Fusilli & saucy wife - Cad Gilbert - Hero William -- Fairy Godmother - Dr Price - Uncle Johnson - family in the background), and anyway many of these don't have images.Those that don't, I have improvised: enjoy the mouse-overs. Some of those links may lead to unexpected places.

Otherwise: buildings? Nowhere she lived still stands. First editions? One can overdo a good thing. Blue plaque? I don't even have a proper image. We'll see.

Among other Ignite speakers, I was inspired by Matt Edgar. Last autumn ago I "met" him on Twitter (what is the correct verb?), when he was planning his talk on the year 1794 -- So much to answer for. He was aware of the embarassing lack of women, and gives me a hat tip for reminding him about Mary. On that site he has written more generally about the process of planning an Ignite talk, so that's where I'll be starting.

The event takes place at the Luminaire on Tuesday 28th September, doors open 7pm. 311 High Road, Kilburn, NW6 7JR. Tickets are available via the Ignite site. Free, of course, and last time I attended Ignite, the drinks were too.

[Addendum: here are the words and here is the video.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Once upon a time there was a little girl called Mary. When she was growing up, she used to sleep on the landing, to stop her drunken father getting in to her mother’s bedroom. He gambled away most of the family’s money; there was just enough to educate Mary’s elder brother, but nothing left for her. Besides, she was female, and what was the point of teaching her more than what she needed to find a husband?

Fortunately, she fell in love with a girl whose family had a good library, and started to educate herself. When she had read enough books, she decided to write some. She fell in love a few more times. When one of those affairs went wrong, she went to Paris to see the French Revolution, which led to more love, and more writing, and more heartbreak, and a baby too. She went to Yorkshire and Lisbon and Scandinavia, and hung out in London with abolitionists, Dissenters, and Americans. Her books remain in print; she is credited as a foremother of feminism, influenced the birth of Romanticism, and still contributes to republican thought. She lived a life of highs and lows, and there is a lot to learn from her. Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A new life

On this day 213 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft died. With this blog, she will live again.