There is no end to the reverberations of far-reaching lives. Mary Wollstonecraft can't be dissociated from her daughters -- her biological daughters and those who come under her influence, her political descendants over subsequent centuries....Present-day generations, in the choices and opportunities open to us, are Wollstonecraft's heirs.
Lyndall Gordon does not mention an American anarchist with a wonderful name. Today's post will introduce you to this lost daughter, Voltairine de Cleyre. That nominal double-whammy -- the homage to the French philosopher, and yet the aristocratic particle as well -- is indeed her birth name: her father, a French-Flemish immigrant to the United States, was a fervent free-thinker, though later he more or less incarcerated his teenage daughter in a Canadian convent. Anyway, context before detail:
Nature has a habit now and then of producing a type of human being far in advance of the times: an ideal for us to emulate; a being devoid of sham, uncompromising, and to whom the truth is sacred; a being whose selfishness is so large that it takes the whole human race and treats self only as one of the great mass; a being keen to sense all forms of wrong, and powerful in denunciation of it; one who can reach in the future and draw it nearer. Such a being was --Google Books and Anarchist Archives.) That introduction was written by Hippolyte Havel (1871-1950), a Czech anarchist who settled in Greenwich Village, New York City; it appears in a curtailed form in the 1932 edition. The fuller version contains another paragraph that is equally true of MW:
Like many other women in public life, Voltairine de Cleyre was a voluminous letter writer. Those letters addressed to her comrades, friends, and admirers would form her real biography; in them we trace her heroic struggles, her activity, her beliefs, her doubts, her mental changes — in short, her whole life, mirrored in a manner no biographer will ever be able to equal.Her collected works can be found here, with tempting titles such as: Sex Slavery, The Making of an Anarchist, The Paris Commune, The Economic Tendency of Freethought, Haymarket Speeches, In Defence of Emma Goldman, Dawn Light of Anarchy, The Dominant Idea, and The Gods and the People. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote on these topics too, a century before: sex slavery (not prostitution, but the legal trap of marriage), the making of her political thoughts (e.g. republicanism), revolution in Paris, economics and earning one's living. She wrote of religion: thinking through ideas for oneself. She wrote in defence of Richard Price. She wrote of the dawning of a new hope for humankind, before it was drowned in blood.
VdC was also a poet,one of the few genres which MW did not try. She is the author of the poem entitled "Mary Wollstonecraft", which appeared on this blog a fortnight ago, written on the 114th anniversary of MW's birthday. Another of hers is called "Bastard Born", and its first stanza is:
Why do you clothe me with scarlet of shame?
Why do you point with your finger of scorn?
What is the crime that you hissingly name
When you sneer in my ears, "Thou bastard born?"The attitudes depicted here had not moved on much from those of 1790s London, when MW, pregnant with the future Mary Shelley, decided she could not bear to bear another bastard, to inflict society's insults on the newborn child as they risked raining down on fatherlesss Frances Imlay, and so she and William Godwin did the needful at St Pancras Church.
Voltairine de Cleyre rejoices in an entire website of her own, voltairine.org, which appears to have been set up by Sharon Presley to publicise her 2005 co-authored book. Exquisite Rebel brings the anarchist works back into print, introduced and contextualised with biographical essays before each section. Presley is, according to the book's page on the SUNY Press site, "
The subject of marriage was one of Voltairine's favorite topics. Though she valued love, she totally rejected formal marriage, considering it "the sanction for all manner of bestialities" and the married woman, "a bonded slave." Her own unfortunate experiences with most of her lovers, who even without the ties of formal marriage, treated her as a sex object and servant, convinced Voltairine that even living with a man was to be avoided.
When she learned that William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (her heroine) had lived in separate apartments even though they were lovers, she was delighted. "Every individual should have a room or rooms for himself exclusively," she wrote to her mother, "never to subject to the intrusive familiarities of our present 'family life.' To me, any dependence, any thing which destroys the complete selfhood of the individual, is in the line of slavery and destroys the pure spontaneity of love."A room of one's own: did Virginia Woolf get the idea, or the phrase, from here?
More breadcrumbs: VdC suffered a physical attack while in Britain. To recuperate, she went to... drumroll... Norway! Did she have the Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark with her, to read on the voyage? I wish I knew where exactly she went. And why did she choose there? Was she consciously following in Mary's footsteps? What time of the year was it? No one would go in November just for fun.