Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mary and France

Today we begin a series on Mary Wollstonecraft and her associations with France. (Last week, Independence Day and the USA; this week, Britain's nearest neighbour, leading up to Bastille Day.) Mary spent significant years in France, as the Revolution ripened into Terror, and met Gilbert Imlay and bore him baby Frances, in between documenting the unfolding dramas. But before she ever set foot there, she had made her name in London as a commentator and political theorist with a long essay about the French Revolution, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. This pamphlet was published mere weeks after Edmund Burke's attack on the revolutionary reverend, Richard Price of Newington Green Unitarian Church.

In order that liberty should have a firm foundation, an acquaintance with the world would naturally lead cool men to conclude that it must be laid, knowing the weakness of the human heart, and the ‘deceitfulness of riches,’ either by poor men, or philosophers, if a sufficient number of men, disinterested from principle, or truly wise, could be found. Was it natural to expect that sensual prejudices should give way to reason, or present feelings to enlarged views?–No; I am afraid that human nature is still in such a weak state, that the abolition of titles, the corner-stone of despotism, could only have been the work of men who had no titles to sacrifice. The National Assembly, it is true, contains some honourable exceptions; but the majority had not such powerful feelings to struggle with, when reason led them to respect the naked dignity of virtue. 
Weak minds are always timid. And what can equal the weakness of mind produced by servile flattery, and the vapid pleasures that neither hope nor fear seasoned? Had the constitution of France been new modelled, or more cautiously repaired, by the lovers of elegance and beauty, it is natural to suppose that the imagination would have erected a fragile temporary building; or the power of one tyrant, divided amongst a hundred, might have rendered the struggle for liberty only a choice of masters. And the glorious chance that is now given to human nature of attaining more virtue and happiness than has hitherto blessed our globe, might have been sacrificed to a meteor of the imagination, a bubble of passion.
 Mary Wollstonecraft was not alone in her high hopes for the birth of a new chapter in the story of humanity.

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