Monday, July 11, 2011

Mary in the Paris Library

Mary Wollstonecraft spent some of her most exciting and life-transforming years in Paris, and a little while ago I went there in quest of her ghost. Today's post will cover one aspect of that pilgrimage, in the week when we mark the connection of Mary and France.

It is too apt that the Eurostar journey begins from St Pancras Station, passing a few metres from her (first) grave, in Old St Pancras Churchyard. That church, where she was married scant months before she was buried, is twinned with the one in Paris closest to the Gare du Nord, so I popped in to the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul to see if anyone there remembered Mary. The priest reached beneath his soutane and confounded my outdated expectations by pulling out the last thing I expected to see, a Blackberry, on which he called a parishioner who had been instrumental in setting up the twinning. So later that day I had a coffee with this Englishwoman, long resident in Paris, who confessed she knew little of Mary and nothing of her sojourn in France. She had a wealth of other information, though, the most useful of which was alerting me to the possibilities of the reference library.

Eventually I made it to the eye-catching inside-out Centre Pompidou, and found my way to the library, tucked away behind it. It proved to be one of the best city libraries I've ever been in, and I highly recommend it to any bookish visitor.  (One small touch: this was during the early flowering of the Arab Spring, and the librarians had arranged a little display of books and periodicals from the Magreb and elsewhere in the Arab world. The next day I was in the Institut du monde arabe, which has many excellent features, but nowhere in the building could I see any indication of the revolutions going on across North Africa, a shocking omission.) 

I looked up Mary Wollstonecraft every way I could think of, and came up with a modest haul. From this I conclude that she didn't make much of a mark in France, partly because there were times during her sojourn when she had to lie low (Imlay registering her at the American Embassy as his wife would only protect her so far, given that British citizens were personae non gratae once war was declared, and the couple had never been through a ceremony of marriage), and partly because there were so many momentous events going on, and so many distinguished foreign visitors, that her presence was of small interest. 
Following the publication of her second Vindication, Wollstonecraft was introduced to the French statesman and diplomat, Charles Talleyrand, on his mission to London on the part of the Constituent Assembly in February 1792. She dedicated the second edition of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to him. In December 1792, she travelled to France...

Mary arrived in Paris an intellectual celebrity in her own country, and her Vindication had been translated into French, but that did not mean that her ideas would be taken up in the circles that mattered. 

Here is an annotated list of the more relevant items that I found in the reference library collections:

Price: Political Writings. Editor, D. D. Thomas. 
Chronology. 1758 appointed morning and afternoon preacher, Meeting house, Newington Green. 1770 becomes morning preacher at Gravel Pit, Hackney. 1783 Relinquishes afternoon service at NG too. (Yes, I do see the implications of this. More another time.)

The correspondence of Richard Price, 3 vols. No mention of Mary.

Une anglaise defend la Revolution francaise. Reponse a Edmund Burke par Mary Wollstonecraft. Introduction de Marie-Odile Bernez. Note the change of title - not a direct translation of A Vindication of the Rights of Men. The 2003 introduction is good; perhaps one day I'll do a round-up of all the introductions to the many and various editions of Mary's main works.

And, because I was aware of this lost daughter, I went looking for her in the catalogue: Flora Tristan, your time has come! (Or it will, on Thursday.)

La Vie de Flora Tristan: Socialisme et feminisme au C19. Jean Baelan.
In London in 1839,  Flora Tristan meets Mrs Wheeler, "the only socialist woman I met in London". This must be Anna Doyle Wheeler, of whom Wikipedia says, "A staunch advocate of political rights for women and equal opportunities in education, she was friendly with French feminists and socialists."

Femmes philosophes, femmes d'action. Michael Paraire. 2004. Le Temps des Cerises. 
Brief biographic sketches of eight female philosophers, mostly French. Flora Tristan is second. The section on her legacy (Posterite des idees, page 35) states:
Par le projet qu'elle a imagine dans L'Union ouvriere, la philosopher a influence la redaction du Manifeste du parti communiste (1848) de Marx et Engels. Des phrases comme "proletaires unissez-vous", "L'homme le plus opprime peut opprimer un autre, qui est sa femme. Elle est le proletaire du proletaire meme", "L'emancipation des travailleurs sera l'oeuvre des travailleurs eux-memes" appartiennent a l'oeuvre de FT. Par ailleurs en liant le probleme de la femme au probleme social, elle a indisuctablement influence des femmes comme Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) mais aussi le feminisme tout entier.

I also learned that there was a hotel (re?)named the Maison de Grande-Bretagne, on the rue Jacob, where Colonel Blackden and Joel Barlow lodged. More on places in Paris on Wednesday; before that, a review of Marge Piercy's City of Darkness, City of Light.

Photo by Jean-Alexis AUFAUVRE (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the city guide off the beaten tracks :)
    It brings a question to my mind: is there any hint of a possible connection between Mary and Olympe de Gouges? I mean, it seems technically possible that they met, since Olympe died in 1793. Just curious :)