Tuesday, May 31, 2011

April & May overview

I promised I'd take a look from time to time at this blog as a whole. 

In the last two months there have been 47 posts -- about five times a week. 

Overall, there have been more than 5000 page views, 1700 in May alone. Stats by country show that the UK and US are usually about neck and neck. Canada comes in third, and then, for good reasons, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Japan. Likewise, Ireland, Denmark and France are easy enough to understand -- Mary Wollstonecraft visited all three. No surprise, either, to see New Zealand popping up, with the mention of the Silver Ship. But Russia? Iran? Estonia? All three of these showed little blips. All visitors are very welcome, but I am so curious to know what drove their curiosity!

The five most popular posts this month (not all of which were written in May) are:
Stoke Newington Literary Festival
Lyndall Gordon on Mary and the Unitarians
Mary's story, for those new to her
Unitarian: Was she or wasn't she?
A first attempt at translation
One thing I love is checking the search terms that drove people here. The obvious are obvious. But also, deliciously, we have:

revolutionary female philosophers
best lady of leisure blog
betjeman statue
mary wollstonecraft movie

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jane Austen's secret nod

Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen were famously, boringly, repetitive with the first names of characters in their novels. I think I have discovered a clue.

Pride and Prejudice has two Harriets, two Annes, and both a Caroline and a Catherine (euphonically similar). Sense and Sensibility, an Anna, an Anne, a Mary, a Maria, and a Marianne. Mansfield Park, two Marys and two Marias. Emma: Anne, Anna, Hannah; and two Janes. Persuasion has a Fanny, and four Marys. Northanger Abbey, two Annes and just one Maria. You can check my counting at the excellent Republic of Pemberley, which provides a "searchable database of all character names used by Jane Austen". (I'm not even going to start on her choices for the men and boys.) Now, some of these pairs indicate relationships within the novel -- mother-daughter, aunt-niece, and so on -- but others smack either of laziness or lack of imagination, take your pick. Nothing new here: scholars have criticised, and fans have complained,  for generations.

Who is the most contentious heroine in the Jane Austen canon? Who polarises readers' opinion the most? Who is morally certain, and yet modest withal? Who will not budge from her sense of what is right? Who has no hope of  a grand marriage, no money to call her own? Call her intransigent, call her honest. Call her...Fanny Price. Fanny, nickname for Frances -- as in Frances Blood, Mary's dearest friend, her first deep and life-shaping love. Price -- as in Richard Price, Mary's father-figure, whom she called "a member of the community whose talents and modest virtues place him high in the scale of moral excellence". Could Jane Austen's choice of the name Fanny Price be a coded reference to two of the most formative people in Mary Wollstonecraft's life? Drumroll: conspiracy music! (Even better -- Fanny's younger brother is named Richard Price.)

Image based on one drawn by Jane Austen's sister Cassandra [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 27, 2011

Silver Ship soon to sail

A new play is soon to open. Book your tickets now to Silver Ship: The life and short times of Mary Wollstonecraft, if you are fortunate enough to live near  Wellington, New Zealand. It is written and directed by an Englishman now of Victoria University  and is to feature some exciting "state-of-the-art theatre technology" (dea ex machina or what?).
The play is written and directed by John Downie, Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Victoria and performed and designed by third year Theatre students. It will also showcase the Theatre programme's new LED (light-emitting diode) lights, as well as the work of the steel welder, a new addition to the programme's Scenography course.
Director John Downie says that Silver Ship is a story of the past and present, fiction and reality.
"I was interested in creating an opportunity for students to access the explosive revolutionary period of the late 18th century that created the basis of our present-day social democracies and the sensibility of modern individualism."
In the play, a group of present-day students is researching the concept of 'becoming-woman', when a spectre materialises in their midst. It is Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century British writer, philosopher and passionate advocate of women’s rights. Silver Ship follows two intertwining strands of story; the ongoing concepts of 'becoming' in modern society, and the life of an incredible woman.
"By contrasting the life of a women who lived in revolutionary times with those of present-day students, the play brings into question how our ancestors experience informs our future, like a kind of haunting," says Downie.
The play is a collaboration of efforts by third year Victoria Theatre performance and design students, and features choreography by Alyx Duncan, an original soundscape by Victoria graduates and award-winning sound designers Andrew Simpson and Gareth Hobbs, live film, steel sets and LED lighting.
All very exciting. I wonder if John Downie knows of Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft, the Facebook page setup by the American poet and novelist Nancy Means Wright? A practical angle appeals: the play charges admission for tickets at $15 for waged people and $8 for  unwaged; and better yet, the writer-director offers a short lecture on Mary just before each performance -- for free, all welcome. Commendable.
He says Wollstonecraft was an extraordinary woman, with a life full of complexity and contrasts.
"She had a lover who was an American secret service agent and a husband who was an anarchist philosopher.  She had her hands on a fortune, but remained poor all her life. She wrote the first modern text advocating the rights of women."
 Now, I know full well that most of the people in the world who would love to see this are simply nowhere near New Zealand, and I do hope that Downie & team document their work well, so that we all may be enlightened and inspired in turn.

[See also the American play The Rights (and Wrongs) of Mary Wollstonecraft.]

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A poem

Tomorrow Next week In a fortnight, the author. Today, a poem, simply entitled:


The dust of a hundred years
Is on thy breast,
And thy day and thy night of tears
Are centurine rest.
Thou to whom joy was dumb,
Life a broken rhyme,
Lo, thy smiling time is come,
And our weeping time.
Thou who hadst sponge and myrrh
And a bitter cross,
Smile, for the day is here
That we know our loss;—
Loss of thine undone deed,
Thy unfinished song,
Th' unspoken word for our need,
Th' unrighted wrong;
Smile, for we weep, we weep,
For the unsoothed pain,
The unbound wound burned deep,
That we might gain.
Mother of sorrowful eyes
In the dead old days,
Mother of many sighs,
Of pain-shod ways;
Mother of resolute feet
Through all the thorns,
Mother soul-strong, soul-sweet,—
Lo, after storms
Have broken and beat thy dust
For a hundred years,
Thy memory is made just, 
And the just man hears.
Thy children kneel and repeat: "Though dust be dust,
Though sod and coffin and sheet
And moth and rust
Have folded and molded and pressed,
Yet they cannot kill;
In the heart of the world at rest
She liveth still."

Philadelphia, April 27th, 1893.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lyndall Gordon with the Oxford Unitarians

On Sunday I had the great pleasure of hearing Lyndall Gordon, Mary Wollstonecraft's most recent biographer, at an event hosted by the Oxford Unitarians . I had not been to the city of soaring spires and bicycle tyres since Shelley's Ghost closed in March, and had never been to Harris Manchester College. Its precursor was founded in 1756 as a Dissenting Academy, to educate those who were excluded from the only universities in England (Anna Laetitia Barbauld grew up within it); and its current incarnation continues the mission by being the only college in Oxford to admit none but mature students, i.e.those over 21, and therefore with an irregular educational path. It also continues the tradition of educating Unitarian ministers, though the number now is tiny; the first female candidate was admitted over a century ago. I think Mary would be pleased by all of this.

A lot of what Lyndall Gordon had to say was biographical material straight from her 2005 Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, and there is no need to repeat it here. (Read it for yourself: fantastic research, and yet paced like a novel. Gripping.) She spoke for an hour and it seemed like ten minutes, after which she took questions, and signed and sold books. She and the organisers kindly allowed me to speak very briefly with three hats on: to explain my connection to Newington Green Unitarian Church, to pitch the Mary on the Green project, and to mention this blog. Much of what follows, then, is from my notes during the lecture.

The subject of the talk, given the location and the hosts, was no surprise: Mary and the Unitarians. The focus was the three remarkable Unitarian men who helped and guided her life: Richard Price, Joseph Johnson, and William Godwin. It is an obvious point that they were substitutes for her violent father and tyrannical elder brother, but more broadly they represent the good phases of her life. And they were truly remarkable. Did you know that Price received his honorary doctorate from Yale in 1781, as did George Washington? Did you know that Johnson was one of the first publishers not to pigeonhole himself into a specialism (he printed everyone from the poet Cooper to Erasmus Darwin)? Did you know that Godwin was born into a family of ministers, and stood on the kitchen chair to preach before he could write?

Lyndall describes Mary as "one of the great letter-writers of our language" and how spontaneous phrases in casual letters to her sisters had hooked her, and drawn her in to this biographical project. She explained how she plotted the book: instead of ending each chapter with a disaster or a cliff-hanger, she wanted to give it an upswing, to show how Mary surmounted each predicament. "What I found remarkable was her resilience." And, crucially, she had the capacity to impress people even before she had done anything. She agreed with the Unitarian values, as she too was powerless and disenfranchised. She was not averse to talented and gifted men; she had the discernment to pick as her mentors men of admirable values. (Well... with at least one exception.)

And here is a brief video of the author, via the massive marketing machine of today's publishers.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Vignettes, part one

So far, in contemplating the prospect of Mary: the Movie, we have looked at its blockbuster potential and its natural audience, the locations and the characters. We've even got the trailer sorted, more or less.What then of the actual scenes? The following are significant episodes in the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, or examples of what formed her. The list is not comprehensive, but it is visual, i.e. film-friendly. Imagination, awaken!
On the landing of an C18 house
    Scene 1. As a child, Mary sometimes slept across the door of her mother's bedroom, so that her father could not get in and abuse his wife, or not, at any rate, without waking his vigilant daughter.
          George v L Meyer private library
          German bed
          Scene 2. Mary found familial peace & intellectual stimulation in the library of the father of her first real friend, Jane Arden. Mary is ardent towards her. Sharing beds is the norm.

          Ship in trouble, stormy seas.
          Scene 3 .Mary travels across the Bay of Biscay on a 13 day stormy passage. All the other passengers are vilely seasick. She is not.

          Childbirth, 1801, Greece.
          Scene 4. She arrives in Lisbon to find Franes already in labour. The baby is born four hours later, into her arms. Fanny dies. (Dramatic foreshadowing.) 

          Scene 5. Mary wanders around earthquake-ruined Lisbon, wondering what to do with her life now. Outer scenery reflects inner turmoil. 

          Scene 6. On the journey back, they come across a ship foundering. Mary makes the British captain, who would have left the French sailors to their fate, rescue them, threatening to expose him otherwise. (Force of character.)

          Scene 7. Back in London, she worships at Newington Green Unitarian Church and listens to Rev Dr Richard Price. (The church is still there.)

          Scene 8. At a dinner party given by Price, all the great men have their say, and the young schoolmistress listens & learns. (His house is still there, facing the green.)

          The painter's studio, by Gustave Courbet.
          Scene 9. She visits the painter Fuseli in his studio (more excuse for semi-clad women) and proposes living together with him and his wife. He is surprised; the wife is appalled.

          Scene 10. Mary decides to go to Paris for a bit; she sees Lous XVI being carried to the guillotine.

          More visual vignettes next week...

          Images:  Landing between staircases, by Historic American Buildings Survey [Public domain].  Private libary, George v L Meyer private library in Hamilton Massachusetts, anonymous photographer. German bed, by R. Engelhardt [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. The storm, François Aimé Louis Dumoulin [Public domain]. Sketch of childbirth, by Sinnini de Manoncourt [Public domain]. Lisbon with earthquake and tsunami, by Galilea at de.wikipedia [Public domain].  The furies of the guillotine, drawing by H. Baron, engraving by L. Massard [Public domain]. 
          All images via Wikimedia Commons.

          Friday, May 20, 2011

          IGNITE, the video

          Last autumn I was invited to present Mary to the hipsters of IGNITE, and posted the text of my five-minute talk here soon afterwards. For some  reason the title got conveyed as "The Story of Mary Wollstonecraft", which sounds so dull; I had intended something along the lines of "Sex, politics, religion: one amazing life". Here, belatedly, is the video the wonderful IGNITE team took (on their site, and directly on Vimeo). It is my first experiment with embedding video on this blog, and it stutters slightly when I play it; I hope this is merely the quality of the wifi where I happen to be at the moment. Let me know what you think in the comments.

          The Story of Mary Wollstonecraft - by Roberta Wedge from chichard41 on Vimeo.

          Thursday, May 19, 2011

          Lost son: William Gladstone

          This is part of an intermittent series on Mary Wollstonecraft's sons and daughters, mostly on Thursdays, unless more pressing and current projects come to light (such as the Stoke Newington Literary Festival) or Blogger decides to take a holiday. Mary has a legacy, and while those who are now alive -- such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Amartya Sen -- may be vociferous in their praises, the women (and men) who read the Vindications in the decades after her death were often more muted. Self-censorship is the better part of valour, apparently.

          So, today, let us lift the veil on her lost son, William Gladstone, Victorian statesman, who, along with his arch-rival Disraeli, for decades set the tone for the leadership of the British Empire. Gladstone had begun life hoping to become a clergyman, but his father advised him to go into politics, which he did, starting as a High Tory and migrating via the Peelites to head of the Liberal Party. He was a reformer at heart, and fought for the extension of the (male) franchise and the secret ballot  (which he won) and Home Rule for Ireland (which he did not, though he lessened the power of the Anglo-Irish landlords). It was on his watch that the Elementary Education Act was passed, and this is where Mary Wollstonecraft comes into the story. As I said before:
          Gladstone repeatedly read and annotated Wollstonecraft while he was planning the structure of the state education system, but probably didn't quote her publicly, as she was persona non grata for a Victorian politician to be hobnobbing with. (I would love to be corrected on this: did Gladstone acknowledge his indebtedness to her in shaping his thoughts?)
          This was an allusion to a book I had come across by serendipity last year. Time for a little more detail. Opposite the British Library I found a copy of Gladstone and Women by Anna Isba (2006), with chapters on sisters, daughters, "fallen women" (he was big on those), mother, wife, queen (she was not so keen on him). Isba says, "As on many aspects of women's issues, what Gladstone thought of equal educational opportunities for both sexes is not entirely clear." I think it is fair to consider Mary Wollstonecraft first and foremost an educator, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman can be read as an educational treatise. We've previously looked at her views on education, detailed in one of its final chapters, in which she argues for creating a national system that would bring both sexes and all classes together, side by side for at least the first few years. I had not known that Gladstone read her magnum opus twice, "once in May 1849 and again in January 1864", adding marginalia. (The Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870, after many years of lobbying, notably from the National Education League, which Joseph Chamberlain and other Dissenters spear-headed. They wanted compulsory education for all children, without religious doctrine, which inevitably the Church of England opposed, via the National Educational Union.)

          Now, I don't have access to Gladstone's copy of Vindication -- yet. I have not yet been to Gladstone's Library, formerly known as St Deiniol's, to see it for myself. (Another blogging coincidence: today is their Founder's Day.) I don't know if his copy has been scanned, marginalia and all. What I have to go on is Isba's work. She tells us:
          Though he expressed himself uncertain of the merits of "this scheme of educating boys and girls together", Gladstone wrote in the margin that Wollstonecraft's section on co-education "on the whole I think...the best in the book and some hints in it are worth consideration". How much serious consideration he personally gave to questions of equal opportunity of education, let alond co-education, remains unclear.
          One part of Gladstone's copy definitely has been scanned: the flyleaf, on which he wrote his thoughts -- sort of a book review or aide memoireA digital version of this page is hosted rather attractively by Gathering the Jewels, "the website for Welsh heritage and culture", a project sponsored by the National Library of Wales. I had found this some months previously, and was sure some expert must have transcribed the inscription, but thought I would try my hand at deciphering his, for the fun of it. I didn't get very far before I decided to call in the hivemind; I set up a simple Google Doc and put the word out on Twitter, and soon enough was joined by a paleographer from deepest France. We had an excellent time on GChat, with me saying things like "it's possible, but the letter after the J seems more rounded and "closed" than a u, doesn't it?" And eventually we got there, mostly. We appear to have been led astray by the devil, however: she said a certain squiggle was "Satan", and I went along with that tempting apple. 

          But, of course, Gladstone and Women includes that inscription, and Isba is presumably more familiar with the stateman's squiggles than most pharmacists are with those of their prescribing doctors. She transcribes that dubious word as "nature"; my error seems akin to listening to heavy metal backwards and finding Satan wherever you look for him. (The devil is in the details.) (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Gladstone's summary of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman thus reads:
          The intention is good, and it contains many or some good things; but it aims by far too much at effacing in practical life distinctions which God, and nature his instrument, have made indelible.
          There's an intriguing bit before that, which I will save for another time. But the point of this post is, the four-times prime minister and four-times chancellor of the exchequer read the work of Mary Wollstonecraft with respectful critical attention. Her thoughts on national education influenced those of William Gladstone, and, from him, the system that came into being shortly afterwards and whose legacy is still with us today.

          [Small additions, e.g. glosses, historical context, bad puns, and images, the following day.]

          Portrait of Gladstone by Jan Vilímek [Public domain]. The crepuscular glory of Gladstone's Library, by 
          David Long [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]. Both images via Wikimedia Commons.

          Wednesday, May 18, 2011

          The Rights (and Wrongs) - a play

          I've just found out about The Rights (and Wrongs) of Mary Wollstonecraft, a clever play written by Douglas Pendergrass -- not only a man, but an American, to boot! Well, if he is trying to atone for Imlay,  he has done it with style. This is as lovely a treat as you are likely to come across today.

          Better yet, the play actually made it to the stage. It was produced in February 2009, by the same audacious man, not in New York, but so far off Broadway it falls into another state, namely North Carolina. (What would the British equivalent be? Exeter, perhaps, or Carlisle.) There are photos of the play, showing its marvellous costumes.

          The synopsis of this romantic-historic-comic drama:
          The story begins on January 8, 1796; London, England, during an afternoon tea at Mary Hays' house, when Mary Wollstonecraft is reintroduced to William Godwin...
          When Godwin and Wollstonecraft become lovers, the complications arise out of the catch-22 –like logic trap created by their own devices. Godwin, a 42-year-old celibate, is a popular philosopher-writer in his own right, who is known for published opinions arguing against the institution of marriage, stating flatly, that “marriage is folly; the worst of all monopolies.”
          Wollstonecraft is also on record as preferring “independence” to marriage. When the couple finds they are expecting, they have to decide whether or not they can socially survive sticking to their principles, and not marry. Can they practice what they preach? 

          The play is largely told by Mary Shelley. Thomas Holcraft comes into it too, and Sarah Siddons, and Amelia Opie (I'm partial to her). There's a four-minute video taster and a few gems from the script, to wit:

          Act 2, Scene 2
          Godwin: “I have a world.  You need a world. I want you to have mine.”
          Wollstonecraft: (smiling) “You will give me your world.  Where will you live?”
          Well, well. What a delight! Mr Pendergrass, why does your website give us no easy way to contact you? Who are you? Why did you decide to write about Mary?  One of the reviews by a local newspaper says:
          While penning his first full-length play, Pendergrass felt what he described as “a sense of duty and responsibility” to the subject of his piece. He notes in his program that “Mary has not been remembered and appreciated as well as she should have been.”
          Indeed, sir, indeed. Hence this blog.

          [See also the New Zealand play The Silver Ship.]

          Tuesday, May 17, 2011

          Unitarian: Was she or wasn't she?

          A fortnight ago we looked at the ancestry of Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly the pesky and confusing repetition of Edwards, and I congratulated Daphne Johnson on giving amateurs, in the true sense of the word, a good name.  Today we feature the work of another thoughtful amateur, Joan Wilkinson, a.k.a. Yorkshiregirl. Now of course Mary was a Yorkshire girl too -- at least, she spent the longest settled period of her girlhood (of her life, offhand, I think -- counting on my fingers) in Beverley, where she met Ardent Jane and her family library. In later life, down in smoky London, Mary referred to herself as a Yorkshirewoman -- but everyone in London is from somewhere else, or claims their parents were.

          Joan has written a tidy essay on Mary and Unitarianism, describing the development of our lady's theological views on the oneness of God. (Joan has also written of a dozen mainly C18 and C19 women, particularly from the British Unitarian tradition, including two who crossed pens with Mary, namely Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who has a big memorial tablet in Newington Green Unitarian Church, and Mary Hays, who supported MW in Godwin's house during the deathbed days.)  We've already looked at Mary's views of the Divine (A Good Thing) and her views on Dissenters (Not Wholly A Good Thing).

          Joan starts by asking, quite reasonably:
          by what criteria do we judge someone to be a Unitarian? Is it by their contribution to a Unitarian group or movement or by a particular way of thinking?
          She shows how Mary, who had previously worshipped only in the Church of England, changed her theological views when she moved to Newington Green, a village that had grown up just north of London, centred around its Dissenting chapel on the green. (Still there, still radical.) Richard Price, its much-loved minister, preached in an atmosphere of "ethical rigour":
          Instead of a deity breathing hellfire, here was a benign supreme being. The vision of mankind as essentially good and inherently perfectible sat well with rational morality and reform politics. Price preached that no earthly power has authority over our private judgement and that liberty and reason constitute the capacity of virtue. We love God because He deserves our love, not because he demands it. Universal benevolence, public spirit, with love being God's agent of human liberation is beyond that of country and monarch.
          She points out the theistic framework of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, acknowledging that this is often overlooked in our day.
          Wollstonecraft continually strove to define an authentic religious subjectivity. She asked what shape a woman's inner life took when forged in right relationship to her Maker? She wrote '…it is not philosophical to speak of sex when the soul is mentioned.' [...] The emphasis was on the democracy of God's grace rather than a hierarchical context and rational criticism considered essential when reading the Bible. 
          As Mary travelled through Scandinavia, her soul was touched by her surroundings. Awe and wonder were appropriate responses to nature's majesty -- soaring mountains, tumbling waterfalls, endless fjords. (This, I think, is Mary's nearest approach to poetry, one of the few genres of writing she never turned her hand to.) On her return to London, her writings show that:
          Her individualism and religious imagination had taken her beyond Unitarianism of that time. She considered their chapels to be too homely, their sectarianism too narrow and their reason too cold. Imaginative inspiration and adoration was crucial in the devotion given to God.
          After her death, she continued to influence:
          the rising generation of radical Unitarians and others teaching freedom, reason and tolerance. She also left a legacy of an individualist theological subjectivity that embraced imagination and lyrical pantheism that was influential in the next generation of Romantic poets.
          Whether or not Mary Wollstonecraft would ever have considered herself, or been considered by her friends, a Unitarian, is a question that must remain unanswered. However, as Joan points out:
          we can say that her writing was an expression of her own moral and religious journey, with her religious understanding fitting comfortably the spectrum of what many today consider Unitarianism to be. 
          I can't wait to hear what biographer Lyndall Gordon will have to say this Sunday in Oxford, when she speaks "concerning the life and times and Unitarian connections of the 18th-century feminist".

          Monday, May 16, 2011

          Poetic truth

          When I said that I had found Mary Wollstonecraft's birthplace, the building she was born in, I wrote the truth. I even had a witness, a reliable friend who happened to be with me, exploring Spitalfields, when we stumbled across the dilapidated house.

          The truth: and there's the rub. This is the poetic truth -- historical accuracy is another matter, and it's fatal to confuse the two. Poetic truth is tousle-hair'd Rupert Brooke, Apollonian youth, dying in golden glory before the slaughter of the Dardanelles really got under way; an undishonoured warrior-poet; and his resting place, some corner of a foreign field that will be forever England. Historical accuracy is a mosquito bite and blood poisoning, and the Greek Army's shooting range.

          Historical accuracy would have you believe that Mary's first home was swept away a century later to make room for Liverpool Street Station. Pfff! What do historical accurists know? I have been inside her house, I tell you. I have walked up her stairs, and seen her bedchamber.

          Sunday, May 15, 2011

          Mary and God

          St Pancras Old Church
          Mary Wollstonecraft took religion seriously. She was baptised into the established church, and when she decided to marry, made her vows at St Pancras, safe within the Church of England. Nonetheless, she hung out with Rational Dissenters at just the right time in her life, and was radicalised by the congregation of Newington Green, led by its minister Dr Richard Price. (And that Unitarian Church is still radical.) She criticised the Dissenters, as we have seen, but drew sympathetic parallels between their situation and that of women, denied full participation in civil society.

          Newington Green Unitarian Church
          Mary was something of an amateur theologian, using first her reason and later her sensibility to explore the divine. Feminists of our time skate merrily across the fact of her deeply theistic worldview. Much of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman deals with ethics, correct behaviour (in the Buddhist sense of right livelihood, rather than merely etiquette), and the nature of God.

          Here's a chapter title you don't often hear cited: "Chap. XIII. Some Instances of the Folly Which the Ignorance of Women Generates; with Concluding Reflections on the Moral Improvement That a Revolution in Female Manners Might Naturally Be Expected to Produce." In other words, "Silly Things Ill-Educated Women Do, and How Much Better the World Would Be If Only They Behaved Themselves". It starts by entreating women to reflect on God, and telling them off at length for seeking out fortune-tellers and "fashionable deceptions, practised by the whole tribe of magnetisers" (sounds like the altmed crowd - note to self, another post another time). There is a list of rhetorical questions, to which she expects the answer "yes":
          Do you believe that there is but one God, and that he is powerful, wise, and good?Do you believe that all things were created by him, and that all beings are dependent on him?Do you rely on his wisdom, so conspicuous in his works, and in your own frame, and are you convinced that he has ordered all things which do not come under the cognizance of your senses, in the same perfect harmony, to fulfil his designs?  
          She also writes a long digression "considering the attributes of God":
          Positive punishment appears so contrary to the nature of God, discoverable in all his works, and in our own reason, that I could sooner believe that the Deity paid no attention to the conduct of men, than that he punished without the benevolent design of reforming.  
          To suppose only that an all-wise and powerful Being, as good as he is great, should create a being foreseeing, that after fifty or sixty years of feverish existence, it would be plunged into never ending woe—is blasphemy. I know that many devout people boast of submitting to the Will of God blindly, as to an arbitrary sceptre or rod, on the same principle as the Indians worship the devil. In other words, like people in the common concerns of life, they homage to power, and cringe under the foot that can crush them. Rational religion, on the contrary, is a submission to the will of a being so perfectly wise, that all he wills must be directed by the proper motive—must be reasonable.
          This is one of the passages that makes it so unfair that the Victorians vilified her for being an atheist: she was a through-going deist all her life, as far as I can tell. It was dear William Godwin and his ill-considered memoir that inadvertently caused her to be seen as rejecting God on her deathbed. It's a bit like being "accused" of being gay. ( I put the verb in scare-quotes because it presumes that one or both parties perceive gayness to be a bad thing.) What if the answer is, yes I am - so what? Or what if the answer is, no I'm not actually, although there's nothing wrong with it? If that is the truth, further denials can become awkward, and anyway are impossible if one happens to be dead, and the distraught widower, as an avowed atheist, has no interest in protesting on one's behalf.
          I can't wait to hear what Lyndall Gordon has to say about Mary Wollstonecraft and the Unitarians
          Images via Wikicommons.

          Saturday, May 14, 2011

          Potential audience

          Blogger has been diabolical the last few days -- I haven't found it in working order since my last post four days ago. At least, Blogger hasn't allowed me to post anytime that I have actually been at my desk. Nor, I understand, has it been allowing comments.  And the Blogger team singularly failed to keep their customers informed; not good enough, Google, or should I say, not non-evil enough. I am considering jumping ship.  To happier subjects, namely Mary: the Movie. Who would want to see it?

          The film would appeal to audiences in Britain, France, and the United States. Mary's writings formed part of the so-called Pamphlet War, with some British philosophers and politicians welcoming the revolutions in France and America, and others opposing them not only as treason, in the case of the revolt of the colonies, but also as a rejection of the God-given rule of kings.  Mary, following her mentor Dr Richard Price, the Unitarian minister at Newington Green (her friend, mentor, protector, and father-figure), came down firmly on the side of those who wanted to shake up the established order. Her writings about women argued for a radical equality of education and of moral aspiration, but a year before she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, as in "human beings", in the context of the French Revolution.  She is a significant figure in all three countries.

          The story could be filmed and marketed as a straight biopic or a costume drama or a historical love story (American boyfriend bad! English boyfriend good!).  It would appeal to women of all ages from teenagers up, who have few enough films about women to watch. It would also appeal to men who like to watch films featuring a lot of attractive young women.  Sex is central to Mary's story, and most of it contravenes her or our norms -- lesbian schoolgirl love, a proposed menage a trois, premarital pregnancy, living with a lover, not living with her husband.  In revolutionary Paris, boundaries existed only to be broken. ("Bliss was it to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.") There are plenty of angles to the story that would draw in viewers who don't usually go to the cinema (the serious historical stuff); there is also plenty of blood & guts in the French Terror -- and, if desired, gothic horror rising from the graveyard as well, to come to life as Frankenstein.  
          How much is shown, and how much has a veil drawn over it, all depends on how the production team wishes to imagine the project.

          Teenagers have been particularly appreciative of the opportunity to find out about Mary's life. Here's a snippet from a teacher's blog, entitled "In class today":
          Me: Mary Wollstonecraft... well, on her backpacking trip through Europe, she got involved in a number of, um, scandalous situations. She uh, well, uh...
          Student 1: She was a freak?
          Me: uh, yeah.
          Student 2: Uh oh, Student 1 going to go home and read now


          Tuesday, May 10, 2011

          Fulltext: the first Vindication

          Isn't fulltext a blessing?  What did we ever do before CTRL+F?

          Today we feature A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Mary Wollstonecraft's first major success. Edmund Burke attacked her mentor Dr Richard Price and Mary sprung to his defence, writing at white heat and beating Tom Paine into print. (Thanks to Joseph Johnson.) Dr Price had for decades been minister of the chapel at Newington Green, and thus a leader of that Dissenters' village just north of London where Mary set up her boarding school with the help of the widow Burgh. He saw something special in her (as did many) and he fostered it, probably lending money discreetly too. She owed him, and she knew it, and more than that, she loved this old man and his "grey hairs of virtue".
          ...a member of the community whose talents and modest virtues place him high in the scale of moral excellence. I am not accustomed to look up with vulgar awe, even when mental superiority exalts a man above his fellows; but still the sight of a man whose habits are fixed by piety and reason, and whose virtues are consolidated into goodness, commands my homage .... Tottering on the verge of the grave, that worthy man in his whole life never dreamt of struggling for power or riches.
          Some of my contemporaries still seem to think God is an Englishman and Mary Wollstonecraft a Labour voter. I think you'l find it's a bit more complicated than that (with a tip of the hat to Ben Goldacre, or Dr Stats as I call him, who ran a piece on international maternal mortality entitled Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth).

          Here is the fulltext of A Vindication of the Rights of Men (as in "human beings", in the context of the French Revolution). It is presented in a variety of digital options by the Liberty Fund Library, who, at a guess, are not what you would call democratic socialists. (Do Labour call themselves that any more? Or was that all thrown out with the Clause 4/ Group 4 bathwater?)

          Byron said he awoke one morning, famous. (That was for his long poem, Childe Harold.) Much the same happened to Mary, with her first Vindication. It's still worth reading; much has changed; much hasn't. I wonder how many Arabs are reading it this spring?

          Monday, May 9, 2011

          A flurry on Twitter

          Margaret Atwood kindly retweeted my request for attention for the Mary on the Green campaign, and suddenly I had to stay glued to Twitter all evening. Fifty new followers, several good conversations, a spike to this blog, and I'll have to wait for tomorrow to find out any impact on the (tax-efficient) donations.

          Sunday, May 8, 2011

          Mary and national education

          Mary Wollstonecraft was first and foremost an educator. Her second career was as a writer, but many of her books were attempts to educate, in one way or another. Some of the girls whose minds and spirits she touched went on to have extraordinary lives. Some of her works went on to find readers in unexpected places; more on that another time. Here is what she had to say about the establishment of a national education system:

          Let an enlightened nation then try what effect reason would have to bring them back to nature, and their duty; and allowing them to share the advantages of education and government with man, see whether they will become better, as they grow wiser and become free. They cannot be injured by the experiment; for it is not in the power of man to render them more insignificant than they are at present.

          To render this practicable, day schools, for particular ages, should be established by government, in which boys and girls might be educated together. The school for the younger children, from five to nine years of age, ought to be absolutely free and open to all classes...

          ... in an elementary day school, ...boys and girls, the rich and poor, should meet together. And to prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline, or leave the school. The school-room ought to be surrounded by a large piece of ground, in which the children might be usefully exercised, for at this age they should not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time. But these relaxations might all be rendered a part of elementary education, for many things improve and amuse the senses, when introduced as a kind of show, to the principles of which, dryly laid down, children would turn a deaf ear. For instance, botany, mechanics, and astronomy. Reading, writing, arithmetic, natural history, and some simple experiments in natural philosophy, might fill up the day; but these pursuits should never encroach on gymnastic plays in the open air. The elements of religion, history, the history of man, and politics, might also be taught, by conversations, in the socratic form.

          After the age of nine, girls and boys, intended for domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction, in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual, the two sexes being still together in the morning; but in the afternoon, the girls should attend a school, where plain-work, mantua-making, millinery, &c. would be their employment.

          The young people of superiour abilities, or fortune, might now be taught, in another school, the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and continue the study of history and politics, on a more extensive scale, which would not exclude polite literature.

          Girls and boys still together? I hear some readers ask: yes. 

          Saturday, May 7, 2011

          On location with Mary: the Movie

          Where would you shoot Mary: the Movie? Indoors, outdoors, London, countryside, abroad...

          We looked at filmic characters a fortnight ago: choosing from all the people in Mary Wollstonecraft's life, and simplifying and consolidating them to come up with a usable list of characters.  Much the same process, including the need for artistic licence, comes in to play with choosing the locations to shoot. (The best example yet of artistic licence is Red Saunders's photomontage Hidden.)

          Making London streets look like they did hundreds of years ago has become increasingly difficult and prohibitively expensive. Some exterior shots might work historically, but it would be tough. No house Mary lived in is still standing; two churches dear to her are still churches, although somewhat altered: St Pancras (Old) Church, where she was married and buried, and Newington Green (Unitarian) Church, where she was radicalised. The agency charged with enabling and encouraging cinematographers in the capital is Film London, but there is only so much they can do: they can't magic away all visual signs of the twenty-first century.

          A lot of the film could be shot indoors: most of Mary Wollstonecraft's life was writing and teaching, and she got her ideas from reading, conversations, dinner parties, and church, not the mainly male taverns (as in Shakespeare's day), or coffee shops (Boswell), or wandering the streets (Dickens, famously, for inspiration). Several interiors would be needed, as she moved so many times. This, I suggest, is a minimum: 

          • one interior representing her chaotic childhood home, 
          • the contrasting example of the ordered household of the Ardens, 
          • one for the Newington Green boarding school she set up, 
          • one for the home she created with Imlay in Paris, 
          • one for the dinner parties with her publisher & father-figure Johnson in London, 
          • two for her split home with Godwin (as they lived apart, even when married, radically refashioning relationships).

          Cases could be made for so many more: 
          • the childhood moves, back and forth between country and town; 
          • the family homes not only of the Ardens but also of the Clares and the Bloods; 
          • the houses of her friends at Newington Green (Rev. Richard Price, and widow Burgh, at least); 
          • the lodgings in Southwark, "first of a new genus"; 
          • Fusili's studio; 
          • the house she borrowed on her arrival in Paris, of which she wrote so evocatively, room opening into empty room; 
          • the salons there, where she met the Revolution's American admirers.  
          And this leaves aside most of her travels: "companionship" in Bath, nursing and mourning in Lisbon, governessing in Ireland, and interviewing harbourmasters in Scandinavia.

          Depending on the budget, stock film can do for the ship voyages, and then interior shots of Mary in a storm-tossed cabin; stock film for the sublime landscape of Yorkshire, and interiors of Mary's time with the Ardens.

          The great port of Lisbon, a little port lost in the woods of Norway, the mob in the streets of Paris, all these will require imagination and money and forethought to capture in the right way.

          On the other hand, there is a wealth of choices for filming scenes in London today, should that be a possibility in the screenplay. Most of the areas where Mary lived and worked still exist as distinct and distinctive places. Hoxton, Bloomsbury, and Newington Green all have visually appealing green squares to focus on, and buildings contemporary with Mary Wollstonecraft, to cast the right architectural note.

          Not everything must be done on a film lot.

          Images: St Pancras Old Church, by Pete [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]; 
          Ships in a storm, Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain]; 
          Hoxton Square at night, by Dommeruk (Own work) 
          [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]; 
          all via Wikimedia Commons

          Friday, May 6, 2011

          Speaking truth to power in Chichester Cathedral

          Mary Wollstonecraft -- or at any rate A Vindication of the Rights of Woman -- will be heard in the very nave of Chichester Cathedral. Her magnum opus has been chosen by Canon Dr Anthony Cane, the Cathedral Chancellor, as one of four books that changed the world. Her admirers, and critics, are invited to gather this Thursday evening, 12 May, at 6:30. "Admission is free and all are welcome." More info here.
          The translators of the King James Bible enabled the gospel to be heard in English (rather than Latin) not just in this country, but throughout the world.  Mary Wollstonecraft started the struggle for the equality of women.  Charles Darwin challenged long-held assumptions about God, human beings, and the nature of life.  Adam Smith set out the laws of market forces that dominate economies to this day.  All this through just four books, each of which had an immense impact when first published, and played a major part in shaping the world we live in today.  This lecture series will explore the stories of these very different books, and the people who produced them.
          Image: By Willwal.Supercalafragiclisticexpialadotious at en.wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) 
          or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons 

          Thursday, May 5, 2011

          Stoke Newington Literary Festival

          Last year saw the birth of this hyper-local litfest. Its organisers are back with a bang:
          2011 is the second Stoke Newington Literary Festival, created to celebrate the area's long and influential literary history and to keep the spirit of radical thinking, debating and story-telling alive.This year, we'll be shining the spotlight on some of the people that have helped put Stoke Newington on the cultural map, in particular Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Wollestonecraft.
          (Such a difficult name to spell!). There's a panel on Mary on Saturday 4 June at 5pm, probably in the library on Stoke Newington Church Street. Anna Birch, of Wollstonecraft Live!, will be one of the speakers. Joe Caluori will be representing Mary on the Green. And A Vindication of the Rights of Mary will be there too.

          Wednesday, May 4, 2011

          Mary in Spitalfields

          I found the house where Mary Wollstonecraft was born.

          Coming soon: an essay on the difference between historical accuracy and poetic TRUTH.

          Tuesday, May 3, 2011

          Mary's ancestry

            Uncovering the tragedy of an ancestor, mother of a young child, facing death amidst the horrors of Newgate Gaol, revealed the grief brought upon the family at that time. Further examination of earlier incidents disclosed an intrigue, a likely link with a governess employed in the house of Nell Gwynn and deceived by a false promise of matrimony.
            This is the history of the Wollstonecraft family, the family of Mary Wollstonecraft, courageous pioneer, far in advance of her time, who revolutionised attitudes towards the female role in society.
            Thus begins the introduction to Daphne Johnson's The Wollstonecraft Family History.  Many resources cross my desk, and this is my pick of the week. What a treasure trove! And what a researcher! I believe Ms Johnson is an amateur, as am I; she brings new lustre to the word. 
              As is the custom when tracing your family roots, I have commenced with the most recent history and worked backwards in time. In so doing, I hope I am able to acquaint the novice in ancestral research with the resources that are available to assist. Perhaps I am also able, thereby, to share some of the excitement I have experienced in finding clues along the way and piecing scraps of evidence together.
              I have included a number of reproductions of the records, some hundreds of years old. They are fascinating, particularly to those with an interest in palaeography. I have been privileged to handle the original documents myself and have found it quite thrilling to be presented with them. They are all carefully preserved, sometimes parchment rolls complete with the dust of centuries, and I have enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the writing to expose the secrets within.
            One of the mysteries she probes is the identity, or rather identities, of Edward Wollstonecraft and Edward Bland Wollstonecraft. One was Mary's grandfather and the other wasn't. It's worth reading for yourself