Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Man and Nature from Descartes to Wollstonecraft

Even now, on the European side of Istanbul, an argument of philosophers (I believe that is the correct group noun) is gathering for a few days. Man and Nature from Descartes to Wollstonecraft: does that count as the most meta title of the year? 
The theme of the conference centers on the place of human beings in the natural world in the 17th and 18th centuries. Papers focusing on human nature or on the place of human being in the natural order, both from historical  and contemporary perspectives are welcome. Although we chose the title ‘Man and Nature’ deliberately in order to reflect the common usage of the term ‘Man’ to refer to human beings in general in the early modern period, papers that question this gendered understanding of human nature will be of particular interest.
The conference is being held at Bogazici University, an institution with roots in the American higher education system 150 years ago.  Its host is Lucas Thorpe, who specialises in early modern philosophy, especially Kant. (He read PPE at Wadham, before international academic adventures.)  Philosophers are coming from France, Lebanon, Canadaand even countries beyond the Francosphere. No prizes for guessing the counter-balancing anglophone triumvirate.

The culmination of the conference must be its final speaker: none other than our old friend Sandrine Berges, on "Wollstonecraft on Women as Citizens and Mothers: Putting Nature Back in its Place". (This spring, she has been writing more informally on Vitae about various life stuff, including  "Playing at being a historian"  -- what I call  "I am not a historian", IANAH, in respect of my freelance research.) And immediately before her on Saturday afternoon is Natalie Nenadic from Kentucky, on "Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, and Human Nature". I wish I could be there! 

But I can console myself with having discovered a philosophical examination of Mary Wollstonecraft, a book dating from the end of the C19. Even more surprising, and satisfying, is that  "class" and "diversity" feature as items in its index. More on the Indian missionary another time.

Time for bed: in a few short hours I will be meeting a special someone at Mary's graveside. I still get a kick out of saying "Meet me in the cemetery."

Mary and motherhood: a start (with Melissa)

Melissa Benn is, inter alia, the author of Madonna and Child: towards a new politics of motherhood. She comments on Mary Wollstonecraft's take on maternity, a theme this blog will circle round and return to.

Wollstonecraft was not a mother when she wrote [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman], although it touches often on the theme of motherhood. Rearing a family, she argued, was a perfectly proper occupation for a woman, unlike taking an unhealthy interest in one's appearance, but it must be undertaken in a spirit of self-reliance. "To be a good mother, a woman must have sense and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands."

One of the saddest aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft's life is how profoundly she was changed by her personal experience of love and motherhood. ... [The Scandinavian Letters] speak of a very different Wollstonecraft to her earlier work. Their tone is sober and tender, particularly about her daughter Fanny:

I feel more than the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread that she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment. I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit - Hapless woman! What fate is thine!

It is impossible not to feel touched by Wollstonecraft's personal tragedy two centuries on. She was a volatile woman who risked all for love. But she also lived in an age where economic independence for women was a rarity and unmarried motherhood a scandal. And, of course, childbirth itself was a far greater physical risk than it is today. Wollstonecraft died of blood poisoning barely two weeks after the birth of her second daughter. It is impossible not to feel deep gratitude to writers like her who have tried to argue for new ways of living for women, men and children, braving ridicule and hatred from the more conventional parts of society.

The Independent, "Historical Notes: From personal tragedy to new ways of living and old", 21 January 1999.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A word from Voltairine de Cleyre

Again and again she returned to this theme. “Every individual should have a room or rooms for himself exclusively,” she wrote to her mother, “never subject to the intrusive familiarities of our present ‘family life.’ A ‘closet’ where each could ‘pray in secret,’ without some persons who love him assuming the right to walk in and do as they please. And do you know how I was pleased beyond measure the other day to find that William Godwin, the great English philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mrs. Shelley, taught and as far as possible practiced the same thing just 100 years ago.” 
“To me,” she told her mother, “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.”

This is from An American Anarchist The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre by Paul Avrich. And very kindly forwarded to this blog by VdC herself! Do I need to point out again that Virginia Woolf takes up the same theme in such similar words a generation later? 

[Voltairine de Cleyre was the lost daughter featured a couple of weeks previously.]

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lost daughter: Margaret King

Not so lost, this one -- not compared to Voltairine de Cleyre. But still, hardly a household name. A step towards rectifying this: she is on the front page of Wikipedia as I type. (Screengrab, with the "Did you know" lassooed in red, courtesy Devoted Reader.)

Margaret King was one of the girls taught by Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a favoured pupil, in fact, and the two stayed in touch for years after the governess had to leave Ireland. She married young (though not as young as her heiress mother Caroline Fitzgerald) and, as Lady Mount Cashell, undertook a well-financed Continental tour, stopping in Paris for the first nine months. They entertained lavishly, as documented by her friend along for the ride, Catherine Wilmot, whose diaries were eventually published as An Irish peer on the continent (1801-1803) being a narrative of the tour of Stephen, 2nd earl Mount Cashell, through France, Italy, etc.  (Is 117 years some sort of a record? Fulltext, worth waiting for, here.) She decided to give this up for love, and went off with an agronomist called Tatty Tighe. 

As Mr and Mrs Mason, they settled in Pisa and lived there happily for decades.  The name was chosen deliberately; it is that of the maternal figure in MW's first book,  Original Stories from Real Life.  At some point she studied medicine. Mrs Mason was able to extend her maternal and medical care to MW's daughter Mary Shelley when the young woman, pregnant again, came through Italy with her husband the tousle-hair'd poet and her step-sister Clair Clairemont (whose parentage we looked at the other day).  Thus the kind solicitude was passed down the generations: CC stayed in touch with Mason descendents into the 1880s.

Janet Todd's Rebel Daughters tells her story, and I'm sure the biographer of MW has done a good job looking for sources. But perhaps we may hope that one day an inspired amateur will turn up some more primary information, and a whole book may be devoted to this fascinating lost daughter.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Scandinavia at Solstice

Longest day of the year - and all the longer in sub-polar Scandinavia. It is a chilly day in London, so we shall indulge in a nice chunk of pre-Romantic sun-worship. (It's also the shortest day of the year Down Under, so it's fitting that I've been exchanging flattery with Australian amateur Vicki Parslow Stafford, the caped crusader of genealogy, who, as we saw yesterday, discovered the paternity of one of Mary Wollstonecraft's lost daughters.)

But first, context: Mary travelled in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, from June to September 1795, as an agent of Gilbert Imlay, who had mislaid a silver treasure ship. In the letter charging her with this quest, he describes her as his "wife and best friend". Hollow laughter, as Mary undertook her Scandinavian journey between Imlay-inspired suicide attempts. She took heart-break seriously: his infidelity was the betrayal of ideals. On returning to London from France with their baby daughter, she found the man she regarded as her husband shacked up with a woman of the stage; she took laudnum; he rescued her; she offered to prove her devotion; he packed her off to foreign parts. On returning from Scandinavia, she found him still unfaithful, and jumped off Putney Bridge. So I guess all that sublime northern nature wasn't quite enough to reconcile her to her love-torn fate.

What we need is something of the sublime. Mary encounters, alone and alert, a night at high latitude:

Midnight was coming on, yet it might with such propriety have been termed the noon of night that, had Young ever travelled towards the north, I should not have wondered at his becoming enamoured of the moon.  But it is not the Queen of Night alone who reigns here in all her splendour, though the sun, loitering just below the horizon, decks her within a golden tinge from his car, illuminating the cliffs that hide him; the heavens also, of a clear softened blue, throw her forward, and the evening star appears a smaller moon to the naked eye.  The huge shadows of the rocks, fringed with firs, concentrating the views without darkening them, excited that tender melancholy which, sublimating the imagination, exalts rather than depresses the mind.
My companions fell asleep—fortunately they did not snore; and I contemplated, fearless of idle questions, a night such as I had never before seen or felt, to charm the senses, and calm the heart.  The very air was balmy as it freshened into morn, producing the most voluptuous sensations.  A vague pleasurable sentiment absorbed me, as I opened my bosom to the embraces of nature; and my soul rose to its Author, with the chirping of the solitary birds, which began to feel, rather than see, advancing day.  I had leisure to mark its progress.  The grey morn, streaked with silvery rays, ushered in the orient beams (how beautifully varying into purple!), yet I was sorry to lose the soft watery clouds which preceded them, exciting a kind of expectation that made me almost afraid to breathe, lest I should break the charm.  I saw the sun—and sighed.

("Young" must be Edward Young (1681-1765), the poet identified by Barbara Taylor as a source "for her 'romantic' themes". Young was best known for his long poem ''Night Thoughts'', more correctly entitled The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality, a title guaranteed to set any intellectual depressive musing. It was re-issued in 1795, with illustrations commissioned from William Blake, who a couple of years earlier had tackled MW's Original Stories from Real Life.)

So, as the "glorious luminary" reaches its zenith in the northern hemisphere, and high summer rolls on before us, we leave Mary to the composing of another of her  Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Photo of sunrise (albeit not in Norway) by Fabolu (selbst aufgenommen von Fabolu) 
[GFDL 1.2 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The heights of amateurism

This title is meant as high praise, for there is high excitement at Wollstonecraft Towers. A Vicki Parslow Stafford has stumbled upon the secret to the paternity of the elder daughter of Mary Jane Vial! She is the one who quickly married widower Godwin, when he decided he needed a mother to his children -- though no one could fill the place of Mary Wollstonecraft:
Claire Clairmont was a central, if minor, figure in the Romantic Era intellectual and literary circle of the Godwins, Shelleys and Byron:  stepdaughter of William Godwin, stepsister and confidante of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, close friend and inspiration to poet Percy Shelley, paramour of Lord Byron and mother of his infant daughter Allegra.  Although her life has been closely studied, her true paternity seemed to be a secret that died with her mother -- until now.
Where the professionals had failed, the amateur triumphs! Psychologist and disability specialist by day, VPS turns into a masked crusader of genealogy by night! Remember my working definition of the amateur: someone doing it for love, not money. 

Not only has VPS discovered the hidden truth, she has also tied up the package by creating a very tidy little website explaining it all.  Mary Jane's Daughter is a model of its kind, everything it needs to be and nothing extra. She modestly presents it to the world thus:
I would like to bring to the attention of Romantic scholars, historians and biographers a collection of letters held by the Somerset Record Office which establishes the identity of the father of Mary Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont...
Imagine that email landing --THWAP -- in your inbox, amidst the departmental memos and students' excuses. Really, one could not ask for a better present. 

Whoever gets their PhD out of this discovery ought to offer her proper homage: a stonking fee to be keynote speaker at top conferences. An honorary degree. Naming an asteroid after her. I believe the eldest son used to be deemed a suitable sacrifice, but of course we can't have that these days; far too sexist.

For the record, I have never been in touch with VPS, nor to the best of my knowledge with anyone who knows her, but I intend to set right that omission. Three thousand cheers for her.

(Of course, the entire thing could be a fraud, and the letters made up out of whole cloth. Short of traipsing down to Somerset Record Office, how am I ever to know? If I merely phone or email, what does that prove -- they could be in on the joke too.  Ha ha. Not that I am bitter about being taken in by Gay Girl in Damascus or anything.)

Portrait by Amelia Curran (1775-1849) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, June 20, 2011

Wikipedia: a passion for education & freedom

I gave a quote in yesterday's post on Romanticism for the rational, saying I would provide the source today.


"The free encyclopedia anyone can edit" has its detractors. I won't argue the merits of the model in general, nor will I hypothesise that Mary Wollstonecraft would have been fascinated by the project, and possibly a passionate supporter of it, bringing together as it does freedom and education. Suffice it for today to point out that, among the three and a half million articles on the English Wikipedia to date, just under three and a half thousand have been vetted to a very high standard indeed:

Featured articles are considered to be the best articles in Wikipedia, as determined by Wikipedia's editors. [These] articles are reviewed ... for accuracy, neutrality, completeness, and style according to our featured article criteria. 
(There are another 12 000+ that are deemed to fall just short of this excellence. I expected these to warrant a phrase of American hyperbole, but no, they are soberly called good articles.)

Mary Wollstonecraft has (or is, if you prefer) a Featured Article. That in and of itself is a wonderful resource. But better yet, all of her works have also had the same detailed, critical attention. (Again we come back to the concept of the amateur, someone working for love not money.)
Thoughts on the Education of Daughters
And the people connected to her have also been well treated by Wikipedia; these three are FAs:
Joseph Johnson
Fanny Imlay
Mary Shelley
Not quite up to hallowed "featured" status, but still quite respectable, are articles on other people in her life, such as:
Henry Fuseli
Gilbert Imlay
William Godwin
Margaret King (aka Mrs Mason, aka Lady Mountcashell)

There's an article on Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  [Addendum: There's a family tree for Godwins and Shelleys.] There is even a timeline of MW's life; it too has achieved the deceptively modest-looking bronze star of FAdom. The central article, on MW herself, has been translated into 54 languages; seven of those have been awarded Featured Article status on their own Wikipedias. What an absolute wealth of resources, freely available to anyone with an internet connection and the curiosity to find out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Romanticism for the rational

Mary Wollstonecraft is a key, if somewhat under-recognised, character in the history of Romanticism. She is best remembered for her Vindications, but still read today are her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the last work published during her lifetime. In it, as in her life, reason and feeling seek some way of living harmoniously together. Today I am thinking of a traveller-pilgrim newly returned from those parts, baby under one arm, book proposal under the other. More on her another time....

So, what is it to be a Romantic, anyway, leaving love to the side? One aspect of it is sensitivity to nature and particularly the sublime: the Letters exemplify that, all those waterfalls triggering meditations on death, and all those mountains lifting the spirit. Part of it is also a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, and of course Mary was in the thick of that. 

Here's a quote, very slightly adapted. Its origins, tomorrow:
Often categorized as a rationalist philosopher, Wollstonecraft demonstrates her commitment to and appreciation of feeling in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She argues that subjective experiences, such as the transcendent emotions prompted by the sublime and the beautiful, possess a value equal to the objective truths discovered through reason. In her earlier works, reason was paramount, because it allowed access to universal truths. In the Letters, however, reason serves as a tool for reflection, mediating between the sensual experiences of the world and an abstract notion of truth (not necessarily universal truth). Maturation is not only the acquisition of reason, but also an understanding of when and how to trust one's emotions.
Her future husband read the Letters when the compilation was first published, and later famously wrote: 
If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration. Affliction had tempered her heart to a softness almost more than human; and the gentleness of her spirit seems precisely to accord with all the romance of unbounded attachment.
(Thomas Holcroft, the stableboy turned dramatist, jailed for treason, also appreciated the two sides to Mary's nature: "In you I discover the being for whom my soul has for years been languishing, woman of reason, playful & passionate child of love". Cor, phwoar, etc. I've taken that quote to plug Mary: the Movie -- see the punchline of the elevator pitch.)

I will limit myself to one passage as an example of the Letters as a whole. The summer solstice approaches. This seems apt:
Nothing, in fact, can equal the beauty of the northern summer’s evening and night, if night it may be called that only wants the glare of day, the full light which frequently seems so impertinent, for I could write at midnight very well without a candle.  I contemplated all Nature at rest; the rocks, even grown darker in their appearance, looked as if they partook of the general repose, and reclined more heavily on their foundation.  “What,” I exclaimed, “is this active principle which keeps me still awake?  Why fly my thoughts abroad, when everything around me appears at home?”  My child was sleeping with equal calmness—innocent and sweet as the closing flowers.  Some recollections, attached to the idea of home, mingled with reflections respecting the state of society I had been contemplating that evening, made a tear drop on the rosy cheek I had just kissed, and emotions that trembled on the brink of ecstasy and agony gave a poignancy to my sensations which made me feel more alive than usual.
Barbara Taylor remarks, in footnote 208 to Mary Wollstonecraft and the feminist imagination, that
Not much is to be gained, in my view, from classifying Wollstonecraft as a romantic or pre-romantic writer. Her debt to earlier eighteenth-century sources for her "romantic" themes is readily traced (Edward Young and Hugh Blair are obvious sources), and treating her ideas as anticipations of later romantic motifs is less illuminating to my mind than understanding them in their own terms. 
I appreciate her point -- none of us can know what posterity will make of our work, and we can't be held responsible for repercussions we never anticipated. Nonetheless, it interests me to trace the threads, to track the breadcrumbs.

Painting by Caspar David Friedrich, "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'' (1818), held in the Hamburg Art Gallery. 
Book by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) . 
Both public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mary and the happy historian

A week ago I wrote about a Twitter interview with Leon Heuts, the philosopher-journalist who will be introducing Mary Wollstonecraft to Dutch Humanist TV. That reminded me that last autumn I had another fruitful exchange with a self-professed "happy historian graduate geek", Dominic Self, aka @reddalek. He was given £100 in book tokens, lucky chap, and spent them inter alia on a two-in-one volume of the Vindications, sensible chap. (And Wodehouse. And A luscious-looking hardback Arthur Conan Doyle. And a handful of Very Short Introductions. Et cetera. Well chosen, youth of today.)

He drew my attention by writing "Mary Wollstonecraft is admirably blunt. I like this." (Admirably succinct. I like that.) We saw earlier that her writing is often considered difficult or well-nigh impenetrable by those who are most likely to be required to read her: from American high school civics classes to British undergraduate historians, students typically find C18 essayists hard going.  (Hence the need for the excellent work by Jonathan Bennett on early modern philosophers.)

So here is a recent graduate who actually enjoys her essay style: of course I was bound to want to find out more. He decided it was a bit of a laugh, and interviewed me for a so-called 60 second seance, a parody of the 60-second interviews that appear in the free rags such as MetroFrom his blog
There are so many layers of geekiness to this story I'm not really sure where to start. But anyway: you recall that I bought a load of books and then facetiously suggested that I would feature Mary Wollstonecraft as the next celebrity on this blog? Well, after starting to read her works I got a tweet from the woman herself agreeing to an interview, which is a pretty significant scoop for someone who died in the eighteenth century. But hey, if Psychic TV can flourish, why can't I?

You can't believe how proud I am that I figured out 
how to get Dominic's interview to display correctly.

Here's a fuller version of our intercourse, in the eighteenth century sense. As last time, Bettween interposes an anomaly: in preview, I can see a misplaced tweet  -- "A charming young Londoner and historian has seen fit to interview me" -- showing its correct date but quite jumbled between earlier and later tweets. No way to fix this. Remember, you can scroll down within the conversation, using the slide button at the right.

Friday, June 17, 2011

YouTube creativity

Fridays are for creativity. Videos of Mary Wollstonecraft abound across the internet, especially in the vicinity of YouTube. A month ago we saw The Rights (and Wrongs) of Mary Wollstonecraft, an original play produced in February 2009 in North Carolina. Let's look today not at professional productions, but at amateur creations. Amateur is not a euphemism for "shoddy"; it comes from "love", as do -- as should -- works thus labelled. IGNITE is amateur in the very best sense: passionate! They chose to host their videos not on YouTube but Vimeo, so that's where you'll see me squashing MW's 38 years into 300 seconds.

Mary Wollstonecraft and the Sassy Gay Friend (12:30) was uploaded just yesterday, by a group from the University of Notre Dame. (Courtney Biscan, writer; Ciara Dineen, Henry Gens, Lindsay Dun, producers; all four, actors; sound technician, nobody, unfortunately.) The narrator introduces the set-up: "This is Mary Wollstonecraft. She is about to kill herself because her lover Gilbert Imlay left her. This fate could have been avoided if she had a sassy gay friend." MW is caught at various crucial moments in her life, e.g. trying to commit suicide, at which point the 2011 gay guy (with long orange scarf) discovers her and says things like, "What? What! What are you doing?!" and "Stop  being so melodramatic, Mary! You need to move on." It turns out that the frame is lifted from Second City (OR "is an homage to" OR "is a riff on", take your pick), who have many episodes of their "Sassy Gay Friend sav[ing] tragic characters in fiction by giving them a healthy dose of honesty and a scarf to cry on". He also calls most of the female characters, and sometimes himself, "a stupid bitch". There's merch, and a Tumblr meme. (My fave: You're up all night looking at the Sassy Gay Friend Meme Tumblr when you should be studying for your final?  What? What? What are you doing?)

I also enjoyed the fun exuded by The Mary Wollstonecraft Theme Song (3:10). Don't expect high production values; just admire the energy of Becky Marder and Dorothy Li, playing air guitar in their bedrooms.

Some videos are class assignments for American high school and undergrad students -- I won't try your patience with them, except to say that the ones I sat through were generally well-written but painfully executed. It's clear that MW's story and philosophy have captured and intrigued some students; you hear it in their voices. Alas, for others, she is but an academic requirement. Skipping lightly over those....

We come to some with better production and more focussed attention. One format is the illustrated slide-show, accompanied by the student speaking; there may be music, instead or as well. There's a tribute to MW from the point of view of Mary Shelley (1:03) and MW goes Through the Looking Glass with Lewis Carroll and Alice (1:00), both from John Watkins: brief but clever. Another step up is Three Minute Philosophy: MW by Katrina M. Strauss, a cartoon rush-through, concluding with "Silly novels were the only choice of knowledge presented to women, until far smarter women like herself could come along to despise them." (Warning: "This is a an amateur movie for a group project in an English Theory class and is not part of the Three Minute Philosophy series." So that means that this too is a direct reference to another artifact of pop culture I'd never heard of.)

There are some more formal academic projects that I'll leave aside for now. 

Here are two videos to close with, both in the graveyard of Old St Pancras Church, where Mary was married and buried. (We visited in one of our Wednesday walks.) The first is a piece to camera (5:21) by an academic, the political theorist John Keane, who talks learnedly of liberty and history, in what appears to be a series on Londoners. (His Wikipedia bio says he grew up in Australia, the knowledge of which adds a frisson to the picturesque sprinkling of snow on the ground.)  The second (3:24) is by a small family of American tourists, with a ten-hour lay-over in London, and a burning desire to pay their respects to "Mary Shelley's mother". I have a feeling  I spotted David Shepherd on Twitter at the time, and tried to get in touch, to no avail. Anyway, here they are in the church grounds, sketching at the beginning of their Grand Tour.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Advanced Twitter for beginners

Yesterday I attempted to back up the claim made in my previous post "A Flurry on Twitter". However, my enthusiasm leaps ahead of my technical know-how. The sharp-eyed will have spotted that yesterday's screenshot showed a request from me, not a response from Margaret Atwood, about Mary on the Green, dated 9 May. Via the @maryonthegreen account I created last year, I had asked the international best-selling author and celeb-Tweeter to spread the message to her 200 000 followers about "our campaign for a London statue to Mary Wollstonecraft". I saw my error this morning, and thought about deleting the post, but that seems shady. So, instead, mindful that one of the purposes of setting up this blog is to teach myself blogstuff, I'll explain what I did next.

First of all, I went to Margaret Atwood's Twitter page. Her account is @MargaretAtwood, and the home page has that reassuring blue tick on it, the imprimatur of official verification. Besides, we all know that Canada's favourite septagenarian enjoys running her very active account, because she wrote most amusingly last spring on The Guardian's Comment is Free about "How I learned to love Twitter" and the New York Review of Books (foot note) about much the same thing -- "At first I thought it was for kids, but I was soon hooked. It's like having fairies in your garden". Or, it's "like having 33,000 precocious grandchildren" -- except now there are 200 000 + of them, most of whom we can assume to be "fairies", helpful invisible well-wishers. 

On that page I scrolled down endlessly and tediously, for more than a month (and it felt like it), to find the tweet in question. CTRL + F doesn't work, and I don't know of a specific search tool that would do the job; all the tip pages start with the assumption that the desired message has already been found. Eventually I got this, below: the shaded message is the one we're concerned with, in the left-hand list, with a larger version of it in the right-hand pane.  (On the real Twitter page, though not on this static screenshot, when you click on a message, the bigger one is triggered to open.) There are two indicators that MA did indeed forward my request. Look first at the ordinary sized tweet in the left-hand column. The pair of square-circular arrows, followed by the words "by MargaretAtwood", mean "retweeted by". So that's all right then. But there is another way of ascertaining the same thing. Look now at the right-hand pane. Underneath the message, it says "Retweeted by MargaretAtwood and 48 others", with nine avatars. Again, in the live page, you can mouse over the thumbnail images and see who they all are; on this static page, you can at any rate be sure of the number.

Now here's another way of confirming the same thing, in theory, although not in this precise case. You can go to my campaigning account, @maryonthegreen, and find my request. (Again, tiresome scrolling. There is a better option that we'll get to later.)
Well, , would you tell the world about our campaign for a London statue to Mary Wollstonecraft? 
The full image is below. At its bottom, you'll see it says "Retweeted by kakennedy and 48 others". As far as I can tell, @kakennedy just happens to be the last person to forward my request, and as such her name appears, and her avatar is the one to the extreme left. Again, we can only see a small proportion of the whole number of avatars, and again, in the real web page you can mouse over them to see more names, but not in this static image. Because so many people quickly followed MA's excellent example (48 divided by 200 000 -- let's not think about it), her avatar is no longer visible, buried under the later-comers.  Had there been 14 or fewer retweeters, they would all have remained on the top page.

Notice that in the address bar appears a URL identifying this particular tweet within the @maryonthegreen account. You can't copy it from the screenshot, of course, but you can type it into another browser or session, and find the tweet again from anywhere. Or, you can use Google. Ah yes, that great search engine in the sky! Finally we come to Google.

Below is the Google search result for "Twitter maryonthegreen MargaretAtwood". My tweet to MA shows, first up, which is great; but her retweet, not at all, weird. A couple of Twitter accounts I've never heard of are #2 and #3. Another of my accounts is at #4, which I guess is good. Media stuff about MA is #5-7, which is weird again, because I can tell you, there is no mention of Mary on the Green in the NYRB: would that there were. The last entry we will cover at the end of this too-long post. So, the moral is, you would think that Google Is Your Friend, and any old tweet you've misplaced, or remember reading a couple of months ago, must just be lying around waiting to be jumped on and tickled by California algorhythms: not so, dear reader, not so. Google provides no quick proof that MA did RT my request. (True, I haven't trawled through the other 150 results for that three-item string.)

Now, the last item, below. This is a bizarre work-around. A site called Poptweets sort of archives Twitter. I say "sort of", because it found  MA's RT, i.e. the particular piece of ephemera for which I want proof, but then when I tried to go to the permalink: "Move Along, Nothing to See Here! You may have followed a bad link or a gremlin may have gotten into the system." So, there is screenshot proof, but not URL proof.

We're almost there.

Notice that in none of these examples am I signed in to any account or any service (e.g. see the top right-hand corner of the Twitter pages). All of this is open to everyone. Twitter is, by default, a public conversation.

One last thing I tried, on what has for me been a tiringly techy day: Blackbird Pie, an experimental service to bake a tweet into a blog, to set before the Margaret King, or something. But again, it starts by assuming that the URL is to hand. It wasn't, at the point when I needed it, so Blackbird Pie did me no good. Maybe another day.

All that, to get a flicker of attention from a celebrity? All that, merely for a potential supporter of Mary on the Green? No, I tell myself: all this is in quest of self-education. Our Lady would approve, I think.

Bonne nuit, Mary Wollstonecraft. Bonne nuit, Margaret Atwood. Bonne nuit, tout le monde.

Photo: By Lesekreis (Own work) [CC0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Footnote: 7 April 2010  -- I'm starting to write dates in, as a Good Habit, in case digital artifacts later vanish.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Margaret Atwood helps out

One small sign was getting Margaret Atwood to re-tweet our campaign, Mary on the Green.Traffic jumped.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Documentaries & depictions

The previous two days' posts have got more hits than anything before: Slutwalk and Molls & modesty. I guess sex sells. But for all the hundreds of page hits, only one comment, and one new follower. I don't really mind how you choose to find out more: RSS, email subscription, Google friends -- all those options are in the right-hand column. If you like what you are reading here, please sign up to one. But, more importantly, please, leave some feedback. Brazil, Portugal, Germany! Tell me what you think! Egypt, Saudi, India! I know you are there, silently reading!

So today, a brief request instead of a lengthy essay or interpretation of a chapter. Stimulated by a query from "lost daughter" Voltairine de Cleyre:

Do you know of any depictions of Mary Wollstonecraft in current culture?  I am thinking of radio or TV or cinema dramas or documentaries especially, but other media are welcome. (Yes, we've covered tattoos, thank you, but what about other visual representations?) In terms of live performances, I know of last month's Silver Ship, a play in New Zealand; and another original drama in 2005 in the USA; and a London-local layered piece: all three were also video recorded, because that's what you do these days. Of course, I want Mary: the Movie, but has there really been nothing previous?  Does MW even appear as a character in other people's life stories, on stage or screen? 

I know of a few appearances on BBC Radio 4 (tagline: "intelligent speech"). Just after the 250th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft's birth, biographer Janet Todd spoke to Jenni Murray about her status now, and future meanings. Also at that time, a series of three letters to Mary were commissioned, from Janet Todd on the education of girls, Richard Reeves on republicanism, and Natasha Walters on feminism. A year ago, Mary Beard championed her namesake in a balloon debate on Woman's Hour. Melvyn Bragg, who appears to have a thing for MW, and quite right too, devoted an episode of In Our Time to a formal discussion. 

Is that it? Let's leave books for another time -- biographies and fiction. But for audio, video, performance, art,  whatever -- are there no other depictions of Mary Wollstonecraft?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mary, molls, and modesty

Yesterday we looked at the London Slutwalk. Today we continue our exploration of Mary Wollstonecraft's attitude towards modesty, from the chapter of that title in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
By Samuel Derrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
She deals explicitly with prostitution, showing she is not a prude or someone with her head in the sand. The world's oldest profession had a huge impact on urban life at that time, not least because other occupations were closed to women. Dan Cruikshank claims in The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital that "as many as one in five young women were prostitutes in eighteenth-century London". 

I am not sure of the scope of the term "prostitute" in her day. Mary, nobody's fool, would have been aware of the aristocrats' mistresses (predecessors of the pretty horse-breakers of Rotten Row), and Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies : in other words, both those women seeking a long-term arrangement, and those who charged by the hour. Dr Johnson's Scottish companion describes his lusty London encounters in his diaries -- "I got myself quite intoxicated, went to a Bawdy-house and past a whole night in the arms of a Whore. She indeed was a fine strong spirited Girl, a Whore worthy of Boswell if Boswell must have a whore". James was carousing in the streets and the decades when Mary was a young woman. 

She, and others like her, would have had to exercise an effort to minimise her risk of being approached or addressed as a street tart. Whether this effort was conscious or not, women had to perform goodness, or "virtue" in the limited female sense: hair, clothes, body language, chastity of the eyes, pace, voice, deportment, all signalled "don't mess with me", as opposed to "might be worth a try". "If you want to stay safe, don't dress like a slut," said the policeman very recently. When so many women were reduced to opening their legs for a few pennies, and the sexual scale went up from there, all "good" women who did not want to participate in those transactions had to take action to distance themselves from the "bad" ones. This was especially true for girls, that is, unmarried women. "If you don't want to be approached, don't give a man any reason to approach you." For a young woman walking the streets of London without a male escort, as Mary did of necessity, every signal she sent out was subject to scrutiny.
The following passage seems to refer to street prostitution. One wing of this was characterised by country maids being deceived on coming to the city (which still happens today, only the maids come from countries further afield and are often hampered by a lack of the local language). Mary Wollstonecraft characterises them as simple people who never had any real and elevating modesty to lose:
The shameless behaviour of the prostitutes, who infest the streets of London, raising alternate emotions of pity and disgust, may serve to illustrate [the difference between bashfulness and modesty]. They trample on virgin bashfulness with a sort of bravado, and glorying in their shame, become more audaciously lewd than men... But these poor ignorant wretches never had any modesty to lose, when they consigned themselves to infamy; for modesty is a virtue not a quality. No, they were only bashful, shame-faced innocents; and losing their innocence, their shame-facedness was rudely brushed off; a virtue would have left some vestiges in the mind, had it been sacrificed to passion, to make us respect the grand ruin.

Instead of worrying about bashfulness, women should strive to improve their understanding, and their wider compassion, and this will lead, via "purity of mind", to modesty. Dwelling on flirting and love will not have such happy results:
Those women who have most improved their reason must have the most modesty—though a dignified sedateness of deportment may have succeeded the playful, bewitching bashfulness of youth. To render chastity the virtue from which unsophisticated modesty will naturally flow, the attention should be called away from employments which only exercise the sensibility; and the heart made to beat time to humanity, rather than to throb with love. The woman who has dedicated a considerable portion of her time to pursuits purely intellectual, and whose affections have been exercised by humane plans of usefulness, must have more purity of mind, as a natural consequence, than the ignorant beings whose time and thoughts have been occupied by gay pleasures or schemes to conquer hearts.

She is clear that modesty does not lie in the actions one performs or the etiquette one adheres to:
The regulation of the behaviour is not modesty, though those who study rules of decorum are, in general, termed modest women. Make the heart clean, let it expand and feel for all that is human, instead of being narrowed by selfish passions; and let the mind frequently contemplate subjects that exercise the understanding, without heating the imagination, and artless modesty will give the finishing touches to the picture.

Chastity isn't a word used much now, except if you are Sonny and Cher picking a name for your daughter. In the Biblical sense it means virginity before marriage and monogamy within it.  In effect, adhering to community norms. Mary distinguishes it from modesty.
As a sex, women are more chaste than men, and as modesty is the effect of chastity, they may deserve to have this virtue ascribed to them in rather an appropriated sense; yet, I must be allowed to add an hesitating if:—for I doubt whether chastity will produce modesty, though it may propriety of conduct, when it is merely a respect for the opinion of the world, and when coquetry and the lovelorn tales of novelists employ the thoughts. Nay, from experience and reason, I should be led to expect to meet with more modesty amongst men than women, simply because men exercise their understandings more than women.

Remember she wrote both Vindications before she went to Paris and met Gilbert Imlay. She is thought to have been a virgin up till that point, a subject I hope to discuss in a future post. 

Also, it has not passed me by that this discussion of modesty bears some resemblance to the Muslim concept of hijab, too often understood only as dress restrictions for women, most specifically the headscarf, but in fact a statement of the necessity of modesty, applying equally to men and women. Again, something I may come back to, once Jane Austen and Lyndall Gordon and the Scandinavian traveller and all sorts of sculptural possibilities are out of the way.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mary and the Slutwalk

Slutwalk Chicago, because none of
the London  photos have reached
Wikicommons as of the time of writing.
London held its first Slutwalk yesterday, and in its run-up, I was asked what Mary Wollstonecraft would have made of it. I quoted some of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and heard no more from those correspondents.Evidently her pronouncements were not to their taste. Let's see what she has to say on related subjects.

Background: Slutwalks are a resurgence of street feminism, featuring home-made banners and a lot of energy and anger. They sprang from the ill-judged comments of a Toronto policeman to a group of law students. "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised." Cue massive international outrage, and organised visible resistance to the notion that victims of sexual assault are asking for it. One of the few repeated placard slogans runs: "Yes means yes, no means no, however I dress, wherever I go." The London website carries the strapline "The radical notion that nobody deserves to be raped." 

Sketch by Isaac Cruikshank, ca. 1790,
via WikiCommons.
So: what would Mary do? It isn't as if sexual assault is a new concept. There was plenty of it in Georgian London; marital rape, for example, was entirely legal, and remained so until 1991. (Lyndall Gordon hypothesises that "invisible abuse", possibly including "marital sex that verges on rape", was one factor that caused Mary's younger sister Bess Bishop to flee her husband.) There is a difference of presentation between now and then: female clothing of all classes was more concealing than today, with the partial exception of some aristocratic bosoms. Skirts were ankle-length; sleeves went to the elbow, if not wrist. Western women didn't really begin to uncover themselves until after World War I. So Mary would not have expressed her radicalism,or her distaste for male abuse of power, by showing some skin.

She expected high standards from men, and from women too. Modesty was one part of this, and she wrote at some length about it. Indeed, she devoted a whole chapter of her magnum opus to the concept, so it is worth exploring what she meant by the term. She begins with poetic effusiveness:
MODESTY! Sacred offspring of sensibility and reason!—true delicacy of mind!—may I unblamed presume to investigate thy nature, and trace to its covert the mild charm, that mellowing each harsh feature of a character, renders what would otherwise only inspire cold admiration—lovely!—Thou that smoothest the wrinkles of wisdom, and softenest the tone of the sublimest virtues till they all melt into humanity;—thou that spreadest the ethereal cloud that surrounding love heightens every beauty, it half shades, breathing those coy sweets that steal into the heart, and charm the senses—modulate for me the language of persuasive reason, till I rouse my sex from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away!
So what is all that supposed to mean, aside from modesty being A Good Thing?  She goes on to make clear that she does not equate modesty with bashfulness, or "the instinctive timidity of ignorance". It is not a milkmaid's downcast eyes and cowed silence that makes modesty (moo!). Modesty is a virtue she defines first in male terms and with male examples.
Modesty [is] that soberness of mind which teaches a man not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think, and should be distinguished from humility, because humility is a kind of self-abasement....A modest man is steady, an humble man timid, and a vain one presumptuous:—this is the judgment, which the observation of many characters, has led me to form. Jesus Christ was modest, Moses was humble, and Peter vain.

The politics of sexual display were familiar to Mary Wollstonecraft. Young women sought the attention of men, for a good marriage was what they pinned their life hopes on.  The difference is that then the rules were stricter: "good girls" never said yes before marriage, so men had no wiggle room for claiming a misunderstanding. This was true, at least, of the middle classes, where Mary pitched her tent. Even “making love” -- in the now entirely obsolete sense of talking explicitly about love, professing one’s devotion -- was considered in bad taste. If a man thus took advantage of being alone with a woman, his statement of intent might well, unless reciprocated, lead to real distress on her part. It could be taken as an insult.

Much of her writings were aimed at elevating women, and to do so, she often cast them down, depicting their current existence as shallow, trivial, unworthy. However, there are occasions when she takes the men to task as well. Here she addresses men's poor behaviour, particularly their assertion of sexual ownership of public space, something that taps into the Slutwalk ethos:
What can be more disgusting than that impudent dross of gallantry, thought so manly, which makes many men stare insultingly at every female they meet? Is this respect for the sex? This loose behaviour shews such habitual depravity, such weakness of mind, that it is vain to expect much public or private virtue, till both men and women grow more modest—till men, curbing a sensual fondness for the sex, or an affectation of manly assurance, more properly speaking, impudence, treat each other with respect—unless appetite or passion give the tone, peculiar to it, to their behaviour. I mean even personal respect—the modest respect of humanity, and fellow-feeling—not the the libidinous mockery of gallantry, nor the insolent condescension of protectorship.
More on modesty another time tomorrow.

[Medieval philosopher Christine de Pizan had some views on rape and dress and Slutwalks, according to actual real life philosopher Sandrine.]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mary on Dutch TV

I mentioned some time ago that the Dutch Humanist TV channel is producing a series of twelve hour-long programmes on philosophers, of which Mary Wollstonecraft is one.

Their researcher Josephine Krikke happened to mention Mary's name on Twitter a few months ago, and thanks to my permanent state of alertness (due not to attention-concentrating drugs but a "Wollstonecraft" column on my Tweetdeck) I picked up on this. Running her initial tweet through Google Translate gave me:
Exploring the similarities between Mary Wollstonecraft (18th century) and Marieke Bax # top woman humanist canon. "I do not like acidic women"
where I assume "acidic" is a Google-ism for "sour". Marieke Bax is a glass-ceiling-breaking diversity champion.

So @1759MaryWol1797 introduced herself to @JosephineKrikke, and we took it from there. I present our conversation in descending (chronological) order, for the reading ease of those less used to Twitter. It didn't take her long to invite me onto the programme, to be interviewed by a philosopher-journalist called Leon Heuts.

And that interview has now just taken place. Embedding these exchanges on my blog is courtesy Bettween, "the ultimate Twitter conversation tracker". It is still in beta, and sometimes I notice -- for example, the conversations can be restricted by day but not by time within the day, so I can't cut out irrelevant bits at beginning or end. And, oddly, Bettween has (in the Blogger preview at least) landed one tweet out of order, and there's no way to delete it. [N.B. these are not static screenshots -- you can scroll down within the conversation.]

So, roll on the autumn! I'm looking forward to seeing what Human TV makes of Mary, and indeed all the other philosophers.
Photo of Leon Heuts and, behind him, the head of the TV programme. Photo by Josephine Krikke.