Friday, August 17, 2012

The British Library and the long S

The British Library website has chosen to feature A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with a photo of the opened book. You can see how Joseph Johnson still used those long Ss that look like Fs to today's eyes. (When I was a child, I thought our ancestors all had lisps.) The photographic quality allows you to see the actual texture of the paper, the slight mottled spots, the imperfect corners.

The national library of record has form, of course: that book and its author were stars of the show entitled Taking Liberties, a site thoroughly worth exploring. It was curated by a chap called Matt Shaw, who, in response to a query on Twitter, took the time to look into female readers in the first few decades of the Reading Room. Such is the wealth of BL resources that the exhibition site points us in turn to a 1792 map by Richard Horwood, showing all the houses not only of London and Westmister, but of Southwark too, just across the bridge from the booksellers' hub at St Paul's.... but before we get lost...

Timelines: Sources from History starts in the 1200s. By the 1790s, the publications that shaped our world are coming thick and fast. 1791 is represented by Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and 1793 by the execution of Louis XVI. Sandwiched in between are two pages from the dedication to Rights of Woman, with an explanation of its context. Since she is allegedly writing to Talleyrand, Mary Wollstonecraft reflects on the French way of doing things:
...the system of duplicity that the whole tenour of their political and civil government taught, have given a sinister sort of sagacity to the French character, properly termed finesse; from which naturally flow a polish of manners that injures the substance, by hunting sincerity out of society.
And, modesty, the fairest garb of virtue! has been more grossly insulted in France than even in England, till their women have treated as prudish that attention to decency, which brutes instinctively observe.  
Manners and morals are so nearly allied that they have often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name. The personal reserve, and sacred respect for cleanliness and delicacy in domestic life, which French women almost despise, are the graceful pillars of modesty; but, far from despising them, if the pure flame of patriotism have reached their bosoms, they should labour to improve the morals of their fellow-citizens, by
teaching men, not only to respect modesty in women, but to acquire it themselves, as the only way to merit their esteem.
Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate unless she know why she
ought to be virtuous? unless freedom strengthen her  reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good? 

No comments:

Post a Comment