Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shocking omission, part one

Our friendly philosopher, Sandrine Berges, who mused last week for us on the place of Mary Wollstonecraft in her professional life, has posted on her (new, temporary?) blog The Forbidden Sister about the difficulties of finding out what Mary read. In The disappointing ghost, she writes:
Oh yes, and whatever people say, there aren’t that many books or articles about her work. Not that many written from a philosophical perspective, that is. So one thing I’d very much like to know, is what books she’d read, what she knew about, and what is likely to have influenced her.
(My working definition of the digital humanities, by the way, would emphasise online tools that make this sort of search easy and automatic. Who influenced whom.)

Sandrine discovers a book entitled The Honest Mind: The Thought and Work of Richard Price. She is rightly shocked that David Oswald Thomas saw fit to include barely a passing mention of our Mary. She doesn't say, but I suspect the date is significant: Thomas published in 1977, early days in the recognition of Mary by the second-wave feminists.
In a book that professes to show how ‘Price contributed to the intellectual life of his own time’, I find it seriously amiss that Wollstonecraft’s relationship to Price should not be discussed. In other words, it sucks big way.
IANAH, remember? Nor is Sandrine ("So I tried pretending I was a historian, went online to look at archives and all"). It seems to me that it ought to be fairly straightforward to see who a person influenced, because they get quoted. Of course, in practice it isn't that easy: George Eliot read, quoted, and indeed wrote an essay about Wollstonecraft; 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?) Still, since MW is our target person, there is no shortage of intellectual descendants, and, generally speaking, it is not too hard to find out who they were. However, there are an awful lot of omissions in the historical record, which is why, with depressing cynicism, I have entitled this post "part one": I know for a fact there are some, and suspect there are many, such omissions.

What seems harder to find out is who influenced our target. Unless that person kept meticulous records of everything she read and everyone she spoke to, it is hard to know. If someone like Gladstone dies and creates a library as his main bequest, fine; you know where you are.  (He even wrote an essay called "On Books and the housing of them".) But if your target moved around a lot, borrowed and lent books, went through periods of poverty or homelessness (dire or partial) which necessitated the shedding of belongings, then their books at death, or at any moment of snapshot, may in no way reflect their overall reading and thus their literary influences. Mary is much closer to that end of the spectrum. What was in Mr Ardent's Yorkshire library? What was in the Clares'? And, as Sandrine was trying to discover, what was in Richard Price's? Those books opened Mary's mind!


  1. This is an excellent point, one that never crossed my mind, but I am now interested in it. I hope someone gets researching on that!

  2. Yes please! Let someone conduct research on that. By the end of next month if possible! I looked up the Clares in the National Archives, but with no luck. I remember reading somewhere that they'd made Mary read Rousseau. But there's no evidence of this in the letters...
    Thanks for this great post, Roberta. I'm looking forward to part 2.

  3. Vertigo- what's your background? Are you in a position to add a piece to the jigsaw puzzle?

    Sandrine - there will be lots of shocking omissions. I keep finding more of Mary's legacy, people influenced by her (often crediting her work as a pivot in their understanding of the world). In this case, unlike the Wednesday walks, I don't have other posts in the queue.

    Clearly she read Rousseau at some point, but I don't know when.

    Find of the day: imagine if we had an image like this for the libraries we are interested in. You can zoom to read titles! (But I can't suppress the ads.)

  4. Roberta: I studied political science, economics, and International Relations... BUT, I am currently unemployed at the moment and have some free time (might start new job this Summer, fingers cross)... so, this looks like a very good challenge. :)

  5. Vertigo - I did not realise you were, like me, a Lady of Leisure. Splendid! All hands to the pump, and to the jigsaw puzzle. Things I would like to know about Mary and her circle:

    What happened to the letters from her first year at Newington Green, when she developed a political understanding of the world's injustices.

    What happened to brother Henry (oh wait, Sandrine has already figured that out - Don't worry, that'll get a full post eventually).

    Why did Mary really go to Paris -- what proportion of push or pull?

    And I'd like a much fuller accounting of her legacy. Where did those early editions end up? Who read them? Who annotated them? Is there a list somewhere, or can we make one, of all extant copies of both Vindications?

    That's a good start. Sandrine, Chihiro, and others may want to add more ideas.