Saturday, April 30, 2011

The trailer (insert own visuals)

Ok, so this is how it works: the first line in plain type is a voice-over, probably from a mellifluous deep male voice (Mr Sexy Authority). The bit in italics is the clip of the scene that is shown as he reads the description. And anything "in quotation marks" represents what someone in the scene is saying, or more likely instead of hearing them say those words, it serves as a reminder of where in the story we are up to.

She overcame a neglected and uneducated childhood...
        Child Mary trying to find a quiet space to write, and being mocked by her father and elder brother, with doormat mother standing by.
                "Books aren't for girls" find love where she could.
        Peaceful retreat in book-lined study, holding hands with friend, wonder on her face.
        Reading books together in bed, devotedly.

                "And when we grow up we shall live and work together forever"
She followed her dreams ...
        Mary, now adult. Striding around her school busy & purposeful, adult friend visible.

...and encouraged her friends to follow theirs.
        Two young women with letter, candlelight, torment.
                "But if you love him, & want to marry him, of course you must!"

She went to the ends of the earth for those she loved...
        Childbirth scene, mother looking very ill, Mary competent and strong.

...mixed with the most stimulating characters of her day...
        Listening in Newington Green church as Rev Richard Price preaches radicalism; scintillating dinner party; meet & flirt with Imlay & Godwin.
                "The situation in France is going to get much hotter before it calms down"

...and plunged into the heart of the French Revolution.
        Unruly street scene in Paris, but Mary strides through, sensing no danger.

When all who could were fleeing the Terror, she went to Paris...
        Mob rule, head falling from guillotine, blood in gutters, famous landmarks.

...for ambition...         
        Sits in cafe or on balcony and begins to write.

...and for love.
        Mary and Imlay get it together -- a kiss, an embrace, a swirl of four-poster curtains.

Her lover bought jewels from the former courtesans of Versailles...
        Courtesan dressed to the nines.

..but he was not the man she thought him to be...
Imlay bowing over courtesan's hand & long lingering look.
        Shot of Mary heavily pregnant
contrasting him with Godwin in her mind.

...and he left her when she needed him most.
        Standing on smallish ship, holding bundled babe, approaching white cliffs of Dover

Alone with her baby in London, she thought she could not go on...    
        Dark rainy night, jump from bridge into the river.

...but other adventures lay in store for her.
        Rescued by boatmen.

Trying to win back the man who had left her, Mary offered to track down his vanished treasure ship in the wilds of Scandinavia.
        More boats, lots of forest, mountains rising from the sea, small villages.
            "Have you seen or heard anything of this ship?"

Mary discovered new strengths within herself...
        Scene of prayer?

...and on her return to London wrote of all she had seen and learned...
        More scenes of scribbling, toddler playing contently, finished copy of "Voyages"

...earning the admiration of many... 
        Another dinner party, this time all the men listen to her, esp. Godwin.

...and the love of one good man.
        Cut to Godwin saying something passionate, she returns his intensity.
        Wedding bells at St Pancras Church.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Happy 252nd birthday, Mary!

By .Timmay700 at en.wikipedia [Public domain],
from Wikimedia Commons
On this day in 1759, a girl was born in the City of London. Her life touched many others, and she died too tragically young. On this day, we remember Mary Wollstonecraft.

I wish for a cake as big as a house to celebrate her achievements. I wish everyone around the world could taste the sweetness of the liberty she yearned for. I wish she could have lived to have many many more candles on her cake.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mary and the Dissenters

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions
in England and other Nations
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
One metaphor often called upon in the early days of arguing for the rights of women was the parallel situation of slaves, who were, by that point, recognised as human beings with souls, but not thought to have full powers of intellect and reason. At best, slaves and women were treated legally as children, minors under the control of their masters or men, who could chastise them physically and restrict their existence in the world. This comparison is well known.
Another parallel is less so. Mary Wollstonecraft compared the situation of women in her day to that of a religious minority, those we now look back on under the name of Rational Dissenters. They had split from the Church of England, or, as they saw it, the established church had split from them. Protestant non-conformists then, Socinians or Arians later, Unitarians now. Mary spent a few years in their midst at Newington Green, befriended by the Dissenting minister, Dr Richard Price, and that fairy godmother, the widow Burgh. From her time there, she drew these impressions, which later found their way into A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:
Were not dissenters, for instance, a class of people, with strict truth characterized as cunning? And may I not lay some stress on this fact to prove, that when any power but reason curbs the free spirit of man, dissimulation is practised, and the various shifts of art are naturally called forth? Great attention to decorum, which was carried to a degree of scrupulosity, and all that puerile bustle about trifles and consequential solemnity, which Butler's caricature of a dissenter, brings before the imagination, shaped their persons as well as their minds in the mould of prim littleness.  
I speak collectively, for I know how many ornaments to human nature have been enrolled amongst sectaries [how many great people have been found among those who belong to religious sects]; yet, I assert, that the same narrow prejudice for their sect, which women have for their families, prevailed in the dissenting part of the community, however worthy in other respects; and also that the same timid prudence, or headstrong efforts, often disgraced the exertions of both. Oppression thus formed many of the features of their character perfectly to coincide with that of the oppressed half of mankind; for is it not notorious that dissenters were, like women, fond of deliberating together, and asking advice of each other, till by a complication of little contrivances, some little end was brought about? A similar attention to preserve their reputation was conspicuous in the dissenting and female world, and was produced by a similar cause.
Both Dissenters and women were denied political power or full education. The parallels are intriguing, and despite her many good reasons for gratitude, Mary Wollstonecraft is not blind to their faults. I'll be waiting to hear what Lyndall Gordon has to say about the matter in Oxford on 22 May.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Filmic characters

The world deserves a  full-length biopic of Mary Wollstonecraft. I laid out the elevator pitch a fortnight ago, and last week, with the help of more exclamation marks than I usually produce in a year, explored the movie's blockbuster potential. Today I will outline the main influential characters in Mary's life, and how these might best be handled on screen.

  • Mary Wollstonecraft -- passion & reason mixed. Heroine of the English Enlightenment who offers a spirited defiance to the establishment. Lady's companion,  governess, teacher, businesswoman. Journalist & historian of the French Revolution.  Novelist. Political writer. Also a sexual rebel, with significant love affairs. This is one of the few characters that will need double casting; we need to see her as as a child (12 ish?) and also as an adult who can span the ages from 25, her arrival in Newington Green, to 38, her death.
  • Birth family -- alcoholic spendthrift father. Doormat mother. Spoilt elder brother, the only one to be educated. Five younger siblings, especially two pretty, impractical sisters, Eliza and Everina, for whom Mary makes herself responsible. (Later, they bankrupt her business by squabbles.)
  • Jane Arden -- Mary's first formative friendship, within a secure family that valued education, but she did not fully return Mary's possessive love. Arguably, Mary fell in love with her father's library.
  • Fanny Blood -- Mary's second "best friend" (and more?). She opened Mary's mind, and the two planned to work and live together in a female utopia.
  • Mrs Burgh -- a widow who gives Mary & Fanny the capital & contacts to open a school for girls in Newington Green. Substitute mother figure. Fairy godmother.
  • Bevy of beautiful maidens at the boarding school. Studious & pious, but pretty & witty & gay.
  • Dr Richard Price -- the minister of the church there. A man of eccentric mannerisms and a preacher of revolutionary equality, who invited Mary into his social circle, where luminaries moved:
    • John & Abigail Adams -- 2nd president of the United States
    • Thomas Paine -- radical pamphleteer
    • Joseph Johnson -- publisher who becomes a father figure to her, supporting her career financially, socially, and practically.
    • Henry Fuseli -- society painter; Mary fell in love and proposed a menage-a-trois; his wife was horrified; Mary left the country, humiliated.
    • Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Tallyrand (1st PM of France), etc.
  • Gilbert Imlay - tall handsome American adventurer in Paris. Fathers Mary's child & runs away. An utter heartless cad. Hiss boo.
  • The companion Mary takes to Scandinavia, on the quest for Imlay's missing treasure ship. In reality, a nursemaid, but could be reformulated as a young woman socially closer to her, an acolyte or former pupil.
  • William Godwin - writer & philosopher.  Falls in love with Mary via her writing.  Fathers her other child. Risks losing all his friends by marrying her. A true heart.

Artistic licence

A few items cry out for the light hand of change; "a little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation, " as Saki said.

Her best friend was christened Frances Blood and known as Fanny. Can it be called bowdlerisation, to return the name to its original state? I refer to her as Frances, of the Irish Bloods, finding it safer. 

One distinct possibility is to amalgamate Frances and Jane. The friend of childhood can be presented as the same person as the partner of young adulthood. Two actors for the two ages, obviously, but one name and one story.

I can't really see how to combine the two father figures, the Newington Green minister Richard Price and the City publisher Joseph Johnson.

The fairy godmother, Mrs Burgh, can come into the story more times than the one crucial intervention we know about.

When Mary sets off for Scandinavia, at Imlay's request to search for his ship stuffed with revolutionary French silver, she goes "alone" -- meaning without a gentleman. She took her baby, which was a surprising decision, and a maid to care for the infant. In reality, this attendant was no one of historical importance. But for Mary: the Movie, she could become someone much closer to our heroine, a social equal or near to it, someone to confide in. Wouldn't it be appropriate to make her a former student? A young woman at a loose end, looking for a chance to hang out with her mentor. And why not make her the daughter of one of the Abolitionists that Mary hung out with -- in fact, why not make her the daughter of a slave? Bingo, a black character with a speaking part, without bending historical truth too much.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mary and the Undead

Fridays are for creativity. This blog likes to highlight some of the imaginative projects that people have come up with, that celebrate or spring from Mary Wollstonecraft and her life and works. We've seen a tattoo and a series of Wordles and a photomontage. And it's not just images: much of the creativity is of words too, written projects such as a cycle of poems.

Today we have the Undead. The teenage Mary not only meets and defeats them, she begins to formulate the fundamental concepts of equal rights that lay the groundwork for her masterpieces, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Woman (1792), and Zombies (179?). All this is channelled by Sandrine Berges, when she isn't teaching or writing serious philosophy. But don't worry; there's a higher purpose, e.g. "it's all about the social commentary and ethical reflection", or, what do zombies say about us.

A brief sample in the words of our precocious heroine. First, the trip to the North of England in difficult circumstances.
Our journey, from a village in the south of London, took three days - which was very good going – mostly because we were being chased by zombies for a large part of the way. There are no zombies where I come from, but I dare say that my own upbringing did much to prepare me for dealing with the foul beasts. I do not wish to trouble you with my complaints but let he be said that I believe that it is more remarkable that I should have survived living with such a family as I have for nearly sixteen years, than that I should have successfully fought off zombies for three weeks and three days.
After some unspecified time, the Wollstonecraft family goes back to London, leaving the zombies behind -- or so they think. This post explains the fate of Mary's younger brother Henry, who disappears from the canonical accounts.
We are not supposed to speak of him. If we are asked directly, we are to say that he was left behind in Yorkshire in apprenticeship. The people of London are not directly aware of the zombie infestation of the North. Of course there are stories, and people who travel to the North on business are sometimes maimed or killed, but they prefer to speak of it as highway men. 'Tis less fanciful and so less likely to put us in one of Hoxton's lunatics asylum (there are as many as three right by our doorstep, so we must be careful!) But it is respectability more than the fear of the lunatic asylum that motivates our lie. For Henry did not die at the hands of zombies. He has married one.
 All this leads nicely up to A Vindication of the Rights of Zombies:
It has long been my impression that our world is riddled with inequalities both in nature and in our treatment of each other. What has never been till now quite clear to me is how little those we treat as inferiors owe their inferiority to nature and not prejudice. In some cases at least it is obvious that it is our societies' treatment of them that has rendered them inferior. (I think that French manners, in particular, are much to blame for this.) Such is the case, I am now convinced, with zombies. Is a zombie by its nature a brain chomping, limb dropping fool, or has it been forced to become so by the prejudices of our society?
Sister to these posts is another Twitter account. Follow at your peril Mary the Hyena.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lost daughter: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Mary Wollstonecraft's sons and daughters: those whom she influenced, often long after her death. These are her prime legacy. Many of these people are "lost", either in the sense that they did not acknowledge how Mary touched their lives and thinking, or because those who write about them haven't picked up what references were made.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali falls into the latter category. She is a multiple exile, born in Somalia to a rebel leader, but raised in Saudi and Ethiopia and Kenya; she escaped alone to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, where she reinvented herself, studied political science, and got elected MP; and now has another life as an exile once more, this time in the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11 she decisively rejected Islam, the religion of her birth, and took on the mantle of atheism. This rejection is largely due to the abuses she sees that religion perpetrating on women -- indeed, she is one of the world's most high profile critics of Islam. You may remember the case of the Dutch film-maker who was murdered in the street for his brief video about domestic violence justified by Koranic verses; his name was Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was working with him on that film, Submission.

She entitled her memoirs Infidel, and there discusses Mary Wollstonecraft. She was considering doing a PhD, and in a conversation with one woman, turned away from the idea and towards more direct politics. From page 295:
What was I trying to achieve? Three things: first, I wanted Holland to wake up and stop tolerating the oppression of Muslim women in its midst....Second, I wanted to spark a debate among Muslims about reforming aspects of Islam so that people could begin to question, and criticize, their own beliefs.... 
Third, I wanted Muslim women to realize just how bad, and how unacceptable, their suffering was. I wanted to help them develop the vocabulary of resistance. I was inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights. Even after she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women [sic], it took more than a century before the suffragettes marched for the vote. I knew that freeing Muslim women from their mental cage would take time, too. I didn't expect immediate waves of organized support among Muslim women. People who are conditioned to meekness, almost to the point where they have no mind of their own, sadly have no ability to organize, or will to express their opinion. 
In 2007 she set up the AHA Foundation (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, geddit?) in the United States. The website strapline says simply "Women everywhere, of all cultures, merit access to education and basic human rights".
The AHA Foundation works to reinforce the following basic rights: the rights of women and girls to security and control of their own bodies, the rights of women and girls to an education, the rights of women to work outside the home and to control their own income, the rights of women and girls to freedom of expression and association, and the rights of women and girls to other basic civil rights of citizens and residents defined under the laws of Western democracies and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of sexual identification.
And from a recent interview in the Guardian:
Why, she asks, are voices such as [Germaine] Greer's not speaking out against the subjugation of women in the Muslim world? She calls for a new feminism, "that is going to focus on issues faced by non-western women, because they are the biggest issues. To own your own sexuality, as an adult woman; to choose your own lifestyle; to have access to education.... These things, I think, are more basic than the stuff that current feminists are concerning themselves with – like shattering the glass ceiling or finding a balance between work and home life.... There is feminism that has evolved to a kind of luxury." 
Another blogging co-incidence: I'd had this post lined up for a while, and only a couple of hours ago discovered that today is Kartini Day, the national holiday of the world's most populous Islamic country, Indonesia. Is there anyone there who can comment on the situation?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mary in Southwark

The previous leg of our walk took us through the mean streets of the City, around St Paul's Cathedral, and across the Thames to Southwark. As the sun was setting, we found our target: another plaque to Mary Wollstonecraft.

Claire Tomalin was involved, as she was with the Camden one. The biographer was given the honour of unveiling it in 2004; see the photos in this article from London-SE1 Community website. The plaque states: 
London Borough of Southwark
Mary Wollstonecraft
Writer, teacher and
champion of women's
Voted by the people

It sits next to a battered first floor window, in a C20 house, number 45 Dolben Street, on the site of one that Mary moved to when she was determined to be "first of a new genus", to make her career as a writer. It was then known as George Street, and was newly built when she moved in. According to the 1950 Survey of London,
George Street was formed circa 1776 and the houses on either side were completed and tenanted by 1780 .... It was built across the open fields shown as "tenter grounds" on Rocque's maps.... The formation of George Street was part of the rapid development of the area which followed the erection of Blackfriars Bridge. 
[A tenterground is "an area used for drying newly manufactured cloth". There is a street in Spitalfields of that name, with a large building purchased in 2008 as a studio by Tracey Emin-ence grise of the once-Young still-British Art-is-what-you-can-get-away-with-ists.]
That was in 1769, making it the third bridge over the Thames in what was then London. The Survey of London goes on to detail the street, house by house. Just our luck that Mary lived in the one that got knocked down: "Nos. 41 to 57 on the north side are, with the exception of No. 45, the original houses dating from the latter part of the 18th century." The building next door, called Thompson House, would have been known to her. I believe she lived here 1788 - 1791, scribbling away

I think back to Nancy Means Wright's piece, number 6 in the cycle Vita and the only one set out as prose. Reproduced by her kind permission, it describes the moment Mary arrives at Johnson's door:
    Dismissed by the Kingsboroughs, Mary lands on the doorstep of publisher-bookseller Joseph Johnson with her first novel, "Mary: A Fiction." London, 1788     
    Certain physical considerations have kept me from women, but there she was on my doorstep, a feral cat starved for the flesh of intelligent discourse. What manner of woman was this? No prospects, no sign of that surrender to man or God that hangs on such a condition? Genius maybe, but The Education of Daughters a flawed work, copies gathering dust in my warehouse— and she dares to chide "Little Johnson" for favoring price over appearance. Now I don't believe in witchery, but when she rushed in with her shabby beaver hat and a sheaf of new script (fiction!) to break on my chest like a wave of raw light, I gave up my shore. (It seems these moments come to certain asthmatics). Tonight, I assured her, she would sleep in the wings of St. Paul's. But first, she insisted, we would dine, she needed to eat. Then talk. And talk! A small man makes a good listener.
Johnson gave her refuge at his home in the publishers' quarter of the City, but that could only be a temporary arrangement.  He was another man like Richard Price, also a friend: a generation older than Mary, learned, gentle, successful in his field, connected to lots of interesting people, willing to support her, both with direct financial aid but also with emotional support, believing in her, encouraging her. All this without any attempt to pat her on the knee under the dining table (indeed, one of the biographers says he may have been gay). He was, as Price had been, a mentor, a father figure.  

Johnson helped find her somewhere to stay, conveniently just over the river (crossing at Blackfriars Bridge -- no need for "oars!"). And there -- in what I like to imagine was a freezing garret -- Mary wrote for his Analytic Review, teaching herself French and German by undertaking translations and reviewing books (even her own, which was rather naughty).

Next stop, next Wednesday: Spitalfields, where Mary Wollstonecraft was born.
Photos by Chihiro.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Godwin's diary

What are Tuesdays for, anyway? I shall attempt to use the day to highlight resources about Mary Wollstonecraft, her life, works, circle, and so on. One week you can look forward to a book review, and the next, some nuggets on the internet, suitably cleansed of their subterranean grime. Think of this as your Tuesday edition of the Analytic Review. First up:
Mary's last love, William Godwin, kept an extensive if somewhat overly abbreviated diary. The Bodleian Library, who sponsored the excellent Shelley's Ghost exhibition which I reviewed here in situ and here more virtually, have digitised these decades of notes. The diary is now highly searchable: hit it!
The diary is a resource of immense importance to researchers of history, politics, literature, and women’s studies.  It maps the radical intellectual and political life of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as providing extensive evidence on publishing relations, conversational coteries, artistic circles and theatrical production over the same period. 
One can also trace the developing relationships of one of the most important families in British literature, Godwin’s own, which included his wife Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), their daughter Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Many of the most important figures in British cultural history feature in its pages, including Anna Barbauld, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles James Fox, William Hazlitt, Thomas Holcroft, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charles and Mary Lamb, Mary Robinson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Wordsworth, and many others.
[Update: "In early 2012 the website won the annual award for Digital Resources from the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies." congratulations!] 

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Dutch TV with Humanists

Who knew that the Netherlands has such an organised humanist movement that they even have their own radio and TV network? Who knew that they have such good taste and judgement that they are producing a twelve-part TV series on philosophers, to be broadcast in the autumn? And who knew that one of their researchers, tasked with finding out about Mary Wollstonecraft, would discover her on Twitter, and thus be directed to this blog and me?

Mary is moving in proper philosophical circles: the others to be featured for an hour each are Socrates, Epicurus, Erasmus, Coornhert, De Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant, Multatuli, Sartre, and Arendt. I think I knew that Erasmus and Spinoza were Dutch, but so too were Coornhert and Multatuli, of whom I had not heard. The programmes will focus not only on the philosophers' lives and ideas, but on their impact today. 

It turns out that Dorothee Forma, the woman tasked with creating the episode on Mary Wollstonecraft, had made a radio documentary about her back in 1989. It's in Dutch, of course; I don't suppose any kind bilingual reader might give us the highlights in the comments?

The HUMAN homepage is impressive. What other media network do you know that has sidebar options such as human rights, practical idealism, care and education, and self-determination? The slogan, in the logo above, translates as "dare to think". I like to think Mary Wollstonecraft would have been a founding member of the board of directors, had that opportunity presented itself. Come to think of it, she was more or less an inaugural staff member of Joseph Johnson's Analytic Review, arguably a C18 equivalent for the debating of human-centred ideas.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mary, money, morality

I was almost tempted to entitle this "Mary and the Marxists". Well, Marxists may make of her what they will, but perhaps a closer parallel to our days would be to ask, what would Mary Wollstonecraft make of today's spread of wealth and advantages? She knew the world of inherited privilege: her first job on leaving home -- a job taken in order to leave home -- was as companion to an elderly woman in the resort towns frequented by royalty, courtiers, and hangers-on. She spent a year as governess to Anglo-Irish aristocrats, whose mother was more concerned with finishing her daughters for the marriage market than educating their minds or morals. She rubbed shoulders with the British equivalents to the French aristocrats against whom the Revolution was waged.

This week's excerpt comes from chapter 9 of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: "Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society."
From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind. For it is in the most polished society that noisome reptiles and venomous serpents lurk under the rank herbage; and there is voluptuousness pampered by the still sultry air, which relaxes every good disposition before it ripens into virtue.
That sounds very like "For the love of money is the root of all evil"  -- not money itself, but loving it above all else; not property itself, but respecting it to the exclusion of other values. I take the last bit to mean that children may be fundamentally of good character, but this doesn't have a chance to develop if they grow up in luxury, which weakens them morally.
One class presses on another; for all are aiming to procure respect on account of their property: and property, once gained, will procure the respect due only to talents and virtue. Men neglect the duties incumbent on man, yet are treated like demi-gods; religion is also separated from morality by a ceremonial veil, yet men wonder that the world is almost, literally speaking, a den of sharpers or oppressors.
She seems to be saying that, no matter what class we come from, we all seek respect from others by showing off our money, our houses, our cars, our clothes, our holidays. Once we have these, it doesn't matter whether we have any worthwhile skills to offer or goodness inside us. -- Celebrity culture? -- And I think the "men" here are people, not just male people: we will treat some frail humans like idols, even if they treat those around them very badly indeed. -- Pop Idol? Celebrity Has Talent?
There is a homely proverb, which speaks a shrewd truth, that whoever the devil finds idle he will employ. And what but habitual idleness can hereditary wealth and titles produce? For man is so constituted that he can only attain a proper use of his faculties by exercising them, and will not exercise them unless necessity, of some kind, first set the wheels in motion. Virtue likewise can only be acquired by the discharge of relative duties; but the importance of these sacred duties will scarcely be felt by the being who is cajoled out of his humanity by the flattery of sycophants. There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground....
"The devil makes work for idle hands." Not an adage often heard these days. The problem of hereditary money is a very current one, and can only become more so with the increasing concentration of the world's wealth among the plutocracy. Rich kids: how to handle them?  And those whose talent and hard work elevate them very young into the pop aristocracy: sportsmen, singers, actors. And those who are famous for being famous: from the vulgarati of the unreality shows, to the posh girls from country estates, perhaps both photographed stumbling out of the same nightclubs, perhaps both sharing the same drug dealer.

Those who are cajoled out of their humanity by the flattery of sycophants... the echo chamber of fame, the Hall of Mirrors of TV and tabloids. Lillie Langtry and the cult of celebrity, from the 1870s. The It girls, dating from Clara Bow in the 1920s. "Famous for fifteen minutes", as Andy Warhol said in 1968. None of these phenomena are new, but it seems to be ramped up these days. From society beauties to celebutantes - what would Mary Wollstonecraft have made of it all?

Photo: By marya from San Luis Obispo, USA (day in the life: lunch money) 
[CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Blockbuster potential

The French poster for Agora. Note how it
gives the movie a revolutionary emphasis.
A week ago I confessed my secret: that I desire the story of Mary Wollstonecraft to be told in the biggest way possible, namely as a full-on feature film.  Week by week I will reveal my dream of Mary: the Movie. Today I discuss the excellence of all its component parts, and thus its potential appeal. Forgive the exclamation marks, but for this post, nothing else will do...

What elements of a Hollywood blockbuster does Mary Wollstonecraft's life lack? None!

Sex! Violence! Insanity! Fame and infamy! Terror! Love! Special effects! Costumes! Locations! Celebrity!

Let's go through these in some detail...

  • Physical beauty! Graceful young women! (Lots!) Handsome charming young men! Powerful persuasive older men!
  • Love and romance! Passionate friendships! Lesbian lust! Menage a trois! Cheating boyfriend! Heartbreak! Premarital hetero-sex! (Lots!) Bastard baby! Shotgun marriage!
  • Fabulous settings! Lisbon & Paris! An Irish castle! The sublime splendours of Yorkshire & the wilderness of Scandinavia! Stormy ocean voyages! The white cliffs of Dover! And, bits of London that are actually possible to film!
  • Furies at the guillotine: revolutionary
    women stir up the populace
  • Violence! The bright hopes of the French Revolution turn to the Terror! Mob rule! Heads literally rolling off the guillotine! Blood in the Parisian gutters! Also, alcoholic wife-beating!
  • Death! French corpses everywhere! Bloody regicide! Women dying in childbirth! An old man, peacefully, with time for wise words & weeping at bedside!
  • Pain! Mental anguish! Spiritual turmoil! Suicide attempts! Rescue!
  • Religion! Politics! Conflict! Controversy! Civilised discussion of historically crucial Enlightenment ideas! Dinner parties that shaped Civilisation As We Know It! Shouting matches of sexual jealousy and spurned love!
  • Onwards & upwards! Overcoming a horrible childhood! Years of struggle against poverty! Standing up to society's expectations! Triumphing against the odds!
  • Amazing coincidences! E.g. travel two weeks to aid pregnant ill friend, and arrive to find her in labour! Friend dies in childbirth, thus presaging the heroine's fate! Couldn't make up this dramatic foreshadowing!

    Let's get financially astute (aka corporately cynical). Ways to attract financing:
  • Bodice ripping! Flattering feminine costumes! Lots of lace can be arranged! And disarranged! And the men: powdered wigs & frock coats!
  • In-jokes and references to other films! E.g. wet-shirted young man in Yorkshire (Pride & Prejudice), women knitting at the guillotine (Les Miserables).
  • Grotesque elements of times gone by! Poor people starving! Hogarth's Gin Lane! A dying woman's breasts turgid with milk being relieved by puppies' suckling! Or, can expurgate if too distasteful for modern audience, as just titillating detail and not really relevant to our plot!
  • Famous people!  Second president of the United States John Adams and wife Abigail; Ben Franklin too; radical pamphleteer Tom Paine; lexicographer Samuel Johnson; Louis XVI on his way to the gallows!
  • A black actor with a speaking part! (Another American angle.) Mary hung out with Abolitionists; call such a character a likely construct, a poetic licence.
  • Gothic horror! (If requested.) Easy tie-ins to Frankenstein. Ghosts, if wished.
  • Or would potential backers prefer pirates? Mary sailed the seas, on a detective quest for a missing treasure ship, at a time when Barbary pirates were a real risk.

    Her legacy, our slogan: Learn, earn, read, write; teach, travel, live, love!
    Images all from Wikimedia Commons, except for Agora movie poster: 
    Cow and calf rocks in Yorkshire, TJBlackwell at en.wikipedia, 
    [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (];
    Revolutionary women, drawing by H. Baron and engraving by L. Massard, public domain; Toilette,by Michel Garnier, public domain.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Visual Vindication: A Wordle

 A Wordle is a fun way of mixing up the text of a given document (in this case, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and highlighting the main words, emboldened in proportion to the number of appearances each makes. The software filters out overly common words such as articles and pronouns and auxiliary verbs, giving a visual representation of what the text is about. Some instructors use them in class to whet the appetites of their students. Notice that multiple different Wordles can be generated from the same text, varying in colour, orientation, and other aesthetics, but maintaining the same balance of weight.

Wordle: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Larger image

Wordle: Vindication on the Rights of Women

Larger image

Wordle: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Larger image
From the Wordle home page 
Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mary in St Paul's, almost

This is the third in a series of Wednesday walks. The first traced Mary Wollstonecraft's final days in Somers Town, and the second visited St Pancras Church, the scene of her marriage and burial. We -- the Japanese historian, the Swedish theatrician, and I -- were last seen indulging in a pot of tea at Drink Shop Do. Back in the day, Dissenters and Abolitionists were at the forefront of the boycott of slave-grown, i.e.. West Indian, sugar, and today's fair trade campaigns spring from the same instinct and indirectly the same roots. Mary called the slave trade one "that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion", so she remains with us even in the tea room.

Out the door, turn right, and in a few steps we are at Housmans, "radical booksellers since 1945". I took my little party inside and we looked around. With professional acuity, Chihiro scented Mary across the room, and zoomed in like a sniffer dog on a top-shelf copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the 2010 edition by Verso with an introduction by Sheila Rowbotham. Housman's website has a page for Mary, though strangely it doesn't list that book: 
As a tribute to one of the most gifted literary families of all time, Housmans retain a moderately comprehensive stock of books written by the Wollstonecraft family. 
I just love that: "the Wollstonecraft family". The shop sells postcards of the gravestone we visited in the previous leg of the walk, daffodils a-nodding. By this point the performance designer had to leave us for another appointment, but the historian, aware that this was her last 24 hours in London, wanted to continue. Great, said I, let's go looking for another plaque I've never seen before.

Surrounding buildings change, but the cathedral is much
as Mary would have known it. (Wikimedia Commons)
Across the street is the bus stop for number 17, which took us straight to St Paul's Cathedral. Wren's masterpiece survived World War II relatively unscathed, despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe,  but a lot around it was destroyed, so we didn't spend the fading daylight searching for remnants of Joseph Johnson's publishing house, which would have been in the immediate vicinity.  (I've since found out abut a free rooftop gallery opposite the cathedral, and next time I might go up One New Change.)

We headed across the blade of light, the formerly wobbly pedestrian bridge, and imagined the Pool of London in the late C18, the beginnings of the real commercial success of the British Empire. It would have been packed thick with ships, laden with riches from Indias east and west: quinquiremes of Nineveh, sailing home to haven in cloudy London-town. (The so-called Rhinebeck panorama, held by the Museum of the Docklands, gives a good idea.) Ahead of us was the former power station, better known by the name of a sugar magnate who was born to a Unitarian clergyman. To one side of Tate Modern is Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and to the other, a net of confusing streets we had to untangle. Just as the sun was setting, we found our plaque.

I've been told these posts tend to be on the lengthy side, and have been advised to curtail them. So -  the walk will continue next Wednesday, when I promise you that building, and the plaque, and a poem. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A philosophical translation

Last week I tried my hand at translating Mary Wollstonecraft into English, as she is spoke today. You can judge the results here. Sandrine Berges (whom I hope I may call this blog's resident philosopher, or at any rate our chief guest) pointed out in the comments that someone else had tried their hand at A Vindication of the Rights of Woman too. It turns out that this someone is none other than an academic philosopher, as kosher as they come, called Jonathan Bennett, who has devoted his talent and time to developing a site called Early Modern Texts. You can read all about him; but 'twould be more rational to skip directly to his explanation of the necessity for this project:
An average student, when required to read a stylistically difficult text, will either (1) confess defeat, or (2) glide along the surface of the text, getting a vague sense of having understood it. The greater disaster is (2). When so much in our world and indeed in our educational practices seduces people away from close and precise attention to the written word, it would be a sorry thing if this seduction were furthered by philosophy, which ought to be its most implacable enemy.
This explains how he translates these texts -- very methodically, and with a light but thorough hand. (These sound like the attributes of an excellent baker.) "The texts are not dumbed down. Where a change is made, it is to make the original thought more accessible than it is on the original page. In no case have I knowingly simplified or otherwise altered the intellectual content," he assures us. Jonathan Bennett is the further side of 80, and his efforts remind me of the so-called grandmother hypothesis -- the benefits to society of a body of people, willing and able to contribute their skills and knowledge, but no longer driven by necessities such as earning a living, getting the children to bed at a reasonable hour, and pleasing the department head.

Aside from his translation of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he gives us the works of several people who were important influences on Mary Wollstonecraft, including her mentor, the Dissenting minister Dr Richard Price, and the French philosopher and educationalist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Also in his list is Anne Conway, who, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"was one of a tiny minority of seventeenth-century women who was able to pursue an interest in philosophy. She was associated with the Cambridge Platonists, particularly Henry More". I wonder if Mary knew of her Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy?

Not the twilight of decrepitude, but the sunset of senescence: I feel a warm glow as I contemplate the wine he has bottled for our mutual delectation, from vinyards he has tended his whole life. His copyright statement is admirably clear. "There is no charge for any permitted use of the texts. No public money has supported the work of preparing the texts, or defrayed the costs of creating and maintaining this website." Is this not the epitome of generosity? The internet has given us new ways to be useful and to help each other. Long may it continue! 

It is a fantastic resource, no question. But without raining on anyone's parade, I have to point out that the passage I attempted to translate, he has left almost untouched. I ran his version through the readability calculator, and it came out with a US grade level of 12 to 27, take your pick. It's not easy material.

When students are introduced to the great philosophical works of the early modern period, it is usually in the hope that they will engage with the thoughts and arguments that the texts present. The teaching experience of many of us suggests that most students simply cannot understand these texts. The increasing rate of change in the English language ensures that fewer and fewer of today’s readers can cope with the writings of the 16th-18th centuries. There are difficulties of syntax, length and complexity of sentences, words that are no longer current, still-familiar words used in meanings that they now do not have, arcane references to other philosophers which today’s students will seldom understand or be required to follow up; these and other factors create forbidding obstacles to engaging with these early modern texts. 
I reduce the obstacles so that students can more easily come to grips with the philosophical thoughts the texts express. Once they do that, they still won’t have an easy time, because the material itself is hard; but their efforts will go into getting philosophical understanding, not decoding old prose. 
My versions are faithful to the content of the originals, but are plainer and more straightforward in manner. I could have made them even plainer, but that would have taken them further than I wanted to go from the stylistic feel of the originals. I love the original texts, and am glad to have spent years wrestling with them in their pristine form. I do wish, though, that through the years I could also have read them sometimes with all my energy going into the philosophy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

An American novelist and poet muses

Nancy Means Wright
This guest post is from an American novelist and poet. Nancy Means Wright has been supporting this blog ever since September, when I discovered her cycle of poems about Mary, called Vita.  She has also published one novel with Mary at its centre, and has another nearing completion. Nancy has her own website and is also active on Facebook as Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft.

This is the fourth in a series of "Mary and me" posts, which give guests an opportunity to tell us how Mary Wollstonecraft came into, and fits into, their personal and professional lives. Previously we have heard from a French philosopher and a Japanese historian, and last week, belatedly, from me, because I thought you might like to know who is behind this blog. Here is what Nancy has to say:

Back in the days when women were starting to gather together in small angry groups and refuse to simply stay home and nurse babies, I went with my husband to teach in a New England boys’ boarding school. I had already taught English for two years, but the headmaster declared that English was a man’s subject. I was dispirited—until I joined a  Unitarian women’s discussion group and read Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I felt an immediate kinship. We were both raised in impecunious, unstable homes, with no room of our own to write in. We escaped (so we thought) at an early age—Mary at nineteen to caretake a cranky old lady, and I at twelve when my father died, catapulting me into a girl’s boarding school for five years. I loved my studies, and loved sports, something Mary advised. A female should cultivate mind and body, she insisted in a day when women might spend up to five hours just getting dressed and coiffed. Yet mine was a single sex world, whereas Mary had envisioned boys and girls together.

So you can imagine my excitement, in that sexist boys' school, to discover Mary’s revolutionary work. Inspired by her passion and extraordinary resilience, I earned a masters degree in French and said, “here. Now hire me.” I eventually became the language department head with three men under me—and that was gratifying. But beyond my ivory tower, women were dying from abortions or producing multiple children (I already had four!). Many were afraid to risk a husband’s disapproval and join the struggle for power. Though “I do not wish (women) to have power over men,” Mary declared, “but over themselves.” 

I taped her words in large black letters above my desk. I published a first novel about a rebellious faculty wife in the sixties—autobiographical, yes!—not unlike Mary, a Fiction (1788). I put on protest plays and wrote stories for The Second Wave, a Boston literary journal. I rode an all night schoolbus to march in Washington DC for the Equal Rights Amendment. We lost, but I imagined Mary beside me, waving her arms: “Keep up the fight,” I heard her whisper in my ear.   

Yes, there was criticism. I wasn’t called a “hyena in petticoats” as Mary was, but if  people weren’t laughing at us, they called us Bra Burners and Man Haters. But I liked men—the brainy, seemingly androgynous ones. And so did Mary—this was part of her dilemma, her fatal flaw one might call it: wanting independence but longing for the grand passion. And later betrayed and shunned by society when she thought she’d found it.

In 1990 I walked out of a bad marriage with empty pockets and went to teach in a  liberal arts college in Poughkeespie, New York. Even then, with divorce possible as it wasn’t in Mary’s time, I felt like a pariah. Of course I wouldn’t have had the courage to escape without Mary as my guide! She was a quester by nature, with a brilliant, inquiring mind that railed against any injustice, sham, and the small closed minds one meets every day. Wanting more and more of her words and her colourful life, I read five biographies and all her collected letters (that heart-searching voice!). l wrote her into a chapbook of poems, and then into Midnight Fires, the first in a series of novels in her persona.

Yet for me, Mary is far more than a character in a book. I want to bring her into the twenty-first century. I want women—and men too—to know what they owe to this brave, freethinking woman who, in a day of female oppression, dared speak out for equality and a liberal education for all. An education that would entail an open mind, social justice, and a woman’s right to create a life of her own.