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.

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