Friday, September 30, 2011

July, August, September overview

Another overview, this time of three months. A busy first half of July, followed by a nice long rest in August (in a cool room, with a damp cloth on my forehead), and then picking up the threads as the autumn begins.

We have had news of a Feburary philosophy conference in Sweden, and the Dutch humanists' broadcast is in a few weeks. (Both of these focus on Mary Wollstonecraft's philosophy, not her value to history or literature or education or theology.) There has been the annual pilgrimage of visitors to the only extant building associated with her. There has been another sort of pilgrimage, in the steps of her Norwegian wanderings. Earlier on, we had a brief series on Mary and the USA and Mary and France, in honour of those countries' revolutionary July birthday beginnings.

Attempting close to daily postings was too much: too exhausting for me, and no doubt just as tiring for my readers. So now I am trying for a rhythm of posting every other day, or perhaps thrice a week. When I've cleared the backlog of time-sensitive items, I'd like to develop new weekly series, of book reviews for instance, or more London walks, or, particularly, more statues to consider.

The pageviews in the last month are 1006; those from all time are 11 587. The month's dip is down to taking time off, including from Twitter publicity. Let's see where the next month leads. I already have several items queued up.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dutch TV edges closer

Some time ago I wrote of the Dutch Humanist TV station and its upcoming 12-part series on philosophers, of which Mary Wollstonecraft will get one hour-long episiode. (I like their graphic for the series, to the left.) I was interviewed via Twitter in June, which I reported at the time. I have heard from the production team again, and the broadcast will be a month today, 29 October. 

The researcher has assured me that the episode will be uploaded to Vimeo, for those out of reach of the Netherlands. Of course, it will be in Dutch, which is a bit of a hindrance for some of us. Fortunately, written text can be spun through Google Translate, followed by a quick clean-up. Herewith some of the press release.
Guests in this broadcast are Leon Heuts, philosopher, editor of Philosophy Magazine and fan of Mary Wollstonecraft. He holds a Twitter session with another fan: Roberta Wedge from London. On her blog Wedge researches everything to do with Wollstonecraft. She has a Twitter account as Mary.  
How can women combine passion with a career? Dorothée Forma [award-winning documentary maker] and Maruja Remijn Bobo, gender studies professor at the University of Amsterdam, follow Marieke Bax, businesswoman and founder of Talent to the Top, the initiative for more women to the top.  
Maruja Remijn Bobo: "On the one hand, Mary Wollstonecraft is a very interesting philosopher; on the other hand, she is a very passionate human being who travelled and loved. She was a very contemporary, modern, self-made woman."

Here's the Dutch Humanist TV take on Mary's life. NB the attention given to her marriage with dearest Wm:
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Womanone of the first feminist works. In her time, women were primarily seen as propertybut Wollstonecraft claims that they have the same rights as menShe writes a lot, novels and travel essays. She is one of the first women to live by the penShe calls herself "the first of a new genus".

In 1792 Wollstonecraft departs for Paris to see the French Revolution at first hand. She meets the American Gilbert Imlaywith whom she has a daughterAfter a painful break with Imlay and a failed suicide attempt, she becomes friends with the radical philosopher William Godwin, who rejects marriage and romanceNevertheless they marry, emphasizing that their marriage is no concession to the prevailing morality, but they are completely equal partnersMary Wollstonecraft died on September 10, 179711 days after the birth of her daughter Mary.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Philosophers' confab

Lund University main building. By Magnus Bäck
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Finally, Mary Wollstonecraft is getting proper attention as a philosopher. A Swedish research programme called Understanding Agency: Conceptions of Action, Human Nature and Value in the Western Philosophic Tradition is one of the organisations giving her a full day:
On 23 February, 2012, there will be a one day symposium on the philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft, Enlightenment thinker and feminist pioneer. The symposium takes place in Lund and is organized jointly by Understanding Agency and the Philosophical Psychology, Morality and Politics Research Unit at the Universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä.
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that Sandrine Berges (who is a serious academic force to contend with, and in her spare time also grapples with the Undead), is addressing this all-day argument of philosophers. Earlier this year, she spoke at Man and Nature from Descartes to Wollstonecraft, though that was in Istanbul, much closer to home at Bilkent.

There is no doubt that Mary Wollstonecraft's most famous book is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and her "re-discovery"* over the last half-century has been led by the scholars of women's history, a field of study for too long forgotten and suppressed. However, one of the purposes of this blog is to remind the world that Mary does not speak solely to women, or to feminists. She speaks to democrats, Romantics, educationalists, and many other groups. It is good to see philosophers getting their teeth into her, zombies or not.

More info on the academic confab here. (What is the difference between a conference and a symposium, anyway?) [Addendum: the post-conference page is here, with podcasts.]

*In scare quotes, because she was never forgotten: not immediately following her death, not in the aftermath of the French Revolution, not in the long decades leading up to an organised suffrage movement, not once women won the right to education and later the right to vote in one jurisdiction after another, not in the growing prosperity of the C20. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mother and daughter

Two mentions of Mary Wollstonecraft in today's Observer: an interview with Claire Tomalin, author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974), and a piece by Mark Kermode, a regular (resident?) Guardian/Observer film writer. Rachel Cooke does a good job with her life-spanning interview, in which Tomalin's life-changing book gets a mention:
...with her new baby in a basket beside her, she began work on her first biography, a life of Mary Wollstonecraft. She started to feel a little happier. [...] She was by now in her 40s, the period she thinks of as her youth: liberated and busy. The Mary Wollstonecraft book came out and was a huge success, so in 1977, she left the Statesman, thinking she would be a full-time writer.
Cooke asks if "work was a balm", and Tomalin responds, "Yes, absolutely. That's what I do. If I'm upset about something, I go into my study and I work." A room of one's own....

Kermode, however well he knows his cinematography, and despite being billed elsewhere as a feminist, misses a vital historical detail: he commits the all too frequent error of mistaking daughter for mother:
Those of us who had the gall to praise Frankenstein for its gloriously overcooked melodramatic aesthetic (a quality entirely in keeping with Mary Wollstonecraft's source novel) were laughed out of court by those toeing the consensus line. 
Perhaps it was merely a slip; perhaps it can be blamed on an anonymous sub-editor. But this renews my determination to establish Mary Wollstonecraft more firmly in the public imagination.

(Is it overkill to post twice in a day? The previous item was queued; this one's spontaneous.)

Marki Shalloe’s Promethea Unlaced

Prometheus Bound by Reinhold Begas. 
Photo by 
James Steakley [CC-BY-SA-3.0
or GFDL (],
via Wikimedia Commons
I promised myself not to get distracted, and particularly, not to let this blog get waylaid by Mary Shelley and her monster. Today's post is on the cusp, as it deals with the death of the woman known by that point as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and with the birth of the girl introduced to the world by the same trinomial.

According to the Decator Minute, on Tuesday and Wednesday there will be dramatic readings in Georgia. (Not a million miles from North Carolina, which in 2009 put on a play called Rights and Wrongs.)
Atlanta playwright Marki Shalloe’s Promethea Unlaced, the story of the birth of Mary Shelley and the birth of her famous novel, Frankenstein. Shalloe is a local playwright with a penchant for finding stories in unusual places. “Of daydream and nightmare, always choose the nightmare. It makes the better tale,” says Shalloe in Promethea.

Shalloe said that once her research landed on Mary Shelley’s mother – Mary Wollstonecraft – everything changed. According to Shalloe, “This woman fought for the emancipation of women in the 18th century, believed in free love before anyone really knew what that was, and knew the most irreconcilable sin is the sin against oneself or self betrayal.” Shalloe knew then the story that needed to be told: the legacy of immortality through written expression.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Heroine of the high seas

Battery at Holmen, Risør -1814
In early summer I had the repeated pleasure of meeting Bee Rowlatt, who calls herself a "proper Wollstonecraft geek", and I wrote briefly of  her Scandinavian pilgrimage with baby under one arm and book proposal under the other. Remember the episode in Mary's life, when she returns to London from revolutionary France, babe in arms, to find the faithless Imlay shacked up with an actress? The American adventurer rescued her from a suicidal overdose of despair. She said, "What can I do to prove my devotion?" He said, "Well, there's this ship of mine that's gone missing, full of silver from French aristos who were liquidating their assets to stay a step ahead of the guillotine. Why don't you have a look for it? Last spotted in a Hanseatic port." (I paraphrase.) 

Bee's evocative and lively travel piece has finally appeared in The Telegraph:
Wollstonecraft Letters map. Kmusser [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
She is a broken-hearted treasure-hunting single mum philosopher on the high seas, and I think I am a bit in love with her. So I am retracing her steps, on the part of her journey where she pursues a notorious Norwegian captain down the rocky coastline of the Skagerrak. Wollstonecraft undertook the voyage with her baby and a trusty maid. I am bringing my baby and a large rucksack but alas, no maid.
(I did offer my services, Bee, even before meeting your baby, and having done so, would gladly offer again.) Mother and infant journey from port to port:

Tønsberg,by Karl Ragnar Gjertsen Krg.
[GFDL or CC-BY-3.0]
We begin in Tønsberg, a coastal town to the south of Oslo where Wollstonecraft made a base for her treasure hunt. It's a pretty town, a jumble of coloured wooden houses that look like attractive garden sheds.
(Some things have changed: in Mary's day there were about 1500 inhabitants, and now there are almost 40 000.)
With a delightful local guide, Ursula Houge, I visit the places where our heroine relaxed, posted many letters to the undeserving Imlay, and dined out with Tønsberg's finest.
Kragerø, Norway
Some the ink spilled here became Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, arguably Mary's best-known book after A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (though I suppose A Vindication of the Rights of Men ranks up there too). Bee told me that she discovered Mary through the Scandinavian letters. I've tended to come across feminists and democrats who know Mary through the more political angles to her life, but there must be many readers who found her first as a proto-Romantic. (And, of course, many would know her only as the mother of Mary Shelley, or, even more commonly, mistake her for the author of Frankenstein.) 
Wollstonecraft exclaims: "Norwegians enjoy all the blessings of freedom," but it's not just Norway's political possibilities that inspire her. Nature is hugely important. She responds to the sublime in the wilderness around her with abandon, and a lot of exclamation marks. Her new way of travel writing profoundly influenced subsequent Romantic writers; Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" has clear echoes of the book.
Let us not forget that those exclamation marks made William Godwin her husband: the anarchist philosopher had written against the institution of marriage, and was acquainted with Mary only somewhat unwillingly, but he fell head over bachelor heels on reading the newly published Letters. The only line of his that I can quote from memory is: "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book." Phwoar! That's about as racy as dearest Wm ever got. Bee named her travelling companion William, by the way:
Will (the baby) and I are staying in a hostel just below the brow of the hill on which Wollstonecraft often sat, overlooking the town and the surrounding sea. She wrote: "the white sails… turned the cliffs, or seemed to take shelter under the pines which covered the little islands that so gracefully rose to render the terrific ocean beautiful. The fishermen were calmly casting their nets; whilst the seagulls hovered over the unruffled deep."
By Bilden är tagen av en amatörfotograf.Pihlbaoge
Doesn't it sound idyllic? 

Wollstonecraft travelled mostly by boat, heading westward in pursuit of the Norwegian captain who did a runner with Imlay's cargo of silver. I've enlisted the help of Gunnar Molden, a local historian and Wollstonecraft enthusiast, whose dogged research into this treacherous tale spans decades and countries. From Kragerø, Molden has arranged for a boat to take us on to Wollstonecraft's final stop. The moment we meet, we set about speculating on the missing silver and the Norwegian captain. Mick, the skipper, hadn't heard of Wollstonecraft's adventures here, but he's soon drawn in. We eat sugared cinnamon buns and I count jellyfish as we set sail. The sun is dazzling, there's a fair wind, and I'm so excited I can't sit still.

The article was months delayed by terrorist shooting and polar bear attack. By now the great British public has forgotten what a bad summer it has been for teenagers camping in Norway, and can turn again to the holiday fantasies of classic children's books, made real in the unreal blueness of Scandinavian seas
The lure of these islands is strong; there is magic in the notion of a miniature world, of setting foot on a child-sized kingdom. Watery adventures from childhood books spring to mind: Swallows and AmazonsThe Famous FiveThe Wind in the Willows.
Visor Museum, by Jarvin - Jarle Vines [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0]
Book your holiday now, but do be aware that:
Norway is expensive.... Wollstonecraft remarked that "my bill at Tønsberg was ... much higher than it ought to have been" and the intervening 216 years have done nothing to change this. 
Speaking of dosh, Bee has very kindly donated her payment for Norway and Mary Wollstonecraft: My heroine of the high seas  to the campaign to raise a memorial statue. (I'm on the working group and have written about the project here.) In fact, Bee is offering more of her talents than mere money, and Mary on the Green can only benefit from her energy and enthusiasm. "She is a warm-hearted multi-mum writer/producer on the high seas, and I think I am a bit in love with her."

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

London Open House

This weekend is the wonderful architectural festival known as London Open House. One of the many treasures open free of charge to the public is Newington Green Unitarian Church, where, as last year, I was delighted to show visitors around, and tell them about Mary Wollstonecraft's life-changing time here. This is the church that radicalised England's first feminist! Dozens of people made the pilgrimage today, to sit in her pew and soak up the atmosphere of the chapel that changed the world. (A riff on the little history produced by Newington Green Action Group, The Village that Changed the World.)

Mary had a couple of crucial years in early adulthood with the Rational Dissenters of Newington Green. (Red Saunders has conjured up a photo-montage of Mary and the Dissenters, and James Hobbs has drawn charming sketches of the church and the house of Mary's mentor Richard Price.)  Was Mary a Unitarian? In affiliation, she and her contemporaries would have said not; but in her writing, it is easy to see her as one. She expresses views about the Divine and Nature that could fit into many a modern Unitarian sermon -- not to mention her revolutionary social perspective.

Tomorrow, the chapel is again open to all comers, 1:30 to 5pm. In addition, services are held on most Sundays at 11am (though not on Sept 18 - check here first), and if you get there early, you too can sit in Mary's pew.

[Addendum: one of the visitors was Cherry Potts, Writer, who came not only to admire the pews' rare ball hinges, but to pay her respects to pew 19, confessing to "a soft spot" for Our Mary.]

[PS2: I am told the total number of weekend visitors was 212.]

Saturday, September 10, 2011

This blog's birthday is Mary's deathday

On this day 214 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft died. On this day last year, A Vindication of the Rights of Mary was born. This post is the 100th [clarification - in 2011]; the round number was unintended, but nonetheless auspicious. I hope this blog has provided you, dear reader, with edification, interspersed with amusement. She is alive; her spirit is with us yet.