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.


  1. great to have you back! particularly enjoyed this post.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. Good to have you commenting again, too. Did you see the posts about Paris? There are still more missing, for later!