Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's all Dutch to me

This was kindly sent to me by Josephine Krikke, the researcher on the Dutch Humanist TV programme about Mary Wollstonecraft, her philosophy, life, and effect on our times. The half-hour episode aired in the Netherlands two weeks ago, which I wrote about then, and is available on Vimeo. This text is their translation of the animation, which takes up the first couple of minutes of the programme in telling Mary's life quite charmingly. It is easy enough to understand, even without these English words. 
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the first feminist publications. In her time, females were mainly seen as a possession, but Wollstonecraft claimed that they had the same rights as males. She wrote much more than this, novels and travel journals, for example. She was one of the first women who could earn her living from writing. She called herself "the first of a new genus". 

Wollstonecraft has a difficult childhood. Her family relocates often because her father gets into debt. In addition, he beats his wife. Mary (Wollstonecraft) often lies in front of her mother’s bedroom door, in order to protect her. At age 18, she leaves home. 

With her best friend, Fanny Blood, Wollstonecraft sets up a school in Newington Green but Blood passes away not long after. Wollstonecraft leaves the school and settles in London. Here she can often be found at the publishing house of Joseph Johnson, where she meets progressive intellectuals, such as Thomas Paine and her future husband, William Godwin. She learns French and German, translates texts and starts to publish her own works. 

The French Revolution touches the hearts of progressive intellectuals. Wollstonecraft receives praise for her A Vindication of the Rights of Man, wherein she defends the principles of the revolution – the freedom and equality of every human being. But especially, the later published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is still well known today. 

In this, Wollstonecraft claims that the ideas of the revolution are also applicable for females. The male revolutionaries had not stopped to think about this. Even the revolutionary philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that education for females was not necessary, because they are superficial and weak. Nonsense, says Wollstonecraft. It is exactly because of the lack of education that females are superficial. Girls are taught to behave themselves like obedient dogs, like spaniels. 

Wollstonecraft leaves for post-revolution France and begins a fateful relationship with the American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay. After the birth of their child, Fanny, he leaves her. Once back in London, Wollstonecraft tries to end her own life by jumping in the Thames, but a passerby rescues her. 

Later she marries the renowned liberal philosopher, William Godwin. She passes away during the birth of their second child, Mary. Godwin writes to a friend that he is certain he shall never again know happiness. Daughter Mary later marries English poet, Percy Shelly; at age 19 she writes Frankenstein.


  1. Oh great! I watched the online video when you posted it, and thought it was a pity there was no English subtitles or translation available (my knowledge of Dutch is sketchy). Thanks for posting.

  2. Even a sketchy knowledge of Dutch is better than mine - although, in fact, on each of my three viewings I understood a few words more. "Bedroom", for example: I won't attempt the Dutch spelling, but it is clearly cognate with "sleep chamber". Can you understand any of the studio discussion?

  3. Not much unfortunately. Actually, the introductory part about Mary's life is the one I understood the best - unsurprisingly, since the tone and rhythm is more even and narrative. I *think* the studio discussion is about the relevance of Mary's work to our time ("nu" = "now" comes up several times).
    But if you're interested - and if no better Dutch speaker can help - I can ask my father, who is a native Dutch speaker, when I see him at Christmas time.
    You're right about "bedroom", it's "slaapkammer", literally "sleep chamber" :)

  4. Oh wait! I had not seen that there was an option to see Dutch subtitles... it helped me a lot to understand (I read Dutch better than I understand the spoken language).
    That's indeed about the relevance to our time.
    The first woman interviewed says that she sees a lot of differences between the situation of women in the 18th c. and nowadays, mainly in terms of respect, but there is still much room for improvement in terms of equality.
    A second woman reacts, asking herself what "equality" is, if it is being identical, and explains that she thinks it's good to be different, but that being different does not mean that a woman is less rational than a woman.
    Then a man in a white T-shirt asks the woman something, I think, along the lines of "what would Mary fight for today?"
    The woman answers that she thinks she would fight for the same things, referring to her (Mary's) passionate character and life, with her illegitimate child etc. and states that there are still many "hysterical" things women can do without being idiots (?), and passionate people do otherwise than mainstream people.
    The man asks her then if she thinks Mary would fight the "bourgeois" way-of-life, and she agrees wholeheartedly.
    A third woman speaks, saying she thinks that women are still awfully reduced to their body, whatever the intellectual possibilities they have, and that today Mary would fight about that.
    Playfully, the host asks another man in a white T-shirt whether he considers too often women for their body, which the man confesses before continuing more seriously, explaining that even if he tries to put the body aspect in the background, to reason, it always comes forward in his mind, and he refers to the "institutionalised" stereotypes of women that the media keeps putting forward (quoting MTV video clips as an example). The philosopher reacts by elaborating on reason, and it's the end of the first studio discussion.

  5. I wonder if Mary today would waste a second glance at a William Godwin? The more I read about him, the person, the more I come to think that, had Mary lived, she probably would have given William the flick sooner rather than later: and that their daughter Mary might not have turned out such a smug and self-centred little chit. Poor Fanny Imlay might have had some chance at realising her own talents and predilections, too.

  6. Remiss of me not to respond to these. Thank you so much, Marjorie, for the application of your Dutch skills! If you have time, would you care to continue?
    And Vicki, it is indeed fascinating to speculate on what would have happened, had the doctor washed his hands. No Frankenstein, obviously. But dumping Godwin? Not sure. Perhaps what Virginia Woolf called her experiments in living would have continued to morph. Non-residential polyamory, for a start.