Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Learn with Lyndall Gordon

An Oxford study day near Mary Wollstonecraft's birthday. Ironic that she does not really appear in the title -- Revolutionary Lives: the Godwins and the Shelleys. Biographer Lyndall Gordon, whose talk on Mary and the Unitarians I attended in May 2011, will be presenting 75 minutes of "A New Genus". The day, Saturday 28 April 2012, recapitulates the quadrille played out in the exhibition at the Bodleian, Shelley's Ghost (aka Our Mary, Her Husband, Their Daughter, and the Tousle-hair'd Poet), which I visited with Chihiro Umegaki, and which has recently been rehung at the New York Public Library

Monday, March 26, 2012

Podcast: Rousseau, Macaulay and Wollstonecraft on Negative Education

Last Monday we looked at the first podcast from last month's philosophers' confab on Mary Wollstonecraft. That was Enlightenment Thinker by Karen O'Brien. This week it is the turn of Martina Reuter of Helsinki and Jyväskylä, Finland, speaking on Rousseau, Macaulay and Wollstonecraft on Negative Education.
In her Letters on Education, Catherine Macaulay adapts J.-J. Rousseau’s notion of negative education, emphasizing that the primary task of education is to protect children from harmful impressions. There is a certain tension in Macaulay’s use of the notion. Her belief in the active power of reason is much stronger than Rousseau’s and she does not seem to realize that Rousseau introduced the notion of negative education as an explicit critique of John Locke’s theory of education. In my presentation I will first examine Macaulay’s adaption of negative education and then, in the second part of the paper, I will argue that Mary Wollstonecraft seems to be less influenced by the idea of negative education than Macaulay. I suggest that Wollstonecraft’s slightly lesser worry about harmful impressions does not primarily follow from her belief in reason, which she shares with Macaulay, but rather from her conception of the imagination. According to Wollstonecraft’s notion of creative imagination, the imagination is not merely passively inflamed by impressions, but also able to create impressions and combine reason with passion.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Luddite confounded: Mary goes Android

AKA, I do not really understand modern life, and nor would Mary Wollstonecraft, part 297...

...but fortunately some friends do, in this case the Chicago anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, who befriended me on Twitter, disclosed herself as a Lost Daughter (i.e. one whose thinking followed the path Mary had cut), pointed me towards poetry, and more recently has alerted me to Android apps. I do not understand how any organisation can make money selling items that are legally and widely available for free, as old books out of copyright are, but there you go: clearly I am behind the times. For £0.61 you can acquire a four-in-hand*:

This book contain collection of 4 books
1. Mary: A Fiction [1788]
2. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [1792]
3. Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark
4. Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman [1798]
William Godwin has one too; his costs a penny more, but offers seven books.

*Four-in-hand: a carriage drawn by four horses. Also, now, four books that can be read on one hand-held device.
Android image: Google [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, March 19, 2012

Podcast: Enlightenment thinker

The one-day philosophers' confab in Sweden (which we covered earlier) has released its presentations as podcasts. Here's the first of them; the other four will appear on successive Mondays:
Karen O'Brien, Birmingham.
"Mary Wollstonecraft: Enlightenment thinker"
In this paper O’Brien revisits and, to an extent, revises what she has written before about Wollstonecraft – in Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2009) – concerning her relationship to Enlightenment thought. O’Brien here specifically picks up on how Wollstonecraft’s fiction, Letters from Sweden and her two Vindications, develop a strand in Enlightenment thinking that is concerned with the insight into human rights (and specifically female rights) that comes from mutual recognition of affect and individual sensibility.
Here is the official site, if you can't wait for more recordings. The audio is clear, but very quiet, though I have set everything I can to maximum. Eleven, even. (Spinal Tap can be an excellent intro to philosophy for some teens: sexism/sexist, inches/feet, perception/reality.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Mary Wollstonecraft Centre

The brass plaque on the door said

The Mary Wollstonecraft 
and Richard Price Centre 
for Women's Leadership 
and Financial Literacy

I woke from a dream a few weeks ago with this image in my head. Yesterday I shared this vision with sensible people who did not laugh at me. Something is about to happen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dear Wm's scribblings

Mary Wollstonecraft's last few years, some of her happiest, were intimately bound up with William Godwin. When their friendship ripened into love, they married; when the fruit of that love killed her, he was devastated.  I think he went a bit mad with grief, rushing into publication with one of the most ill-advised memoirs in literary history. A year ago we looked at his diary, newly online, its odd abbreviations rendered comprehensible by careful editing, a gift to the world of scholarship, a triumph of the digital humanities. Now we have his letters, or at any rate 200 of them in the first volume, taking us from 1778, when he was "a theologically muddled twenty-two-year-old dissenting preacher", to the disastrous widowerhood of 1797. The TLS printed a review by Kelly Grovier of both of these resources. It begins with this paragraph:
In September 1797, two weeks after his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, died in childbirth, William Godwin confided to a friend, “I cannot write. I have half destroyed myself by writing. It does me more mischief than anything else. I must preserve myself, if for no other reason than the two children”. On the day of Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin wrote half a dozen painful letters and throughout this volume one has the sense of peeling away at something unreachable as his grief ripens in real time. When he breaks the news to one of his closest friends, the radical writer Thomas Holcroft, Godwin’s mourning has grown starkly raw: “I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again. When you come to town, look at me, & talk to me, but do not (if you can help it) exhort or console me”. Nor were letters the only repository of his desperation. A groundbreaking new website devoted to Godwin’s extensive and often cryptic diaries, hosted by the Bodleian Library, reveals the instant when language itself momentarily failed. The entry for September 10, 1797, the day thirty-seven-year-old Wollstonecraft succumbed to a complication of so-called childbed fever, Godwin’s pen briefly flatlines, able to produce nothing more than four long strokes from left to right across the page. 
William Godwin was an influential writer, but more than that, he was a salonier, if the male form of the word exists: "His London sitting rooms became incubators for an astonishing number of poets, painters, radical theorists and mysterious travellers".  He moved all over the city, as Mary did -- Grovier says his numerous abodes "reflects Godwin’s ability over these years to stitch himself tightly into the emotional fabric of an ever-widening social circle". These friends and acquaintances ranged "from supporters of revolution in France, such as Thomas Paine, to those who would oppose it, such as Edmund Burke; from celebrated natural philosophers and inventors such as Joseph Priestley and Thomas Wedgwood, to pioneering women writers such as Mary Hays and Elizabeth Inchbald."

Grovier praises the editorship of Pamela Clemit, who balances the needs of various readers and annotates the material "in a manner that is neither condescending to academic readers, nor too elitist in its scholarly presumptions".  It's an undervalued skill. Even more invisible are the humanists behind the online diary, "a fully searchable, digitized engine that chugs smoothly through some thirty-two notebooks that Godwin kept between April 1788 and March 1836 (the month before he died), while providing access to high-resolution images of the original octavo leaves. The result is a trove of cross-reference against which one can read the broken epistolary record."

What kind of a person was Godwin? Would he and Mary have remained a couple, had she lived, or would she have grown beyond him? Grovier ascribes to Godwin "a supple and forgiving temperament, and a capacity for empathy that fostered moving insights into human motivation". He encouraged the young, for example: "there are many letters to aspiring writers and thinkers who have turned to Godwin for advice and on whom he warmly lavishes professional and personal encouragement." Here's a vignette of the man -- again, at the time when he was freshly widowed (widowered?), the wound still raw and gaping. He reaches out to a young man in trouble, imploring him:
to “cultivate cheerful impressions. Break off abruptly the thread of painful ones . . . . Do not indulge in visions & phantoms of the imagination, or place your happiness in something you may perhaps never obtain, but endeavour to make it out of the materials within your reach”.
Grovier supposes that "on some level [Godwin] is strenuously trying to soothe himself". I can well imagine that he used similar words to soothe Mary's doubts and fears. Truly, a remarkable man.

Pamela Clemit, editor
Volume One: 1778–1797
440pp. Oxford University Press. £100 (US $185).
978 0 19 956261 9
Portrait of William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In her footsteps

There's another walk featuring Mary Wollstonecraft, this time around the area where she spent her last few years, when she took little Frances and set up home with William Godwin in the parish of St Pancras, in an area of Camden now known as Somers Town. This walk is called All Change at Kings Cross* and is led by Rob Smith of Footprints of London. It takes place on Sunday 25 March from 11am to 1pm and costs £10, or £7.50 concessions; Rob has promised to make a donation to Mary on the Green. It covers:
the history of the area, looking at the existing buildings and what is planned for the future. You'll hear how Kings Cross kept London supplied with food and the areas links with the Beatles, the Olympics, Frankenstein and the French Revolution as well as many other stories.
I've catalogued my previous walks, starting in St Pancras and progressing to Somers Town, via St Paul's and Southwark, with many more waiting in the wings: Bloomsbury, Barking, Spitalfields, and of course Newington Green.

The little church at the head of the village green was the final point for last Sunday's walk with Simon Cole of Hackney Tours. (I love the page on its ethos - how many tour companies have one of those?). This walk is called "Feminism, fame & infamy: How Hackney women have shaped our world" and makes very specific reference to Mary Wollstonecraft. He led this tour on the Sunday before International Women's Day, donating half the fee to the sculpture campaign.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

IWD: education above all

Mary Wollstonecraft was above all an educator, and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a plea for good education. We have free education for all - the battle has been won. Right? In honour of  International Women's Day, yesterday we looked at maternal mortality, i.e. her death, and today we turn our attention to girls' education, her life, because the struggle continues, not only globally and but also right here in her heartland.

Education in the eighteenth century is perhaps better understood now by the word "upbringing"*. Mary Wollstonecraft worked as a teacher and a governess, set herself up as the proprietor of a boarding school, and cut her writer's quill on pedagogy. Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was aimed squarely at fellow educators, parents and teachers both; her second, Original Stories from Real Life, was intended to be used with children. Later she compiled A Female Reader, just in the nick of time for the Austen girls' home schooling.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is predominantly an educational treatise -- after all, she was responding in part to Talleyrand's proposals for the education system of the new France. Gladstone read and annotated her magnum opus, and re-read it in the years of the British debate over the establishment of national education. She is credited as one of the first educationalists to call for all classes and both sexes to learn together in their first years. Here's an excerpt of what she thought on the subject.

Aside from her writings, she inspired others on a personal basis too: her employer dismissed her from her post as governess after a year because her pupils loved the visiting Englishwoman more than they did their own mother. (This aristocrat was the very model of Lady Bertram, lapdogs and all - more proof that Jane Austen was a Lost Daughter - and the eldest girl, Margaret King, went on to be quite the rebel herself, even naming her final incarnation in honour of her inspirational governess.)

So why do we need to be concerned with girls' education now, when they often outperform the boys? Two reasons: one here in the Wealthy West, and one in the Wider World. In all the English-speaking countries I know, girls and young women still tend to avoid the subjects that can lead to lucrative and engaging careers. Remember "Math is hard. Let's go shopping!" brought to you by the Barbie Liberation Organization? (The culture jamming reached the New York Times, while the resulting snowclone is tracked down by Language Log.) Look at this 2010 report from the Institute of Education: Bright girls less likely to want to study maths and physics at A-level than bright boys.

The second is that no woman is an island. Many children around the world do not complete a basic education; most of those are girls. Take Pakistan as an example - a country with strong ties to Britain, not least in that a substantial number of British schoolchildren have roots there. Statistics from its Ministry of Education (the date isn't clear, but probably around 2002) state that the male literacy rate was 61% - pretty bad. And the female? 37%. "Left out/ out of school children": 5.5 million. NB not disaggregated by gender, but you take a guess. That country is one of many where girls don't get the beginning of a chance at a fair education, and this has multiple ramifications.

As I say to both men and women, if you were raised by a woman who could read and work and vote, you owe something to Mary Wollstonecraft. It is salutary to remember that many girls and boys around the world do not have the privilege of an educated mother.

If you want more information, just released is the very resource: The UNESCO World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (i.e. gender inequality). There's the United Nations Girls Education Initiative too. And again - this eclectic collection of IWD 2012 posters.  

Logo from Education International"the world's largest federation of unions", 
representing "organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe".
*A line from the recent Montreal film Monsieur Lazhar stuck. The uptight parents of an uptight pupil are speaking to the eponymous teacher: "We would rather you concentrated on teaching our daughter; we will bring her up." 
Enseigner vs. eduquer.  French preserves the wider meaning that English has largely lost

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

IWD: maternal mortality

International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8 every year. What would Mary Wollstonecraft make of it? Last year was its 100th anniversary, and so it got more of a media splash in the UK than it has done for some time. 2011 also saw the unveiling of the most recent plaque commemorating a place where "England's first feminist" lived or worked. This year, again, there is a corporate-sponsored website aiming for comprehensive coverage of events. (They do things differently in France.) Let's focus on two themes: maternal mortality and girls' education. Today, the first.

Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth. Two graphs "about this cause of avoidable mortality in women", pulled together by Ben Goldacre, the doctor who likes statistics, famous for his Bad Science columns, blog and books. One is the UK, 1880 to 1980. The other is international, 2005. Do you want to guess the worst time and place? It was about three times as bad in Afghanistan a few years ago as it was at its iatrogenic peak in the UK in the 1890s. With adjustments for population: for every woman who dies in childbirth in El Salvador, more than ten die in Afghanistan. For every woman who dies in Canada, more than twenty die in El Salvador. Logarithmic scales of difference, in our world, here, today. Almost a thousand women die every day of pregnancy-related reasons, according to Women Deliver. I'l repeat that, louder: A THOUSAND DEATHS A DAY.

Ruth Franklin, stimulated by the arrival of Shelley's Ghost in New York, asks in The New Republic if Frankenstein was really about pregnancy and childbirth. It's not a novel argument. A cursory acquaintance with a few biographical facts makes it evident that, as she puts it, "not only was Mary Shelley pregnant during much of the period that she was writing Frankenstein, but she had already suffered the birth and death of an infant." A later miscarriage brought her close to death. What Franklin doesn't explore is the impact of motherlessness (or, conversely, that of the Wicked Stepmother) on young Mary. Had the obstetrician washed his hands, the world might have had decades more of paradigm-shifting political writing, but we would not have had Frankenstein. That is a book that could only have been written by someone who knew that her birth had killed her mother.*

The perils of maternity was not the lesson taught by Mary Wollstonecraft's life but that imposed on her legacy. The death of artistic creativity after childbirth, famously summarised by Cyril Connolly as "the pram in the hall", was supposed to be so much worse for women. Instead of one type of creativity feeding the other, they were seen to cancel each other out. There was no point in educating girls, because they disappeared into multiple motherhood, or died in the effort. Or they went mad - the wandering womb - The Yellow Wallpaper. The lucky and exceptional ones, exceptionally educated, could aspire to become men, like Elizabeth I.

The lesson explicitly taught by Mary Wollstonecraft was the value of education. Tomorrow, on International Women's Day itself, we'll explore what that means in 2012. In the meantime, for inspiration, check out this eclectic collection of IWD 2012 posters.  

Logo from Education International"the world's largest federation of unions", 
representing "organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe".
*This brings to mind "Each man kills the thing he loves." Happily married Oscar Wilde had his views on pregnancy too. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mary on Doodly

Created by, and reproduced with the kind permission of, Telling Tales. The original is here and more about Doodly - still in beta - is here. Telling Tales (domain name telling-tails: I like the wordplay) has also written about the Vindication anniversary, and Judy Chicago's vision of Mary Wollstonecraft. It turns out that she worked on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day in London, which got quite a splash, and which of course was the date of the unveiling of the latest plaque to MW. And she appears to be Canadian: bonus points.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

“Mary, Marie” at the Whitney Biennial

Moyra Davey has a new series of pieces on Mary Wollstonecraft, this time at the Whitney Biennial, which opens today until 27 May. It's handily just down the road (well, 30 Manhattan blocks) from Shelley's Ghost, newly resettled from its previous home at the Bodleian, an exhibition to which she refers in an interview with Daniel Merritt of The Eye:
For the works for the biennial, I went to the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library. It’s a fantastic collection. There’s a show there called “Shelley and His Circle,” so I was photographing letters that Mary Shelley and her sisters had written and first editions of Mary Wollstonecraft’s books and wonderful stuff like that. The photographs at the Whitney are almost all photos I took from there.
The Biennial piece is described by Carmen Winant on the New York Public Radio website thus: 
Moyra Davey's "Mary, Marie" (2011) is art about the artifacts of correspondence. The piece is made up of 12 unfolded chromogenic prints pinned to the wall, which were taped, addressed, stamped and sent through the USPS to the artist's sister, mother and nieces. The "letters" are themselves photographs, each a close-up image made of a series of letters written by women's rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft, who is the mother of the author of "Frankenstein," Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The images show the tears, creases, nicks and scars from their snail mail journey, and each serves as a visual map of its own unique voyage. Davey is an artist who has long explored the fragments and markers of time: she collects diaries, old newspapers, and empty liquor bottles for her work. With "Mary, Marie," Davey captures a sense of time slowly and quietly moving forward through modes of personal communication.
There are 51 artists displaying their works, and only five get the NYPR nod as "what to see".

Moyra Davey has another current work on Mary: a video entitled Les Goddesses, briefly covered here, previously in London, soon to open in Glasgow. She has promised us an entry for a new series here on Mary and Me, how artists and academics have had their lives and work touched by the foremother of feminism. 

Photo of the Whitney by Gryffindor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( 
or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons