Friday, August 24, 2012

Mary at the Dissenting Academy

Mary Wollstonecraft has her portrait hanging in the new Dissenting Academy. It's not a school, college, or seminary, but a pub, and a very nice one too.
Throughout history, Newington Green has been a destination for free-thinking people who have challenged conventional ideas and changed society. The most famous dissenting academy in the land was located here, and it is from this exceptional establishment that our pub takes its name and its desire to challenge conformity. Today's Dissenting Academy celebrates purveyors of non-conformist art and music, and provides an inspirational environment in which to enjoy good beer, tasty food and brilliant company.
It opens today, and so far I've not had a chance to speak with manager Ben King. In time...

Monday, August 20, 2012

A concordance (with love from Japan)

Two of the main works by Mary Wollstonecraft are available as a digital concordance, thanks to Nagoya University's Victorian Literary Studies Archive, and particularly Mitsu Matsuoka, of their Graduate School of Languages and Cultures. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Women (and, worryingly, Frankenstein, but we'll let that pass) are available for scholarly scrutiny and casual curiosity alike, line by line, word by word.

How many times is "husband" used in the essay? How does that compare to "wife"? Is it possible to tease out the use of "woman" as a singular and an abstract noun? How is "women" used, in contrast?

The ease of manipulating digital texts contrasts with the difficulty of doing it with pencil and paper. It amazes me that pre-digital concordances existed at all. The labour involved! The Bible was the main text for centuries, of course, but other works did get the treatment. Hyper-concordances have established themselves as one of the first and most visible arms of the digital humanities. Who knows what the next development will be?

wife: 34
husband: 65

Friday, August 17, 2012

The British Library and the long S

The British Library website has chosen to feature A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with a photo of the opened book. You can see how Joseph Johnson still used those long Ss that look like Fs to today's eyes. (When I was a child, I thought our ancestors all had lisps.) The photographic quality allows you to see the actual texture of the paper, the slight mottled spots, the imperfect corners.

The national library of record has form, of course: that book and its author were stars of the show entitled Taking Liberties, a site thoroughly worth exploring. It was curated by a chap called Matt Shaw, who, in response to a query on Twitter, took the time to look into female readers in the first few decades of the Reading Room. Such is the wealth of BL resources that the exhibition site points us in turn to a 1792 map by Richard Horwood, showing all the houses not only of London and Westmister, but of Southwark too, just across the bridge from the booksellers' hub at St Paul's.... but before we get lost...

Timelines: Sources from History starts in the 1200s. By the 1790s, the publications that shaped our world are coming thick and fast. 1791 is represented by Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and 1793 by the execution of Louis XVI. Sandwiched in between are two pages from the dedication to Rights of Woman, with an explanation of its context. Since she is allegedly writing to Talleyrand, Mary Wollstonecraft reflects on the French way of doing things:
...the system of duplicity that the whole tenour of their political and civil government taught, have given a sinister sort of sagacity to the French character, properly termed finesse; from which naturally flow a polish of manners that injures the substance, by hunting sincerity out of society.
And, modesty, the fairest garb of virtue! has been more grossly insulted in France than even in England, till their women have treated as prudish that attention to decency, which brutes instinctively observe.  
Manners and morals are so nearly allied that they have often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name. The personal reserve, and sacred respect for cleanliness and delicacy in domestic life, which French women almost despise, are the graceful pillars of modesty; but, far from despising them, if the pure flame of patriotism have reached their bosoms, they should labour to improve the morals of their fellow-citizens, by
teaching men, not only to respect modesty in women, but to acquire it themselves, as the only way to merit their esteem.
Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate unless she know why she
ought to be virtuous? unless freedom strengthen her  reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

House for sale

Mary Wollstonecraft's life was changed in Newington Green, and a house that she knew there has just come up for sale. It's salutary to compare its glossy restoration to what is can be seen in her birthplace, Spitalfields. 

If you have £1.8 million to negotiate with, then have a look at the famous terrace on the west of the green. The house in question, number 55, appears to be next door to that of Rev Dr Richard Price, who entertained so many of the luminaries and radicals of the late eighteenth century. "The Village that Changed the World" says it "is considered to be the oldest surviving terrace in England ... and was restored between 1987 and 1996." (Street numbering around the green has changed at least once.) The estate agents say:
A rare opportunity to acquire this stunning Grade I listed house, offering over 3100 sq ft of sympathetically restored accommodation over five floors.... The property has been beautifully refurbished by the current owners and retains the majority of its wonderful period features, including an impressive original staircase, panelling and window shutters. Unusually for a property of this type, the house has a central staircase giving two generously proportioned rooms on each of the four floors. 
A couple of miles south is the City of London. Spitalfields has risen and fallen over the centuries; in 1759 it was still thronged with silkweavers (not least Wollstonecraft pere et fils); now it is on the up again. Wander its closely packed streets, as twilight closes in and the house lights go up, and through many of the uncurtained windows you can observe what I call Restoration dramas, people living their twenty-first century lives in old buildings on display to the world. Some are merely boring "luxury" flats with gleaming kitchens that could be anywhere, but many of these terraced houses have now been brought back to eighteenth century elegance. There are panelled parlours full of gentlemen's furniture, displayed as set pieces for the viewer's delectation, waiting for the actors to walk on. (And no, I'm not talking about Dennis Severs' House.) On Fournier Street, one of these substantial houses is for sale, for those with £2.5 million. Estate agent says: 

A simply superb four bedroomed house... boasting a unique and charming interior throughout, private garden and a location ideal for all local amenities....Reception room with fireplace and storage, dining room, kitchen with integrated appliances, excellent sized master bedroom with fitted wardrobes and stylish en suite shower room, second bedroom with modern en suite bathroom, two additional good sized bedrooms with storage space, lovely bathroom, utility room with space for appliances and a garage/store room.
Look at the photographs, both of the bones of the houses, and what has been done to them. One similarity I noticed was the interior doors. It takes an effort of will to feel one's way back into the time when Mary Wollstonecraft would have known them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A talk in the middle of England

A month from now is a talk from Lyndall Gordon on Mary Wollstonecraft: First of a New Genus.

When? September 11, 7pm.

Where? The Stony Stratford Library. Where?? It's one of the little towns swallowed by Milton Keynes. And its appeal?
Welcome to the community website for Stony Stratford. We offer FREE parking and 5* Loos so please come and visit us soon.
NB the site is run by the council. I found a picture of the pleasant-looking high street, but for some reason it won't load; you can have a look at it if you like.

More info on the talk here. It's free, but ticketed, and run by Friends of the Library, who provide cake and wine. And, no doubt, five-star toilets.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Caitlin Moran profers a glass of wine

Britain's best-selling feminist salutes England's first feminist:
If you could choose one subjugated woman from history to bring to 2012 in order to enjoy the freedoms that women have now, who would you choose? 
Probably Mary Wollstonecraft. Because that was so ballsy, you know? That was an era where there were people around who could still remember witches being burned. So not just to give her hope and make her realize that she did start something that was incredible, but also to reward her by letting her just sit back and listen to some Beyonce, and order a really fucking amazing steak, and some underwear that wasn't made of sacking cloth, and that wasn't full of nits. I would bring Mary Wollstonecraft back and show her the 21st century. Give her some wine.
The interviewer is a New Yorker called Chiara Atik ("a dating writer, a Lower East Side dweller, and a feminist"). The where and when is an American website called The Hairpin. The subject is none other than Caitlin Moran. She too seems to understand the virtues of poetical truth over historical accuracy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Action Philosophers

With the permission of the evil twins from Action PhilosophersFred Van Lente for the words and Ryan Dunlavey for the art. Two graciously ink-stained wretches!

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Dead Good (New) Beginning

Hello everyone, I'm back. A most amusing summary of Mary Wollstonecraft's life and legacy has crossed my desk.  I decided to ask for permission to bring it to you verbatim, which Ashley Lister, co-ordinator of the Blackpool writers collectively known as A Dead Good Blog, promptly and kindly granted. See? The internet can be a pleasant place. I don't usually reproduce blog posts, but since it's time to start anew, perhaps it's time to start a new ... habit? Practice? Tradition? If I enjoy a piece of writing, why not see if I can grant the same pleasure to my dear readers, as well. So here goes "The beginning is always today", by poet and writer Vicky Ellis:


"I hate clever women...they are only troublesome."  This is not a quote from my favourite writer.  These are the words of Henry Fuseli: artist, visionary and twunt.  He was also 'unhelpful crush #1' for Mary Wollstonecraft, author, feminist and lover of twunts. 

Here's what Mary wrote:

'Security of property! Behold in a few words, the definition of English liberty. And to this selfish principle every nobler one is sacrificed....'

'Virtue can only flourish amongst equals' 

From A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) which preceded Thomas Paine's Rights of Man by a year.

“[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”  

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” 

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”  

From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Clearly she was a rational, keen-minded individual with a, sadly, contemporary-sounding axe to grind.  But these words, marvellous as they are, do not encapsulate what was wonderful about Mary Wollstonecraft.  Mary was, in the nicest possible way, a bit of a fuck up.  She had a habit of falling for the least suitable man to hand. 

Now these men were respected in their professions.  They were intellectuals, noted for their work.  They were no doubt fascinating in some way or I doubt they would have caught her attention.  They were not, however, particularly nice men.  Take twunt #1 above.  Fuseli was an interesting chap.  Repressed sexuality aside, he helped define the Romantic movement and he did a reet good incubus, so he did.  He shared a deep Platonic relationship with Mary which, for her part, turned into love.  Fuseli was married.  A slight hitch.  Mary decided that she could work around that and asked his wife if she'd mind terribly if she moved in with them, seeing as she had such great affection for Henry and all.  Sophia, Henry's wife, failed to see the practicality of this solution and forbade Mary from ever seeing Henry again.  Henry had no further contact with Mary.

You could argue that Mary was being unrealistic, or even that she was a little bit mad.  I think not.  I think she was working within the remit of the manifesto which she had written.  The first quote above makes it clear that she believed that the laws of property interfered with 'noble principles'.  The definition of property can be extended to include notions of ownership in relationships.  As a fiercely independent woman, her suggestion makes sense in a way that was centuries ahead of its time. 

After this humiliating event, Mary travelled to France, to enjoy her fame as a supporter of the Revolution.  There she met the dreamboat, Gilbert Imlay, aka twunt #2.  He was a speculator, and had an interesting approach to diplomacy, running British blockades of French ports while acting as ambassador in Paris.  He mirrored this approach in his dealings with Mary.  A lusty love affair led to pregnancy.  She had his child.  He became restless.  He left her with the baby in Paris and moved back to London.  She followed him to London.  He largely ignored her.  She tried to kill herself.  She recovered and agreed to go on a business trip across Europe, with her baby, on his behalf.  She returned to find him shacked up with another woman.  She tried to drown herself in the Thames.  

Again, you could argue that Mary was being a little bit naive by trekking across to Sweden on his behalf.  At the same time, however, she wrote to him frequently.  Her letters to him were collected and read by her later husband, William Godwin, who said of them: "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book."  The letters allowed Mary to make a clever and emotional plea for Imlay's affection, ranging between vulnerability and independence.  Here was a woman who capable of using her writing like a spell to enchant her would-be lover. 

But Imlay was a bad egg.  Mary's letters didn't entice him back towards his responsibilities, however alluring their content, and Mary was forced to come down on the side of independence once more.  Those words which she had sent out into the world found their enraptured audience, however, in William Godwin, writer and philosopher.  The pair hit it off and soon she was pregnant again.  This time the couple married.  Seems like a good idea right?  Well as it turns out this marriage only drew attention to the fact that she hadn't been married to Imlay when she bore his child.  English Society was not too chuffed and a few of her friends found that the stench of scandal was more than they could bear. 

Nevermind, Mary and William set themselves up in the Polygon, a pair of ajoining houses which allowed them to be independent and communicate by letter.  Superb.  Their eversomodern plan was working out splendidly until Mary died of septicaemia 11 days after giving birth.  Bugger.  

William published a biography of Mary a year after her death, detailing her suicide attempts, the hopeless love affairs and illegitimate children.  England was scandalized once more.  Her name was mud until the Feminists cleaned her off and called her Mother.  

So there she is.  Mary Wollstonecraft.  Intellectual rebel.  Emotional hazard.  Fierce, fragile and expressive.  Role model.  Icon.