Monday, April 8, 2013

Simon Schama admires

It's not often that Mary Wollstonecraft appears on television. My British readers have until Saturday to catch her on iPlayer here; the DVDs can be ordered worldwide and indefinitely, I believe.

Simon Schama, the historian and art historian, is probably best known for his BBC2 television project A History of Britain, produced about ten years ago. By series 3 he had worked his way to the late eighteenth century. Its first episode is "Forces of Nature", a curious title, as it deals with very human passions. Why did the British "prove immune to the siren call of liberty, equality and fraternity", as the blurb puts it?

First, twenty minutes of context and back story: 
Richard Price, Tom Paine, Edmund Burke. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was referred to in 1789 with the fall of the Bastille. Liberty and reform were in the air. But the conservatives were afraid of revolution in Britain, and counter-attacked. You can tune in at 23:15, when the camera settles on the dining table of publisher Joseph Johnson, "one place where dangerous thoughts were positively welcome", as were "articulate, intelligent, impassioned women":
Among those women, the most striking was Mary Wollstonecraft. She was the spirit of the time and a one-woman revolution. Living a hand to mouth existence as a writer, Mary burst into print in outrage at Burke's Reflection. She also noticed that the rights of man weren't worth much if they excluded the other half of human society...

There was nothing she saw in her nature that disqualified her from being a full citizen.
The problem with filming history is that they're all dead. So mostly we get paintings, and close-ups of the title pages of books, and Simon Schama lecturing to us as we sit on the sofa. But there are also scenes featuring silent (and, as far as I can tell, uncredited) actors, in groups, pretending to listen to each other, or alone, sucking their quills in thoughtful anticipation of another burst of literary genius. When the action cuts to Paris, the picture editors go crazy for moody black and white shots of the bridges over the Seine:
To begin with, Mary shared the company and the optimism of expatriate Irish, English, Americans, and Scots at White's Hotel. But then, as the despotism of the Crown was replaced by the despotism of a police state, doubts began to creep in.
Schama stands in the Jardin de Luxembourg and recounts how, when Tom Paine was imprisoned there, he narrowly escaped his meeting with the "national razor". The Mary-actor, still with too much hair, sits by a solitary candle, looking scared, writing a letter to Johnson. The 1793 war between Britain and France made everything so much worse.

Mary must have felt it would be her turn any day. Salvation appeared in the good-looking shape of an American businessman and property speculator, Gilbert Imlay, who registered her as his American wife, and thus free from the taint of being one of the enemies of France. Nursing their baby in a quiet garden on the outskirts of Paris, Mary the feminist had been saved from the revolution by motherhood. 
But it was not to be a happy ending. As Mary became more devoted, Imlay's business trips became mysteriously prolonged. When she followed him as far as London, she found a new mistress.
And thus to the Putney Bridge plunge.

But she was not to be allowed her poetic suicide; a boatman pulled her out. She was 37 and she seemed to have lost everything except her child: her faith in revolution, in the virtue of the people, her belief in the possibilities of an independent woman's life, the goodness of nature, must have seemed a cruel joke.
But then, Schama says, she got a second chance: she met Godwin, and "Mary's fire burned bright enough to melt his icy principles." This is where the camera shots get a bit icky: they sit in armchairs on either side of a fireplace. He is reading, not aloud but silently; she sits with her hands clasped over her belly (Look! I am carrying his child!), no book within reach, gazing at her husband in doubly mute adoration.
Though they'd agreed not to cohabit, the sworn enemy of matrimony and the feminist were wedded at St Pancras Church. As her months of pregnancy passed, the two found themselves relaxing into conjugal cosiness to the point where Godwin was prepared, at least privately, to admit the force of emotion as well as thought. Which is what made the end so unbearable.
And then it all gets rather graphic - in Schama's choice of words, not in the images (no puppies, thank goodness). I can't decide if this brutality of expression is the sort of honest dealing that Godwin intended with his Memoirs, or if it is just gruesome titillation:

When the time for her labour came, Mary called a local  midwife. But after the baby was born, another girl, the placenta remained firmly lodged somewhere at the top of the birth canal.  
Obstetric opinion at the time held that unless the placenta was promptly expelled, there was a lethal danger of infection. So a doctor from Westminster Hospital was summoned and he stuck his hand up Mary and pulled. The placenta came away in pieces as Mary lay in agony, hemorrhaging.
She had been through so many terrors, so many ordeals, had come so close to death, and had somehow managed to survive. This time, with so much to live for, there would be no escape. She died a week later of septicemia.
Schama does a good job describing Godwin's immediate reaction, his heart-torn letters that day. And then he concludes these twelve minutes of Mary Wollstonecraft:
She is rightly remembered as the founder of modern feminism, for making a statement remarkable for its bravery and clarity, that the whole nature of women was not to be confused with their biology. But nature, biology, had killed her.
Sic transit. The episode rolls on to other defenders of freedom. The whole series is worth watching; it's as good an overview as you're likely to find, and equally relevant to our American cousins, up until our paths diverge.


  1. This was terrific and the Mary bit moved me to tears. Thanks for posting!

  2. Well, at least I've accomplished something today! ;-) Thanks for letting me know. There are more posts queued up for later this week.