Friday, November 21, 2008

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Conversation with Wendy Walker

When Aqueduct author Wendy Walker (KNOTS) told me she'd been reading Lyndall Gordon's Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft and some of Wollstonecraft's work as well, I asked her if she'd be willing to undertake an email conversation with me about her reading. She said she would. And so questions and answers flew between us for about the next week.

Timmi: Wendy, Mary Wollstonecraft is known both as a writer and a passionate, early feminist. Her Vindication of the Rights of Women was important to the first-wave feminists who took up the cause of feminism decades after her death. She was also an educator and traveler and a woman whose fierce independence made her scandalous.

A lot of different stories could (and have been) told about Mary Wollstonecraft. What story or stories does Lyndall Gordon tell in her new biography of her?

Wendy: There are many revelations in Lyndall Gordon's Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps the most momentous one consists of the reasons for Wollstonecraft's trip to Sweden, an unlikely tourist spot in the 1790's, especially for a woman travelling alone with a small child. The child was Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's daughter by Gilbert Imlay, a shadowy figure who protected Mary during her residence in Paris at the height of the Terror. Imlay was an American, and had international business dealings. One of them involved buying up the silver that had been looted from the houses of aristocrats who had gone to the guillotine, and shipping it out of the country to sell so that the Revolutionary government could buy arms. Mary went to Sweden on the trail of the "silver ship" as Imlay's business representative. How much she knew about the scope of the deal is unclear, but it seems likely she did not know how dirty it was. Her motives in acting as Imlay's agent make absorbing reading. She despised commerce, and was madly in love. He was usually absent, always going to arrive, and evasive with explanations. Gordon makes a persuasive case that his evasiveness may have been part of the mode of conduct required from one of the first of the young United States intelligence operatives. Gordon's scholarship rests on letters by Mary in the Swedish national archive that have been unknown and unread till now. The book Mary wrote about her trip, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, does not discuss her secret mission, but it is written in a fictionalized form of letters to her lover.

Timmi: I can just imagine how excited Gordon must have been to unearth those letters in the first place and then discover what she had found. (I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see novels and even films come out of this new part of her story.) Emma Goldman, who was a great admirer of Mary and obviously didn't have as much information as Gordon now does, wrote this about Mary's relationship with Imlay:

While in Paris, Mary met in the house of Thomas Paine where she had been welcomed as a friend, the vivacious, handsome, and elemental American, Imlay. If not for Mary's love for him the World might never have known of this Gentleman. Not that he was ordinary, Mary could not have loved him with that mad passion which nearly wrecked her life. He had distinguished himself in the American War and had written a thing or two, but on the whole he would never have set the World on fire. But he set Mary on fire and held her in a trance for a considerable time.

The very force of her infatuation for him excluded harmony, but is it a matter of blame as far as Imlay was concerned? He gave her all he could, but her insatiable hunger for love could never been content with little, hence the tragedy. Then too, he was a roamer, an adventurer, an explorer into the territory of female hearts. He was possessed by the
Wanderlust, could not yet rest at peace long anywhere. Mary needed peace, she also needed what she had never had in her family, the quiet and warmth of a home. But more than anything else she needed love, unreserved, passionate love. Imlay could give her nothing and the struggle began shortly after the mad dream had passed. Imlay was much away from Mary at first under the pretext of business. He would not be an American to neglect his love for business. His travels brought him, as the Germans say, to other cities and other loves....

Reading the above passage, I can only think how astonished Goldman would have been to have this new angle.

There are a couple of things I'd like to ask you about, but first, the biographical. I'd been vaguely aware that Mary was among the few English intellectuals who supported the idea of the French Revolution, but I'd had no idea that she actually
supported it in the material sense that you mention here-- acting as Imlay's agent. Though I agree that it does seem unlikely that she knew how dirty a business it was, I'm wondering if she knew Imlay was working toward the Revolutionary government's purchase of arms. I think I'd always assumed that most English and Continental intellectuals moved by the French revolution were eventually disillusioned in the actual outcome if not by the time the Directory was established, then shortly thereafter, when Napoleon began crushing dissidents both right and left (rather in the way that many Western supporters of the Soviet Revolution became disillusioned when the horrors of Stalin's repression came out). Did Mary become disillusioned with the Revolution before her death in 1797? (My guess is that if she wasn't disillusioned by living in Paris during the Terror, that the answer is no, but I've got nothing to base my guess on.)

Wendy: It was actually not Lyndall Gordon who discovered the heretofore unread Wollstonecraft correspondence regarding her mission to Sweden. That was done by a Norwegian historian named Gunnar Molden, who has published on the subject. Lyndall Gordon was using and interpreting his research....

Emma Goldman's view of the the love affair is pretty romantic, but not entirely wrong, just oversimplified, and of course dated by seeming to accept a double standard for sexual need and fidelity. Mary did get something out of their relationship which Goldman doesn't mention, that is, that Imlay probably saved her life by convincing the American ambassador in Paris to accept Mary as his wife, and issuing her a certificate that made her an American citizen. In a city where the English as "enemy aliens" were being rounded up and imprisoned, she was quite unsafe without his protection. Even Paine, who was a naturalized citizen of France and resident many years in America, did not escape imprisonment, and only just missed being guillotined because the mark that indicated he should be taken away by the guards was put on the wrong side of his cell door. It seems that Mary and Imlay entered into some sort of contract, though its legality later proved dubious. At any rate, during the height of the Terror, Mary was probably the only English person who was able to go everywhere. This in itself suggests that Imlay had secret dealings with the French government.... and he did. Even before the silver ship, he was engaged, at the behest of both Washington and Paris to wrest Louisiana away from Spain, whose possession it then was. This was to be done was through very underhanded land speculation, settling Americans on Spanish soil and then effecting a coup with French troops. The plan eventually fell apart, but Mary knew nothing of it. It was typical of their relationship, although later she did learn more, when she consented to act as his agent. Why did she do it? She had gone to France to write about the Revolution for her publisher Joseph Johnson (the publisher of Blake, Paine and Godwin). She went to see for herself what the new republic, which had passed many laws favorable to women, was like. But after the Terror began, she lost faith in the ideal revolution she had hoped for. She repeatedly writes of her horror and disappointment, so it seems out of character for her to support a deal which would promote the government she condemned. Nevertheless, she saw the silver with the Bourbon crests in a secret warehouse and knew the cargo of the silver ship for what it was. (I was wrong about trading for arms-- it was actually grain, gunpowder and alum --used to light gunpowder--for the French troops. Not a big difference, perhaps, but.....)

Imlay was a buccaneer capitalist, with many shady deals behind him of which Mary knew nothing, but he wasn't that different from many other "respectable" Americans (then and now) who were sympathetic to Republican government on both sides of the Atlantic, but didn't mind making a great deal of money with their sympathies. Mary was not at home with the war profiteering side of Imlay's business, but he had made their life together-- the future plan-- dependent upon the success of this business venture. He needed more luxury than she did, which she found a bit odd in the frontiersman he pretended to be. He had spent a great deal of time exploring America's lesser known regions, but he was the son of a rich New Jersey family who were dedicated merchants and owned plantations and slaves. Mary would have been very surprised-- not to say appalled-- had she been told about the slaves.

So it seems that she went to Sweden as Imlay's agent in the hope that that would secure their future together, even though she loathed the transactions she engaged in. Imlay for his part took up with an actress while she was away, and when she found out, she was distraught. One can't help feeling he used her and had no intention of keeping his promise. He never did provide child support for his daughter Fanny although he promised to do so repeatedly.

Timmi: Imlay must have been quite a piece of work. Certainly Goldman's romanticization of him is, in retrospect, deeply, deeply ironic.

The other aspect of Mary's affair with him that particularly struck me was the contradiction it represented, one that evoked opposite reactions in first- and second-wave feminists respectively. William Godwin's memoirs of Mary, written
and published shortly after her death, publicized her affair with Imlay, the child she had by him, and her subsequent suicide attempts. As Miriam Brody writes, "In fighting for limited reforms, the vote, admission to university, reform of marriage laws, [nineteenth-century] feminists abandoned Wollstonecraft so as not to bring down upon their own heads the opprobrium of being thought sexually wanton." But "there are two Mary Wollstonecrafts," Brody writes. "One who loved and one who was contemptuous of love. The first is the woman Virginia Woolf called a 'dolphin,' a creature who 'rushed Gilbert Imlay through the waters until he was dizzy and only wanted to escape,' the same woman who would attempt suicide to end the despair of her unrequited love for him. The second is the woman who wrote the feminist argument of the Vindication, recommending passionless friendship between husband and wife, hoping that the fires of sexual love will cool by the time the marriage is well established so the couple can get on with the rest of their life."

Mary wrote the Vindication before she fell in love with Imlay, of course. But it seems to me that her awareness of what passion can do to one's life might not be a contradiction at all-- that she might have believed in theory that one must try to suppress one's "appetites" (as she calls sexual desire) precisely because she saw the havoc it often wreaked in the world around her. (And so, we might characterize her Vindication as a sort of Do as I say, not as I do!) Many second-wave feminists, though, have blamed her for having founded a "puritanical" strain of feminism, one that eventually expressed itself as aiming for safety rather than liberation (which as you might recall, became a major issue in the late 1970s in the Women's Liberation Movement in the US). Does Gordon's biography address this issue?

Wendy: Gordon doesn't distinguish between first- and second-wave feminists in her discussion of the puzzling example Mary left for women who came after her, but she does make some original and fascinating points. Early in the book, introducing her topic, she suggests that Mary's greatest advance was in the conceptualization, which she at least partially realized in her relationship with Godwin, of a new kind of partnership between a man and a woman, one that contained romance, sexual love, a shared intellectual pursuit, independence and dependence, and fidelity. Imlay was a trial run that failed. It seems that she was in love as much with what he represented-- the experiment of a new nation, one that had shaken off Old World tyranny in favor of something better-- as she was with the charming, disingenuous man he actually was. Mary was always adamantly opposed to a woman's entering a relationship injudiciously (she had seen where that would lead with both her mother and her sister, both of whom entered upon disastrously abusive marriages at a time when there was no legal escape) so it seems unlikely that she threw herself at Imlay in the way that the story has been told. Gordon goes into detail about the way in which Godwin was largely responsible for the character of Mary that has come down to us, a character which has alienated so many. Godwin felt, as did Mary, that the truth must be told-- but he chose his informants about his wife's earlier life rather oddly. He refused to talk to her three sisters, and relied strongly upon the "memories" of Henry Fuseli, a painter for whom Mary had great regard. Fuseli made out to Godwin that Mary was obsessed with him, and had in fact wished to move into his house in menage a trois with him and his wife. Mary did propose living with the Fuselis, but she had lived in the house of her publisher Joseph Johnson (who had taken her in when she left her position as governess, in order to support her writing) and no one suggested there was anything sexual there. Fuseli was a charismatic, ambiguous character who wrote erotic letters to both men and women. (He painted one great picture, "The Nightmare," of a woman asleep with a demon crouching upon her chest.) He produced a great deal of pornography, and did not believe that women could contribute anything of lasting value to intellectual discourse. There is every reason to doubt his version of Mary-- but after she died, everyone wanted a place in her biography, and Fuseli carved out a such a place for himself, as an object of Mary's immoderate affections. It seems that the myth of Mary as a sexual wanton started there. She was a virgin at thirty-four when she embarked on her relationship with Imlay-- how sexually wanton is that?

As for the conflict among feminists about the contradiction between what Mary prescribed in the Vindication, and the life she subsequently lived, it seems to me to make little sense to try to separate her thinking from the historical moment and her own personal experience. In the late eighteenth century women lost not only their property and the right to their future children when they married, but the right of habeas corpus. There was no legal appeal against physical abuse, forced confinement or sequestering. The closest thing to a law that protected a married woman was a law about the size of the stick a man was allowed to beat his wife with-- no thicker than his thumb. (But the larger the man, the thicker the thumb.... no?) One of Mary's key experiences in regard to marriage as then constituted happened when her sister Bess fell into an extreme case of postpartum depression after giving birth to her first child. She begged Mary to help her escape her husband, and when Mary saw her
descending into madness, she and her other sister organized what can only be described as a kidnapping with consent. Helping her sister get away, even though they left the baby behind, was a criminal act. In such a context what do the words "puritanical" and "liberated" with respect to marriage mean?

Timmi: The tendency for women to be characterized after their deaths in misleading (and often clumsily simplistic) ways seems to be something women writers have been particularly susceptible to (when, that is, they are remembered at all!). It does seem
that how the work left behind by women writers is read posthumously is often determined by the filters that are put in place more or less soon after their deaths. Not necessarily maliciously, but always-- inevitably, even-- with respect to various gendered issues. The idea that Godwin would not talk to her sisters is a little shocking-- though I suppose it accorded with how little importance educated men placed on the perceptions and memories of women (presumably not themselves writers or intellectuals). (And Mary, being a weaver's daughter, educated herself: which makes me suspect her sisters had little if any education.) And so another irony occurs to me-- our whole conversation seems to be drenched in ironies-- namely, that a predominantly male-shaped image of Mary is the one that most feminists know.

Of course I agree with you absolutely that it is a mistake to separate Mary's (or anyone's) ideas from their historical moment. And what a moment! I suspect it's difficult for us in the early 21st century to make intuitive sense of the full force of Enlightenment ideas playing out so violently in the last quarter of the eighteenth century-- what it meant, for instance, that the French Revolution adopted the language of Virtue-- a Virtue fiercely dissociated from religion-- and a kind of Rousseauian logic that permeated its public discourse. Could you talk a bit about how Mary came to write the Vindication? I seem to recall back when I read it (a quite a long time ago, I'm afraid) that it struck me, even as it angrily confronted the situation of women, as gesturing powerfully toward an almost utopian impulse: the sense that the world doesn't have to work like this, that all that is wrong needn't be that way and that therefore we must fight for it until our last breath.

Wendy: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a sequel to Mary’s first full-scale political publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Men Before that she had written other books, but they were easier to classify under traditional women’s preserves of education and fiction, and she had signed them in the customary modest way (“by a lady”), as Jane Austen did her works some years later. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was Mary’s first venture into what was then the exclusively male preserve of political philosophy; she signed it with her own name. It seems to me that the immediately compelling circumstances of both works were the onset of the French Revolution and, more personally, the unwavering, multifaceted support and friendship of Joseph Johnson, Mary’s publisher. I have been reading A Vindication of the Rights of Men for the first time. It is now much less read than the more famous feminist sequel, but is astonishingly relevant to our time, a denunciation of the political “spin.” It was written as a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke, Britain’s most eloquent parliamentarian, who came down squarely on the side of the ruling classes, and against “mob rule” when the evolution broke. Mary’s critique of Burke’s “flowers of rhetoric” could be applied to many disingenuous and inflammatory contemporary voices. She berates him for saving all his tears for “the downfall of queens,” to which Paine famously added that “in mourning the plumage he forgot the bird.” Lyndall Gordon does not speculate as to why Mary followed up the first Vindication with the second, more explicitly feminist document, but two events are suggestive. In 1791 the French published a new constitution, which ended aristocratic rule but failed to give women equal political standing. In the same year, France’s great feminist Olympe de Gouges published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Mary could have been taking her cue from either of these events, or she could have decided to balance her Rights of Men with a Rights of Woman for conceptual and aesthetic symmetry.

Incidentally, Mary’s father was not a weaver, that was her grandfather, but even so the term is misleading. Her grandfather was sufficiently wealthy from his weaving business at the time of his death to allow his son, Mary’s father, to set himself up as a gentleman. This climb up the social ladder did not work out. He tried his hand as a gentleman farmer, but drinking to excess does not foster successful farming, and the venture failed. They moved from one place to another, none working out, until he was borrowing his children’s money and removing the girls’ chances of marrying by doing so. Nevertheless, Mary and her sisters were fairly well educated by the standards of the time. When Mary went out to work, as a companion, governess, and teacher, it began a long cycle of her supporting her sisters, and she saw to their education above all. She really moved into a maternal position with respect to her sisters, and this led to complicated feelings relating to their dependency and Mary’s success. Godwin may not have wanted to communicate with them because he feared their financial impositions and other resentments…..still, his behavior is a little odd, given the book he was trying to write.

Certainly it is hard to imagine oneself back into the eighteenth century mindset of a person first experiencing the ideas of the Enlightenment, but I somehow think it is less hard to imagine now than it was eight years ago. We have entered another such watershed moment…. Although Mary’s vision was utopian by the standards of the day, it has proved to be workable, at least in part. I always feel uneasy about using the word utopian, as it literally translates as both “good place” and “nowhere,” a deliberate irony, no doubt, on Sir Thomas More’s part.

Timmi: Could you talk a bit about Mary's fiction? I know you've been reading at least some of it. How would you characterize it in terms of the fiction of her day, and is any of it still readable today, when fiction is built upon such different conventions?

Wendy: I do think Mary's fiction is still readable.... very readable. I don't find the difference in conventions an obstacle at all, in fact, I find it refreshing. Conventions, no matter from what period, grow tiresome very quickly. A really fine writer, in my opinion, works to alter conventions by manipulating them-- shifting the weight that the reader expects. Part of the reason I read so much fiction from other countries and other times is that I find the current American mainstream literary conventions in most genres pretty stale.

That being said, fiction was not Mary’s strongest suit. The Wrongs of Woman, or, Maria, her last book, unfinished at her death, has both narrative suspense and tragic eloquence for the first sixty pages, which show what the book might have been had she finished it. The rest is a draft, and, I think it’s safe to say, would have been much revised if she had survived childbirth. What I find most interesting in this book is the way it embodies what we now call the horror genre. If one began a novel today with a protagonist speaking from the private madhouse cell where she has been taken by force under her husband’s orders, deprived of her newborn child, and sequestered forever, we would scarcely imagine we were reading in the genre of realism. It sounds a bit more like Stephen King. To my ear this book falls squarely into the nascent genre of Gothic. It’s no coincidence that the text of The Wrongs of Woman resonates with images that spring from the abolition movement, with which Mary strongly sympathized, and with which early feminism had strong ties. None of the resonances are programmatic or heavy-handed, but seem to grow very naturally out of the story she has to tell. Her other novel, Mary, is a veiled and sometimes wishful autobiography, and therefore, to me, less interesting as fiction, but still great to read because the writer is such a fine stylist. By that I mean, her use of the English language is so unobtrusively elegant, so taut and musical, that the sentences are a joy to read. Her mastery of English as a medium for creating meaning is finally what I go to Mary for, and the issue of the genre is secondary. This is my attitude about writing in general. One loves to hear stories, and one associates stories with fiction, but the ever-present story lies in the way a sentence unwinds. Mary’s great strength lies in the fact that her ideas are simply not separable from the language that expresses them. What one misses in most discussions of her is a consideration of the total infusion of her thought with a simultaneous apprehension of beauty and justice (to use Elaine Scarry’s phrase). A moral aesthetics.

Timmi: Could you quote a passage, please, that exemplifies this infusion of her thought with a simultaneous apprehension of beauty and justice?

Wendy: Here is one. It comes from A Vindication of the Rights of Men: A Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke.

I glow with indignation when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slavish paradoxes, in which I can find no fixed principle to refute; I shall not, therefore, condescend to shew where you affirm in one page what you deny in another; and how frequently you draw conclusions without any previous premises-- it would be something like cowardice to fight with a man who had never exercised the weapons with which his opponent chose to combat, and irksome to refute sentence after sentence in which the latent spirit of tyranny appeared. I perceive, from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a mortal antipathy to reason; but, if there is any thing like argument, or first principles, in your wild declamation, behold the result:-- that we are to reverence the rust of antiquity, and term the unnatural customs, which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated, the sage fruit of experience: nay, that, if we do discover some errors, our FEELINGS should lead us to excuse, with blind love, or unprincipled filial affection, the venerable vestiges of ancient days. These are gothic notions of beauty-- the ivy is beautiful, but, when it insidiously destroys the trunk from which it receives support, who would not grub it up?

Timmi: This is really magnificent prose. It's bold and direct-- hardly the style used by women of the day-- and goes straight to the heart of arguments supporting the insupportable status quo: that they're based on "ignorance and mistaken self-interest" (you're right that her rhetoric here could well be applied to many "disingenuous and inflammatory contemporary voices"!), a reverence for "the rust of antiquity," and sentimentality. I'm really impressed that she did sign her name to this work.

To return to Gordon's biography: what did you find most interesting and insightful in it?

Wendy: Oddly enough, I think that the things I found most interesting in the book were somewhat peripheral to the story of Mary’s life. One was the story of Fuseli’s betrayal of Mary after her death, and his motives for it. Gordon speculates, on the basis of Mary’s amused silence in reaction to insinuations Fuseli made during her lifetime, that Mary knew the relationship between Fuseli and Johnson to be something more than collegiality. Since "sodomy" was at that time a capital offense, Mary would have said nothing, rather than endanger Johnson, or even Fuseli. Gordon’s speculation sheds some light, to my mind, on what could have driven Johnson to publish so many works defending the rights of slaves, Jews, prisoners, Dissenters and women. If he himself were an outsider, it makes his activism more comprehensible.

The other discussion that will stay with me from this book is that of the effect Mary had on the younger women whose lives she touched. Of these, the stories of her pupil Margaret King, later Lady Mount Cashell, is perhaps the most dramatic. Margaret King was a teenager when Mary went to her parents’ estate in Ireland to work as a governess. Margaret married young, to a wealthy neighbor, who gave her nine children in nine years. During this time she declared herself a United Irishwoman and a republican. When she and her family visited Italy, Margaret fell in love with another man. Defying the social code, she left her husband, even though this meant giving up her children. She continued to live with her lover, who went along with her decision to study medicine, even though this required her to disguise herself as a man for the years she pursued her degree. After she completed her studies, they moved to another part of Italy and she set up a medical practice, and later wrote and published the period’s authoritative text on the treatment of childhood diseases.

Timmi: Oh yes, I recently read about Lady Mountcashell-- Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, wrote a story for her daughters (by her lover), titled Maurice, that was only recently discovered.

One last question, to bring our discussion to a close. Do you think Mary Wollstonecraft's work, thought, and life are interesting now chiefly as historical artifacts and an important piece of feminist history, or do you think they still have
meaningful things to say to women today?

Wendy: I definitely think Mary's life and work still have meaning. One of the things I've learned from this book is how crucial it is that such lives be revisited and reinterpreted by each generation. The Mary Wollstonecraft Lyndall Gordon has elicited in her research and thinking is a completely different person from the woman we all thought we knew. Part of the scholar's work is to eliminate, or at least expose, those filters you spoke of, that are put in place after a person's death, to reveal a more balanced image. And each generation is able to see things that the generation before was blind to.... So biography is a work that is never done, and I think it is really for ourselves that we engage in it, not out of some kind of piety towards the dead and the great, although those emotions can figure too.

I have found through my own historical research (on Constance Kent) that you just can't accept what people have written before you without extremely close examination. Part of the problem is that history and fiction are so easy to confuse, because both involve telling stories. In fiction the criterion of truth has to do with aesthetic meaning-- arrangement and rhythmic placement of elements. In history the criterion of truth is what Willard Van Orme Quine, the philosopher, called "a good fit." The scholar's job, and the reader's too, is to discover where the evidence and the narrative don't fit well to each other. Where that is true, a new biography is needed.

Timmi: Thanks so much, Wendy, for your thoughtful discussion. I've enjoyed our conversation immensely.

Wendy: Thanks for the great questions, Timmi. It was a real pleasure doing this!

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