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Anna Trench. Daisy Hay on Mary Wollstonecraft

Letters From the Heart

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Over the past few months I’ve been immersed in a feast of late-eighteenth-century reading as I’ve meandered through the foothills of a new book project. I’ve had the delight of reacquainting myself with old friends and have made some new ones along the way as I’ve lived and breathed the turbulent events of the decade following the French Revolution through the eyes of some of the period’s most brilliant writers.

One rediscovery has stood out. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark was widely praised when it was first published in 1796. Wollstonecraft’s husband William Godwin described it as a book ‘calculated to make a man in love with its author’ and several of his contemporaries agreed. Wordsworth and Coleridge were both influenced by its descriptions of the natural world, and even usually censorious reviewers reacted with enthusiasm. A magazine called the British Critic thought it the work of a woman ‘exquisitely alive to the beauties of nature, and keenly susceptible of every soft impression, every tender emotion’, and the Monthly Review wrote that it was characterized by ‘the natural and energetic expression of feelings which do credit to the writer’s heart’.

Yet Letters Written in Sweden is little read nowadays outside academic circles. My rereading of it has convinced me that it is ripe for a revival, not least because it speaks to many of the things that preoccupy us today. The topics covered in this odd, hybrid book include all the things you might expect to find in a work of travel writing: descriptions of foreign climates, landscapes and customs, a smattering of history, more than a smattering of politics, and reflections on the country left behind. But this is a work which also takes in parenting, a hopeless love affair and a journey of self-discovery and restoration. It may be over two hundred years old but it was written

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Over the past few months I’ve been immersed in a feast of late-eighteenth-century reading as I’ve meandered through the foothills of a new book project. I’ve had the delight of reacquainting myself with old friends and have made some new ones along the way as I’ve lived and breathed the turbulent events of the decade following the French Revolution through the eyes of some of the period’s most brilliant writers.

One rediscovery has stood out. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark was widely praised when it was first published in 1796. Wollstonecraft’s husband William Godwin described it as a book ‘calculated to make a man in love with its author’ and several of his contemporaries agreed. Wordsworth and Coleridge were both influenced by its descriptions of the natural world, and even usually censorious reviewers reacted with enthusiasm. A magazine called the British Critic thought it the work of a woman ‘exquisitely alive to the beauties of nature, and keenly susceptible of every soft impression, every tender emotion’, and the Monthly Review wrote that it was characterized by ‘the natural and energetic expression of feelings which do credit to the writer’s heart’. Yet Letters Written in Sweden is little read nowadays outside academic circles. My rereading of it has convinced me that it is ripe for a revival, not least because it speaks to many of the things that preoccupy us today. The topics covered in this odd, hybrid book include all the things you might expect to find in a work of travel writing: descriptions of foreign climates, landscapes and customs, a smattering of history, more than a smattering of politics, and reflections on the country left behind. But this is a work which also takes in parenting, a hopeless love affair and a journey of self-discovery and restoration. It may be over two hundred years old but it was written when Europe was in flux and it feels to me like a book for our own uncertain times, with much to say about the way in which the act of writing can remake us. An unlikely constellation of events led Mary Wollstonecraft to compose the Letters. By the mid-1790s she had made her name as a writer, having published her famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman as well as a host of lesser-known works. In 1792, shortly after the Vindication appeared, she travelled to Paris to witness the French Revolution at first hand and there she met an American businessman called Gilbert Imlay. As the Revolution descended into violent chaos Wollstonecraft and Imlay embarked on an affair and in 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Fanny. For a brief period she was able to dream of a happy future in which she, Imlay and Fanny would live together in domestic bliss. But Imlay had other ideas, and his absences from Wollstonecraft’s fireside grew longer and more frequent. In 1795 she packed up her life in France and returned to England with Fanny, only to find that Imlay had no intention of making a home with her there. In desperation she took an overdose of laudanum, scaring Imlay out of indecisive prevarication and into action. His solution was not that she and Fanny should live with him, but that they should travel on his behalf to Scandinavia to enquire into the fate of a ship he had chartered. Like many other speculators of the period Imlay was attempting to profit from the French Revolution in ways that were barely legal, and in a complicated set of transactions he had arranged for a cargo of silver to be sent to Gothenburg. The ship disappeared en route and Imlay suspected foul play on the part of the captain. So he dispatched Wollstonecraft north to find the ship and to win his cargo of silver back for him. It was an audacious way to treat the lover he had spurned, and very few women of the period would have accepted such a task, especially with a toddler in tow. But Wollstonecraft was not like other women and in June 1795 she set sail from Hull with Fanny and a French nursemaid at her side. For several months she travelled through Sweden, Norway and Denmark, writing letters to Imlay along the way. She discovered that Imlay’s suspicions about the ship’s captain were correct but, faced with considerable hostility from an impenetrable foreign legal system, she was unable to secure the return of his silver. When she returned to London she discovered that he was living openly with another woman and she made a second attempt at suicide, throwing herself into the Thames at Putney Bridge. Again she survived, and as she recovered she began to realize that she must make a life for herself and Fanny in which Imlay played no part. She demanded her letters back and in the final months of 1795 reworked them into a book, removing some of the most personal sections but otherwise leaving much of the pain of the originals as a public testament to her suffering. The result was a work quite unlike other travel books of the period, and its composition and reception enabled Wollstonecraft to rebuild her life and re-enter the world. This background was unknown to the first readers of Letters Written in Sweden, and in the book Wollstonecraft is careful to leave vague the precise nature of the business which dictates her wanderings. But on everything else she saw and thought while on her travels she is brilliantly and memorably precise. From the outset she makes it abundantly clear that she has no intention of being a whingeing travel writer who can find nothing more interesting to do than complain about the state of hotels. ‘Travellers who require that every nation should resemble their native country’, she writes with some robustness, ‘had better stay at home.’ Having set out her vision of the kind of traveller she intends to be, Wollstonecraft proceeds to live up to her own ideals. She may at times be reduced to exhaustion by bumpy roads and lumpy mattresses but she is always alert to the strange beauty around her. In an early letter, as the rugged Swedish coast comes into view, she likens the prospect to seeing ‘the bones of the world waiting to be clothed with every thing necessary to give life and beauty’, a powerful image for an elemental, mysterious landscape. Once ashore she finds much to say about the politics and social customs of the people she meets, and today her comments feel surprisingly contemporary. She is taken aback by the Swedish system of childrearing, which involves keeping children tucked up inside heated houses with little opportunity to run freely in the fresh air. The result, she writes, are children who ‘appear to be nipt in the bud’, denied the chance of an untrammelled, carefree existence even for a short period. She is more approving of Swedish laws regarding illegitimate offspring, which stipulate that both parents must contribute to the maintenance of the child, but she notes with regret that even this system only works when fathers acknowledge their responsibilities. In Norway she describes with some relief a religious culture in which religiosity is kept in proportion and not allowed to become the preserve of blinkered hardliners. ‘Aristocracy and fanaticism seem equally to be gaining ground in England . . . I saw very little of either in Norway.’ Instead, while Norwegians go to church regularly, ‘religion does not interfere with their employments’. In the Europe of the 1790s, brought to breaking-point by political fanaticism and political division, such moderation appears to her a revelation. Her travels lead her to conclude that it is zealots of all stripes who have wrecked destruction on Revolutionary France and her neighbours, and that greedy businessmen, political ideologues and an avaricious establishment all bear part of the blame. ‘During my present journey, and whilst residing in France,’ she concludes, ‘I have had an opportunity of peeping behind the scenes of what are vulgarly termed great affairs, only to discover the mean machinery which has directed many transactions of moment. The sword has been merciful, compared with the depredations made on human life by contractors, and by the swarm of locusts who have battened on the pestilence they spread abroad.’ All this would be absorbing and fascinating in itself, but it doesn’t take account of one very important element of Letters Written in Sweden. The thing that gives the book its heart is its form: these are letters written by a woman to the man she loves and who has betrayed her. Thrown on her own resources Wollstonecraft learns much about herself and she leaves her tale of self-discovery in the published version of her letters for all to see. ‘I cannot immediately determine whether I ought to rejoice at having turned over in this solitude a new page in the history of my own heart,’ she muses. Elsewhere she turns inward for comfort and emotional sustenance. ‘I must fly from thought, and find refuge from sorrow in a strong imagination – the only solace for a feeling heart.’ Reading this with the benefit of hindsight it is not hard to see why it had such an impact on Wordsworth and Coleridge, the great poets of the Romantic imagination. The one thing that brings Wollstonecraft happiness on her travels is thoughts of Fanny, whom she has to leave in inns at various points when Imlay’s business takes her to the most inhospitable corners of Scandinavia, but who nightly fills her dreams. ‘I heard her sweet cooing beat on my heart from the cliffs, and saw her tiny footsteps on the sands.’ It is, Wollstonecraft argues, a mighty responsibility to be the mother of a daughter in a world which systematically ignores the rights of women. ‘I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart.’ Yet despite the difficulties and dangers facing them both, Fanny offers the hope of a brighter future, and the restoration of happiness. So Letters Written in Sweden touches on many things that feel astonishingly relevant today: a febrile Europe, gender politics, the responsibilities of parenthood, the possibilities of adventure and enquiry, the enduring fascination of foreign lands. Ultimately Wollstonecraft did find happiness, although her marriage to William Godwin was cut brutally short by her death in childbirth. And in spite of all the heartache, Letters is very far from being a melancholy book. Instead it is bold and brave and self-revealing, a testament to the resilience and creative power of its extraordinary author. Ultimately it exemplifies an age-old theme. As Wollstonecraft is restored to life by the act of composition, her neglected classic demonstrates just how powerfully writing and the imagination can heal the heart, and make a person whole.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Daisy Hay 2016


About the contributor

Daisy Hay is the author of Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance and Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives. She feels very privileged to spend her working life surrounded by such a glorious cast of romantic Romantics and Victorians.

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