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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