Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women's History Month ends; this blog blossoms; first request for help

Every now and then, dear reader, I will tell you how this blog is going, recap our collective achievements, outline some of my plans, and ask for your feedback or help. The last day of March, Women's History Month, is as good a time as any to look back, and forward.

I started this blog just over six months ago. My first post read, in its entirety:
On this day 213 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft died. With this blog, she will live again.
There was a lull over the winter, but the spring has given me, and this blog, new energy.  I have plans, and I'll share some of them with you now.


What it's all for
Women's History Month is an annual festival of forgotten heroines, and serves as a focus for numerous worthwhile educational endeavours. I'm not going to be curmudgeonly about it; I enjoy some of the events put on in its name. But Mary is not just for feminists, a theme that I will keep coming back to. Her political philosophy, working out core principles of human rights and republicanism, is much more wide-ranging. Her travelogue of sensibility pre-dates the Romantics. Her pedagogy was innovative for its day. These contributions have been overlooked or dismissed, perhaps because of her sex, but gradually they are gaining wider critical attention.

I started this blog primarily as a way of creating a meeting place for Mary enthusiasts -- and Wollstonecraft scholars. It is, in effect, testing the waters for a Mary Fan Club or Wollstonecraft Society. Isn't it surprising that neither yet exists? As I said in a recent comment: 
If this blog succeeds in bringing together Mary fans, I am delighted. If this blog succeeds in bringing together paid Mary experts who did not previously know of each other's existence, I am vindicated.

Already this blog has international readers and contributors whose professional lives are entwined with telling Mary's story and interpreting her words for our day. One of my hopes is that I too can make my living,or at least my library fees, from my Mary lore. More immediately, A Vindication of the Rights of Mary will satisfy other intentions:
  • teaching myself blogging, in terms both of content and of form. This is my first serious attempt at a blog for public eyes. I need to keep a reasonable rhythm; I know I can't sustain the previous few weeks of almost daily updates (but so much has been going on!). I want to use this project as a vehicle to boost my technical skills, like capturing the right sort of screenshot, editing and uploading video and audio, catching comment spam, embedding dynamic content I've gathered, analysing the statistics, and improving our Google rankings (the dark arts of SEO, but with the added sunshine of rationalist honesty). 
  • supporting projects, most notably Mary on the Green, the campaign I'm involved with to get her a statue, but also other ventures as I come across them.
  • reaching out, to invite people to join in. From individual blogs, from blog carnivals, from projects such as The Year of Feminist Classics, from Twitter, from Facebook, from YouTube, from official websites of organisations GLAM or otherwise, from academe, from publishing, from education, from politics ...
  • establishing and developing a central repository of material for easy re-use: a list of quotes by and about her, a calendar of dates, a gallery of images, a map, etc.

The first two objectives are well under way. I deliberately haven't done much reaching out, until I felt there was something worth showing, something of substance that the right visitor would immediately want to subscribe to. Now there is, and so outreach will be the next step. The repository can be built up slowly.

Ideas
I have lots of ideas. There are so many things to write about! I have several series of posts, or themes, in mind. I am wary of being too specific, lest I let you, dear reader, down (and me too). Of course, it doesn't all have to be me: I welcome guest posts and collaborations. Here goes:
  • Wednesday Walks: already published is Somers Town, and written and queued up are St Pancras, Southwark, Spitalfields; in draft form is Paris; and later possibilities are Bloomsbury, Barking, Beverley, even unalliterative Hoxton.
  • Mary & Me, personal essays describing how she came into our personal and professional lives. So far we've had a French philosopher and a Japanese historian; next Monday, though I'm not into huge self-revelation, I will bow to the will of the clamouring throng and tell them a little of how I came to be involved. (Psst! Throng! Clamour a bit louder, would you?) There's also an American novelist and poet who has promised her story. After that, we'll see.
  • I want to showcase creative work, visual and literary, humourous and serious. So far we've had the gentle pleasure of sketches of Newington Green; upcoming, a Mary tattoo, oh yes.
  • There will be regular dollops of research, things I (and others) have found out that are not in the official biographies. A subset of this is Mary's legacy, those people who read her work and found it a turning point, but again, who are not listed as her intellectual heirs. I have quite a few names already. 
  • I want to catalogue and review what is already online, and draw the good sites together, whether they be a personal essay or something more elaborate. There are undiscovered gems on Google Books, for instance. Detailing online treasure troves could be an infinite task, but it ties in well to the outreach. Book reviews could come in here too.
  • It would be a good idea to build in a series of quotes from her, and my reflections, leading I hope to analysis and conversation in the comments.
  • I have a series of essays I want to write, and a more creative project too, though I am hesitant to say more.
  • I want to highlight projects, mine and others', as small as my Twitter biography in #38 days (today, a quarter of the way towards its destination), as big as the launch of Mary on the Green, the campaign to get her a statue. I particularly want to draw readers' attention to time-limited events such as performances and exhibitions, e.g. Shelley's Ghost.
Of course, I can dream of bigger plans:  As I mentioned before, I have aspirations of a Mary Wollstonecraft Museum, or Women's Leadership Centre, or Human Rights Academy. If that doesn't tickle your fancy, what about the Mary Wollstonecraft Girls' School of Kabul? Or Domestic Violence Refuge, or Library for Autodidacts, or Mary's Madhouse for Distressed Gentlewomen? Perhaps this blog will be one step towards these clouds in the air.


Where we are now with the blogstuff
I'm sure this will seem piddling to anyone running a proper blog, but in the last month there have been 775 page views, which astonished me. How did they find it?! Google tells me they've come from all over, not surprisingly predominantly from the UK and the US and Canada, but from many other places, not just Turkey and Japan as one might expect, but from Hungary (!), Russia, France, Germany, the Netherlands (and last year, Morocco). Firefox pips Internet Explorer, by the way, and yes, I did turn on the "Don't track your own pageviews" option. This is the 18th post of March; collectively they have attracted 24 comments from eight people, several of whom I would never have met, online or off, but for this blog. And this is only three weeks in, and without any publicity or outreach.

Within 12 months, I want this blog to come up in Google's top ten, and ideally top five, search results for "Mary Wollstonecraft". It will never knock Wikipedia off its number one spot, but, as I write, the results are, in descending order, the History Guide, lectures on modern European intellectual history; a BBC history page; two from Spartacus; About.com on women's history; a philosophy site; the encyclopedia of informal education; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Liberal International, "the world federation of liberal political parties"; plus a Google-compiled timeline and gallery of images. No blog shows up on the first several pages. I think we can change that.

A request for help
So, dear double-dozen readers, can you advise me on how to tidy up the blog before I haul it in front of the world?  Does any aspect of it strike you as an infelicity of design? How does it look on your browser? Is there any content missing, something obvious that really should be there? Is there anything that detracts from your enjoyment and understanding of what this is all about, namely Mary Wollstonecraft in her day and in ours? The success of this blog depends on you! 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mary in Somers Town

A few days ago I went exploring, with Chihiro Umegaki, the Japanese historian mentioned earlier, and the Swedish performance designer Asa Norling. (├ůsa had read the Scandinavian letters, and commented that Mary hadn't much liked the Swedes. I reassured her that she didn't think much of the Portuguese or Irish either, from her sojourns in those countries, and when she was in France hung out mostly with Americans.) Our little tour was mainly a Wollstonecraft pilgrimage, but I used it as an excuse to look at sculptures and other public art as we passed them, comparing good and bad examples that might feed in to Mary on the Green. This post is the first in a series describing what I shall call Wednesday walks.

The three of us met under the skirts of the goddess in St Pancras Station, that is, at the feet of the biggest and ugliest statue to have disgraced London in the last decade at least. It has its plus points: there are benches, it is right at the head of the station, it is a convenient place to gather -- especially to arrange to meet people who might not know London all that well. Anyone can find it: no one could miss it: I, however, wouldn't miss it at all. In terms of aesthetic appeal, I give it nil.

If you look closely, and use a little imagination, you'll see that the speech bubble above Brief Encounter says "Welcome to London, home of heteronormativity!" Fortunately, you don't actually have to look at the embracing couple, as they are too high to peer at without serious neck craning (unless you *really* want to look up her skirt, and be disappointed). At eye level, on the frieze around the base, are much more interesting figures, small, rich, detailed. (NB not shown on this photo, as they were added later.) Not really bas relief -- maybe medium relief? They are somewhat of a relief from looking up. Hard to believe the two works are by the same artist, Paul Day. There's a long explanation of the statue by him, archived on the BBC site; the comments from the punters are polarised, to say the least. OK, it's quite a feat of engineering, as The Evening Standard photos show, but that isn't what it is being judged on. It's supposed to be a work of art.

[Addendum: that indefatigable London explorer IanVisits has written up the frieze of commuters.]

A few steps away is the charming statue of John Betjeman, which is so utterly appealing. This bronze, by Martin Jennings, is just over life size, and sits on the ground rather than a pedestal, so that tourists are often to be seen photographing themselves with him. The poet is clasping his hat in a breeze, his coat billowing, looking up at the station he campaigned to save; I am reminded of Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph in St Paul's Cathedral: "Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you." There's an article by Jennings in The Guardian, setting Betjeman and the project in context, and a description of the process of its creation, with photos along the way, at the artist's website, with various quotes.
Jennings's Betjeman - the best statue I've seen of a well-known figure - is so bright, so visually striking, that it's possible to believe that he actually embalmed the poet in bronze. Betjeman is so realistic that you think he's about to walk down the platform.
Duncan Hamilton, Yorkshire Post.
There is a trail of the poet's words leading up to his statue, carved into slate discs set into the floor and forming its base. It is definitely site-specific art, and also that most traditional of forms, a representational statue of an individual. I could wish for nothing better as a tribute to Mary.

We leave the station and walk along the noisy Euston Road, or the New Road as Mary would have known it. The M25 of its day opened in 1756 as a bypass around the amalgamation of the City of London and Westminster, and all their accretions up to that date. We pass the British Library, which was then housed within the British Museum; Mary lived within spitting distance of it on Store Street, but, I believe, would have been forbidden access on grounds of being a woman. Perhaps we will get to Bloomsbury on a future walk. On the other side of the Euston Road is St Pancras New Church, "new" only in the English sense of being almost 200 years old. Godwin would have seen its contentious and expensive rise.

Just past Chalton Street Market we turn into Churchway, its wiggliness a good indicator that the road pre-dates the grid layout around it. The name for this immediate area is Somers Town, as in the recent film made in honour of the Eurostar arrival. Somers Town stretches north towards Camden Town, but most Londoners know the area simply as St Pancras, originally after the church, or as St Pancras/Kings Cross, after the adjacent train stations. A couple of minutes' walk takes us to Polygon Road, named after the buildings in which Mary spent her last months, happy with Godwin and her work, and where she died.

We pause to gaze at a large mural on the side of a school. It is hard to appreciate the detail of the painting, as it is obscured by a high chain fence, but here's an image. Claire Tomalin, author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (2004),  lobbied in1992 for its retention, calling it "probably the finest in London":
...in 1980 the GLC [Greater London Council, abolished by Thatcher] commissioned the London artist Karen Gregory to paint a mural on the wall of a school to celebrate the history of the district and its famous residents...It offers a journey through time, drawing on the styles of many artists; Stubbs, Constable, Gainsborough, Ford Madox Brown, Sickert and Gilman. Old St Pancras church is in the background, surrounded by hay fields. The Fleet river runs by under an elm tree. Beneath it are seated the figures of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who belong to the earliest period of Somers Town's history. Their daughter Mary is shown as a young woman, with her husband Shelley, sailing paper boats from the bridge over the Fleet, while behind them appears the head of Frankenstein's monster.
Her campaign was successful in raising funds for its restoration; it was moved in 2007, according to the London Mural Preservation Society, and its amended version includes not only the head teacher but Tomalin herself.

Opposite the mural is Oakshott Court, more or less where Mary's last home would have stood. An engraving of the Polygon depicts the circle of buildings, a speculative development in the middle of Clarenden Square, as very attractive. The church on the right hand side might be the one that Churchway leads to, but I see no sign of it on Greenwood's 1827 map. By that point the area had gone downmarket; Charles Dickens lodged there as a boy, and put the Polygon into Bleak House in 1852, as the home of a down-at-heel eccentric. The 1952 English Heritage survey says "Horwood's map of 1799 and Tompson's map of 1803 show the Polygon built in the fields with a circular road round it." That would accord with Godwin's description of walking home across fields, to what were then buildings only a couple of years old: desirable, purpose-built residences just outside the pollution of London, but conveniently close. This was still an age when everything needed to be within walking distance, unless you were rich enough to keep a horse.

After walking all the way around Oakshott Court, we find the brown plaque to Mary, erected by Camden London Borough Council, prodded by Claire Tomalin. "In a house on this site..." In the London Review of Books in 1989, Tomalin says:
‘Mary Who?’ is still the common form of her name, outside a small circle of specialists and enthusiasts. People stumble over the three simple syllables; its awkwardness has stood in the way of her fame. Pankhurst has an easy ring to it, and Mrs Pankhurst got a statue. When I set about organising a modest plaque on the site of the house in which Mary Wollstonecraft died in Somers Town, there was talk of naming flats or even a street after her: but again, those three syllables defeated too many people.
Next Wednesday's installment: to St Pancras Church (and tea).

All images Wikimedia Commons, except Polygon Road, courtesy Asa Norling.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shocking omission, part one

Our friendly philosopher, Sandrine Berges, who mused last week for us on the place of Mary Wollstonecraft in her professional life, has posted on her (new, temporary?) blog The Forbidden Sister about the difficulties of finding out what Mary read. In The disappointing ghost, she writes:
Oh yes, and whatever people say, there aren’t that many books or articles about her work. Not that many written from a philosophical perspective, that is. So one thing I’d very much like to know, is what books she’d read, what she knew about, and what is likely to have influenced her.
(My working definition of the digital humanities, by the way, would emphasise online tools that make this sort of search easy and automatic. Who influenced whom.)

Sandrine discovers a book entitled The Honest Mind: The Thought and Work of Richard Price. She is rightly shocked that David Oswald Thomas saw fit to include barely a passing mention of our Mary. She doesn't say, but I suspect the date is significant: Thomas published in 1977, early days in the recognition of Mary by the second-wave feminists.
In a book that professes to show how ‘Price contributed to the intellectual life of his own time’, I find it seriously amiss that Wollstonecraft’s relationship to Price should not be discussed. In other words, it sucks big way.
IANAH, remember? Nor is Sandrine ("So I tried pretending I was a historian, went online to look at archives and all"). It seems to me that it ought to be fairly straightforward to see who a person influenced, because they get quoted. Of course, in practice it isn't that easy: George Eliot read, quoted, and indeed wrote an essay about Wollstonecraft; Gladstone repeatedly read and annotated Wollstonecraft while he was planning the structure of the state education system, but probably didn't quote her publicly, as she was persona non grata for a Victorian politician to be hobnobbing with. (I would love to be corrected on this: did Gladstone acknowledge his indebtedness to her in shaping his thoughts?) Still, since MW is our target person, there is no shortage of intellectual descendants, and, generally speaking, it is not too hard to find out who they were. However, there are an awful lot of omissions in the historical record, which is why, with depressing cynicism, I have entitled this post "part one": I know for a fact there are some, and suspect there are many, such omissions.

What seems harder to find out is who influenced our target. Unless that person kept meticulous records of everything she read and everyone she spoke to, it is hard to know. If someone like Gladstone dies and creates a library as his main bequest, fine; you know where you are.  (He even wrote an essay called "On Books and the housing of them".) But if your target moved around a lot, borrowed and lent books, went through periods of poverty or homelessness (dire or partial) which necessitated the shedding of belongings, then their books at death, or at any moment of snapshot, may in no way reflect their overall reading and thus their literary influences. Mary is much closer to that end of the spectrum. What was in Mr Ardent's Yorkshire library? What was in the Clares'? And, as Sandrine was trying to discover, what was in Richard Price's? Those books opened Mary's mind!

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Japanese historian muses

Last week we had the thoughts of a French philosopher in Turkey; this week, those of a Japanese historian on a research visit to London.  Chihiro Umegaki specialises in the history of the English Enlightenment and women writers in the 18th century; no surprise, then, that she has written extensively on Mary Wollstonecraft, bringing her to a Japanese audience. She came across this blog, and I promptly invited her along on my jaunt to Oxford to commune with Shelley's Ghost (which closed yesterday). Chihiro was the ideal companion; our obsessions tally nicely. We got out our maps and plotted where exactly Mary's dwelling places would have been, and how many of them might be visitable in a week in London. Plaques, and places without plaques, and Newington Green for the church as well, and the Museum of London for Hidden, not forgetting the National Portrait Gallery....I'll describe our peregrinations in several future posts. For now, let Chihiro introduce herself, and how she came to work with Mary.

**********************************************
Mary Wollstonecraft has been my idol for more than 15 years. I came across her Vindication when I was an undergraduate student in Tokyo. Of course there were a lot of phrases and expressions which I could not understand fully, but I found her arguments very authentic, and fancied that she personally supported me, unsure of my own future academic career in the still male-dominant society of Japan.

My first visit to London was in 2000, when I took my MA course in history in York. I remember how disappointed I was to learn that there were no proper memorial spots of Mary Wollstonecraft. I tried to find her plaques on buildings, but in vain. As an overseas student who spent only one year in Britain, I would be happy enough if I could take a picture of me standing side by side with her statue, and imagine that I was connected with her real life in London…

After finishing my MA, I came back home, and published some articles (in Japanese) about Mary Wollstonecraft and contemporary women writers. I have been teaching British history at a women's junior college in Tokyo for 8 years, and now I am writing an introductory book to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for Japanese readers. We do have a Japanese translation (published in 1980), but I think ordinary readers still need some guidance to understand the full context of her arguments. My book is intended to be such a guide.

I came to London in March this year partly because I needed some fresh inspiration for the final phase of my writing. Unexpectedly, the Mary on the Green project caught my eyes. It was a very happy surprise, and convinced me that Mary Wollstonecraft’s voice is still heard. I will encourage my Japanese readers to support this project, and hope that some day I can take a picture of me holding my book, standing next to Mary's statue in Newington Green.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A life in #38days (and 140 characters)

Twitter, anyone?

I've been intrigued by Mary Wollstonecraft since I was a teenager. This phase of my enthusiasm really kicked off two years ago, when I discovered that Newington Green Unitarian Church (under its briefer C21 name of New Unity) was the only group in the whole world putting on a series of public events to celebrate Mary's 250th anniversary. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that I took this as a personal challenge, and decided to undertake some of the publicity for these events, which proved a useful excuse for getting to grips with Twitter. One of the first things I set up, under the handle of @1759MaryWol1797, was the telling of the last few years of her life, in thrice daily bites. I must see if that trail still exists. This year, I thought I'd re-invent the idea, and am doing her whole life in a line a day, each message representing one year. So far we have:
  • 1759. Waaah! I’m cold. ‘Tis rational to be cold; they have not cloathed me yet. O brave new world, that has such people in't!
  • 1760. Brother Ned cannot forgive me for ousting him from the breast. I assert my rights: he may be greediest, but I am neediest.
  • 1761. And now I in turn am thrust from my place at the centre of Mother’s universe by the arrival of brother Henry.
  • 1762. Under my grandfather’s loom, I see the cat toying with a mouse. How the tyrant abuses his power!
  • 1763. We move to Epping Forest, as Father wishes to be a gentleman farmer. Unfortunately, he is neither gentleman nor farmer.
  • 1764. Mother is teaching me to read. She says I am quite the little scholar! I love the stories she tells of growing up in Ireland.
  • 1765. We move to Barking Creek. I dig for treasure in the briny mud, finding shards of Roman pottery. Nature, wide skies, divinity. 
And they will continue, one a day at 15:00 GMT, with -- if I have counted correctly -- the final one, 1797, going out on Wednesday 27 April, the 252nd anniversary of her birth. I'll leave you to guess the last line: the comments below are for you, dear reader.

It took ages to write the whole cycle, but it was rather fun. It is a lesson in economy, almost like haiku, and in inter-relationships. Some years have so much going on; others, especially childhood ones, have little. How then can themes be introduced, allusions placed, hints dropped, that may come back later on? At the age of zero, I have Mary preaching reason; at one, she extolls breastfeeding, using the language of rights; at three, she anticipates political philosophy.

I already have an idea for next year. For 2011, the hashtag is #38days. Join me on Twitter!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Amartya Sen tells international lawyers to read Mary

Amartya Sen,from Wikimedia Commons
Amartya Sen, an A-list supporter of Mary Wollstonecraft, spoke the other day at the American Society of International Law in Washington D.C.  He won the Nobel Prize for his work in economics, but he also writes on political philosophy. His latest book is The Idea of Justice (2009), which draws repeatedly on her two Vindications.

Of that minority of educated people who have heard of her, very few would know more than A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Sen, on the other hand, has drunk deeply of her previous essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Men.

She was writing of what we now call human rights, in the context of the French Revolution, but she also criticised the American experiment, founded on concepts of liberty but stained by the reality of slavery. She particularly criticised Edmund Burke for his partial views, accusing him of hypocrisy. Burke supported the calls for independence of white Americans, while ignoring the claims of black Americans; in fact, he explicitly supported slavery, on grounds of tradition and property rights. She had no truck with this, calling slavery "a traffic that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion". Sen comments:
The principal point that Mary Wollstonecraft is making here, as she does elsewhere, is that it is unsustainable to have a defence of the freedom of human beings that separate some people whose liberties matter from others not to be included in that favoured category.
Sen extends this from African Americans to the untouchables of India, his home country, and to apartheid South Africa, "and to less clear-cut cases of exclusion based on class, or religion, or ethnicity". Or as others have said, no one is free till all are free.

This is not a passing reference: Sen says that "the appeal to reason in public, on which Mary Wollstonecraft insists, is an important feature of the approach to justice I have been trying to present". He also writes of her rhetorical style, how she uses "the dual functions of indignation and reasoning", concluding admiringly that she is "quite remarkable in combining wrath and reasoning in the same work (indeed, alongside each other)". The role of reason in tackling the injustices of our day is not undermined by passion, by indignation, at seeing those injustices. Sen is bringing her wider work, beyond women's rights, back into the public sphere.  "Justice, by its very nature, has to have a universal reach."

If you are not familiar with Amartya Sen, of Harvard and both branches of Oxbridge, there's a Guardian profile from 2001, calling this economist "a rare example of an intellectual who has had a major effect on politics".
His work on the causes of famine changed public perceptions by showing why thousands might starve even when a country's food production has not diminished, and his analysis of poverty has been enormously influential. Arguing that simple measures of GNP were not enough to assess the standard of living, he helped to create the United Nations' Human Development Index, which has become the most authoritative international source of welfare comparisons between countries...(Among his many contributions to development economics, Sen has produced pioneering studies of gender inequality, so he always takes care to write "her" rather than "his" when referring to an abstract person).
He is also known for his "Missing women of Asia" essay, originally estimated at 100 million. A brief summary of his main economic work is on this New York Times blog.

Hat tip to IntLawGrrls for alerting me to Sen's keynote at the international law conference.
Read Mary Wollstonecraft. That advice was at the core of the keynote speech that Amartya Sen delivered yesterday to open the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, under way through Saturday in Washington, D.C. ...In his address on the history and nature of human rights, Sen ... referred frequently to Wollstonecraft.  ...[She is] often categorized as a feminist, but Sen described her more generally, as 'the most neglected thinker of the Enlightenment period.'...Insights within [her] works, Sen said, include:
► Demonstration that rights were not dependent on legislation, but rather could serve as a precedent inspiration for legislating human rights; and
► Emphasis on the importance of rights within the family.
 I've been meaning to write up Amartya Sen for some time; this appearance gave me the impetus. Thank you, Diane Marie Amann, one of the wide variety of "voices on international law, policy, practice" to be found on IntlawGrrls.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shelley's Ghost, once the flesh melts away

A few days ago I went to Oxford to commune with Shelley's Ghost, the exhibition soon closing at the Bodleian, and wrote about my impressions. The website and catalogue will be ghosts of the ghost, I suppose, in that they will continue into the future, even when the corporeal body of the exhibition has been disassembled and returned to its dusty caskets.

The website
The website is good, as is de rigeur. It is available within the exhibition room on two terminals, which appear to be entirely internet-live and normal, except that they are missing their keyboards. With only a mouse for access, there is no chance that visitors might be tempted to ski off piste. Only now have I discovered the website's online contest: video yourself reading your favourite work by one of the quartet, and win the catalogue! The competition closed weeks ago, but the clips can be viewed here

Another feature that I hope more of the GLAM sector will take on board is a sort of layered presentation. In Shelley's Ghost, most items get a description, which sets facts in context; some get a transcription, if the handwriting warrants it; a list of owners, thus giving the chain of provenance, often a succession of Barons Abinger; references -- I'm not completely sure what this means -- perhaps the scholarly works in which the item was first made public or was most thoroughly described; and, crucially and to me innovatively, a tab inviting comments. I took advantage of this last, and am rather torn, in that I was the first to do so for all the pages I was interested in.  I suppose that made me the first of a new genus! Certainly I felt I was treading in virgin snow.

Social media
The website seems to make excellent use of social media, with Facebook and Twitter buttons at the top of each page, and in addition another button labelled "share", which pops out to reveal scores of ways to tell the world what you think of the content, from A1- Webmarks to Zootool. On the other hand, you could argue that the website makes zero use of social media, in that the pages I looked at said Tweets 0, Share 0. Those who put the time into designing the site, and those who argued in committee meetings for the inclusion of social media, might well say that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. I would counter that putting buttons on a site isn't enough; you have to make yourself known on social media with an active campaign. I am thinking here of poor William Godwin and his dire diaries, of which more another time. Anyway, this is a Wollstonecraft blog, not a website critique blog. (Bodleian, if you want me to handle your next social media campaign, just ask.)

Classroom materials
There is a series of pdf downloads of classroom materials that tie in to the National Curriculum, prepared by Oxford University's Classics Outreach Officer. (I suppose the Cambridge equivalent is Mary Beard.) (Geek joke.) My favourite of these sheets is "A Vindication of A Vindication", which asks the pupils to "read a passage of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Rewrite it as an article for the national media, from the point of view of a modern feminist."

I was also quite taken with A defence of 'poesie':
Many people have written about poetry in order to defend it as a meaningful genre and explain why it remains valuable to the author’s time. Reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘On Poetry’ and Percy Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’. How well do these work as a defence of poetry? Write your own piece to defend poetry. You should write either a short poem (under 20 lines) or a comment piece in newspaper style (maximum 200 words).
I'd love to read some of their responses. Rhetorical styles are so different, and legal and social battles have been won; it takes effort and imagination to make her meaning clear to today's generation.

The book
The catalogue is primarily by Stephen Hebron, the British Romanticist, with one chapter by his co-curator Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger, of the New York Public Library's Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. The official synopsis of the book states:
Few families enjoy such a remarkable reputation for their contribution to the literature and intellectual life of Britain as the Godwins and the Shelleys. Yet this reputation was shaped in a subtle way by the selective release of literary manuscripts into the public realm and the suppression of others. This book explores the lives and posthumous reputations of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and Mary's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.
The Times Higher review by Duncan Wu calls it indispensable and unputdownable. It tells "a story that is astonishing in its eccentricity and could have only originated in Victorian England which, seen through its prism, looks like the maddest place on Earth." Most of this story desribes how and when material about the Shelleys was concealed, altered, or revealed; there was relatively little to hold back in the case of Wollstonecraft, as the grieving widower had spilled most of the beans in the tell-all 1798 Memoir.  The book does refer to "amateur astrologer Richard Garnett, erstwhile panjandrum of the British Museum and spiritual adviser to Lady Shelley" -- the Garnett who helped the biographer of the first full-length biography of Wollstonecraft, as I became aware last yearElizabeth Robins Pennell thanked Garnett by name in her brief preface in 1884.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shelley's Ghost, in the flesh

Monday, finally, to Oxford, to catch the exhibition at the Bodleian in its final week. (I went with the most fortuitous of companions, who deserves and will have an entry of her own.) Shelley's Ghost is subtitled "Reshaping the image of a literary family", though I wish it were "Mary, her husband, their daughter, and her lover (and their friends)". It examines how the Victorian Shelley descendants tried to protect, manipulate, and burnish the reputations of this quartet of ancestors, mainly by selectively withholding or publishing the documents in their possession. Brand reputation management, C19 style.

I must confess that I was exceedingly tired at the beginning of my visit, and not best able to absorb a huge amount of detail. But the exhibition was so well curated that I pulled myself together to appreciate it.


Physical objects
Most of the display cases are full of letters and manuscripts, which have all been published in one form or another; their content is no surprise. It was good to see the portraits up close, and a novelty to contemplate the silver-topped bottles of Mary Shelley's toilet set, arrayed in its velvet case. How the other half lived! I doubt if her mother ever owned anything similar. There was Shelley's guitar, too -- in the days when guitars had connotations other than rock 'n' roll. Previously, my understanding of Sir Percy, the only surviving child of MS and Shelley, and thus the only grandchild of MW, was as a huntin', fishin', and shootin' squire. Shelley's Ghost confirms that he was not literary, but apparently his enthusiasms were cycling (a new-fangled hobby), amateur dramatics (his life lacked the real thing), and ... sailing (which killed his father).

For me the highlight was, not surprisingly, the small case devoted to Mary Wollstonecraft. (Referring to someone as "our " is an indicator of familiarity, and often of family ties, in some English dialects. Here, amidst the plethora of Mary Shelley memorabilia, I want to say "my Mary" to differentiate mother and daughter. But I resist.) Two items in particular took hold of my attention and imagination. 

On Poetry
One was the first page of the manuscript of her essay "On Poetry"
A taste for rural scenes, in the present state of society, appears to be very often an artificial sentiment, rather inspired by poetry and romances, than a real perception of the beauties of nature. But, as it is reckoned a proof of refined taste to praise the calm pleasures which the country affords, the theme is never exhausted. Yet it may be made a question, whether this romantic kind of declamation, has much effect on the conduct of those, who leave, for a season, the crowded cities in which they were bred. 
I have been led to these reflections, by observing, when I have resided for any length of time in the country, how few people seem to contemplate nature with their own eyes. I have "brushed the dew away" in the morning; but, pacing over the printless grass, I have wondered that, in such delightful situations, the sun was allowed to rise in solitary majesty, whilst my eyes alone hailed its beautifying beams. The webs of the evening have still been spread across the hedged path, unless some labouring man, trudging to work, disturbed the fairy structure; yet, in spite of this supineness, when I joined the social circle, every tongue rang changes on the pleasures of the country.
I found this oddly moving. My companion and I played paleographer, getting into the idiosyncrasies of the handwriting, piecing out the text, finding the rhythm of the sentence, and speaking the words aloud.  Our effort and our soft audible voices made tangible precisely what MW was arguing -- personal experience is what counts. You actually have to get up in the morning to see the sunrise; praising its beauty without having seen it is mere prattle. This realisation alone made the trip to Oxford worthwhile. The train ride provided just enough time in nowhereland to reflect and talk, and thus to allow these epiphanies to bubble to the surface.

Notes to Godwin
The second display that captured me was the series of three notes to Godwin, written while MW was in labour with the future Mary Shelley. (Husband and wife lived in nearby apartments, and had convenient anonymous servant girls to run errands, including the delivery of letters. Like text messages, but cheaper.) I've read these notes before, of course, but to see in front of me some of the very last words she ever wrote, on torn and stained scraps of paper...it was special. (NB Each note is dated in full, Aug 30, 1797, but no time is stated.)

I have no doubt of seeing the animal to day; but must wait for Mrs. Blenkinsop to guess at the hour – I have sent for her – Pray send me the newspaper – I wish I had a novel, or some book of sheer amusement, to excite curiosity, and while away the time – Have you any thing of the kind? 
Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me that Every thing is in a fair way, and that there is no fear of the event being put off till another day – still, at present, she thinks, I shall not immediately be freed from my load – I am very well – call before dinner-time, unless you receive another message from me – 
Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me that I am in the most natural state, and can promise me a safe delivery – But that I must have a little Patience
Does anything else like this exist? A written record of those moments of tedium, excitement, and enforced patience, from one literary figure to another? (In our day, we have women -- or more often their partners -- live-tweeting labour & delivery.) These notes are unbearably poignant. I end my Twitter project of telling MW's life over #38days with reassurance from the midwife. "She promises me a safe delivery." What a loss!

What a loss
The death of Mary Wollstonecraft had deep and multifaceted effects. It was the loss of mother and wife: her grieving widower Godwin ("This light was lent to me for a very short period, and is now extinguished for ever!") ;  the toddler Fanny, who was to grow up without either birth parent; newborn Mary, farmed out to a wetnurse, I believe. It was the loss of sister and daughter-figure, to those who depended on her for protection, younger siblings, the Bloods in Ireland. It was the loss of a writer in the full strength of her powers, with her pen ever at the ready to tilt against injustices. It was the loss of a woman through the most womanly of activities, child-bearing, and thus a confirmation of the prejudices of many, who remained convinced that there was no point in educating girls, because they would just succumb to motherhood one way or another. It was the death of the movement for women's rights for a generation. 

My main criticism of Shelley's Ghost is that, while attempting to tell the story of a literary family, it shortchanges the mater familias. There just wasn't enough about MW. It's not their fault, necessarily: all exhibitions depend on what they have, and what they can borrow.  Related to this, there are a few items I'd expect to find that I didn't see. Evidently the National Portrait Gallery hadn't been persuaded to lend the Opie portrait, for example.  I didn't see (though I may have simply missed) the illustration of young Mary and her lover, meeting surreptitiously at MW's grave. "Over my dead body!" I hear her growl to the tousle-hair'd poet. "She's only 16, and you're married. Cease and desist!" But the sonnets won the day.

Here is a BBC Oxfordshire audio slideshow of the exhibition, mostly an interview with the curator. I'll review the website and catalogue shortly (here).

Monday, March 21, 2011

A (modern, female) philosopher muses

I am absolutely delighted to introduce the first guest post, from Sandrine Berges, an early supporter of this blog. Sandrine teaches philosophy in Turkey, and blogs for fun with her two sisters at http://paris-ankara.blogspot.comHere she writes about how Mary Wollstonecraft fits into her professional life. 

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Four years ago, I barely knew who she was. Then a (male) colleague suggested we introduce the two Vindications to our survey course in political philosophy. It was love at first read - I found arguments and a style that I liked and that I could relate to. I sometimes wonder whether I saw in her writings what I wanted to see – I seemed to be able to extract from them most of what I wanted to say about most things – still do. Before that, I had spent years reading and writing on Plato. For a feminist, that is not always very satisfying. Also, I had been teaching for five years in a department in which I was the only woman, having graduated in a field in which there are very few of us already.

Wollstonecraft did not quite give me voice - I was already a published philosopher - she did not quite give me confidence - being a woman academic in a male department will do that for you - but she helped anchor me, become at peace with what I was: a woman philosopher, intermittently fighting for the cause of other women through my writings. 

Wollstonecraft also gave me success. The first article I wrote on her was accepted for publication in a very good journal. The second sent me to Tuscany for a conference, and of course, there is the book. The first book I wrote was a monograph: my own reflections on Plato's moral and political philosophy - very worthy, no doubt, but frankly, who reads it? The book I am writing now is an introduction. One of those you see in all university bookshops, that students buy whenever they want to find out something about someone. One of those books that people buy even if they're not philosophers, and even, sometimes, if they're not students! I shall be rich! Well, no, but I will enjoy seeing the number of copies bought when I receive my no-doubt measly royalty check.

But forget these misplaced fantasies of fame and riches. What is making me happy is the feeling that I have a chance of being useful, as Wollstonecraft herself would say. My book, when it is written, may encourage people to read the Vindications, its existence may trick some of them into thinking that Wollstonecraft is part of the canon of philosophers taught at university, and then, who knows? She might become just that.

In the meantime, I am struggling, for the first time in my life really trying to get something just right, and worrying about the consequences if I don't. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More visual delights

Mary Wollstonecraft did venture beyond (what is now) North London, and this coming week over the next several Wednesdays I'll be exploring some of those connections. However, to round off this past fortnight's focus on Newington Green, here are two sketches by the kind permission of James Hobbs (www.james-hobbs.co.uk). I've never met the man, but his style of gentle colour and clarity appeals to me, call them grown-up architectural cartoons, and the next time I am near the Oxo Tower on the South Bank, I intend to pop in to Skylark Gallery and see what he has hanging there.

I like how the image focuses on the church building, but those in the know can positively smell the Belle Epoque patisserie next door, under the awning. James has work hanging there too, but do beware if you enter the building -- you won't be able to leave without having eaten something too good to be good for you.

The pastry shop wasn't there in the 1780s, of course; I wonder what was? The church was the centre of its community then, but it looked rather different. On its front now it bears the inscription "Erected 1708. Enlarged 1860", a phraseology that's the source of many adolescent chuckles. Aside from the Victorian schoolhouse, which is attached to the back and thus invisible in the sketch, the front was altered, so Mary would have seen the same building in a simpler guise. And in her day it didn't have a banner proclaiming "Birthplace of feminism".


I suppose that label could equally well apply to the house of the minister, Dr Richard Price, one of the few Dissenters who could get away with preaching support for e.g. the American Revolution, and yet still have the ear of the king's men -- in his case, for his work on economics and statistics. His hospitality, and the warmth with which he supported Mary, are well known. He lived for decades on the west of the Green, in what was even in his day a 100 year old building, now the oldest brick terrace in London. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Dr Price's house could become the location for the Mary Wollstonecraft Museum, or Women's Leadership Centre, or Human Rights Academy? You heard it here first...


[Update: James writes about Mary and Newington Green on his blog here.] [Another update: I've never even met James, but I congratulate him on getting his works onto five uber-London notecards to be distributed worldwide. Thanks, IKEA.]

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Parliamentary support - and another letter

Not surprisingly, Mary Wollstonecraft has many friends in Parliament. For schoolchildren, she is often grouped with the suffragettes, but of course she lived more than a century before the height of the fight for the vote. Nonetheless, as I have discovered in my quest for their signatures on the International Women's Day letter to The Guardian, many MPs and peers have a soft spot for Mary. I draw this conclusion not just from the fact that they signed, but from the enthusiastic little notes some of them attached to their assent. Clearly, she still inspires.

The rather wonderfully bolshy Jeremy Corbyn has since 1983 been the MP for Islington North, which includes Newington Green. He was at the unveiling of the council's plaque last week, and at the reception told me he would table an Early Day Motion supporting the Mary on the Green initiative. (EDMs are "formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons"; in fact, they rarely come to the floor, but are more a vehicle for MPs to express opinions and gather support for a cause.) He was as good as his word, tabling Motion 1553, entitled simply "Mary Wollstonecraft", that very day:
That this House welcomes the plaque that has been placed on the site where Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and established a girls school; believes her memory would be enhanced by an appropriate sculpture on Newington Green as a symbol of her great work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women; and wishes Newington Green Action Group well in this endeavour.
Twenty-five signatures so far!

One of my themes is that Mary, without question best known for her work on women's rights, had many strings to her bow. Her contributions in other fields, e.g. political philosophy and education, are significant. This was picked up in a letter of response in The Guardian, a few days after IWD. It's by Dr Graham Ullathorne, of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, who appears to write to editors at a pace matched only by Keith Flett (more on him another time):
It is a marvellous idea to honour Mary Wollstonecraft (Letters, 8 March). She also wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men (a year before Tom Paine wrote Rights of Man), denouncing Edmund Burke for condoning slavery and hereditary privilege. All the statues of kings and queens and nothing for Mary? It shames us all.
So there is potential for widespread support from quarters as yet untapped. Let's see what Mary on the Green does with this momentum.