In my previous blog for EAST I wrote about how my current work, which had begun with research into a portrait of Isabella Montagu, Duchess of Manchester, had developed into something much broader. I am now looking at a wider range of women who had connections with the small area of Bloomsbury where I study and work. One of these women is Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797).
Wollstonecraft is most famous for A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, which was published in 1792. I had not realised until recently that it was written while she was living in Store Street, a road opposite my university. It is considered the first major work of feminist writing.
The theme of EAST’s current series of blogs is about books related to our research. I have a modern reprint of Vindication but it is not an easy read, and not something I would recommend. There are instead many other books about Wollstonecraft and her legacy – here’s a small section in my university library but I have not read any of these either (yet).
However the book I would recommend to anyone who wants to know more about Wollstonecaft’s life, (and wants a nice easy and amusing read) is In Search of Mary by Bee Rowlatt (2015). It was recommended to me by a visitor to the Foundling Museum where I occasionally work. It is the story of Rowlatt’s journey following in the footsteps (quite literally) of Wollstonecraft across Norway. I was told Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark was the earliest travelogue written by a woman. It was a journey made by Wollstonecraft in 1795. Perhaps even more surprising I learned that Wollstonecraft travelled without any other adult company only her first daughter Frances (1794-1816) who was still a baby. Rowlatt tried to follow the same route with her own youngest child, a toddler and along the way talks about her interest in Wollstonecraft and her own adventures. Having completed that journey Rowlatt then tried to follow Wollstonecraft’s travels in Paris (during the French Revolution) before finally visiting California to investigate Wollstonecraft’s legacy in the twenty-first century.
I wonder what Wollstonecraft would make of Store Street today with its quirky shops and cafes. Would she envy the freedom women have today or despair about some of the continuing inequalities? I also wonder what she would think about someone (myself in this case) using embroidery as the medium to tell her story – Wollstonecraft found needlework tedious.
Even more I would love to know what Wollstonecraft would say if she knew that two hundred years after she lived in the street there would be a university at the bottom of the road. A university where students from around the world, of any gender and any age could research and talk about her writing.
Incidentally, I might also recommend the book written by Wollstonecraft’s famous second daughter, Mary Shelly (1797-1851). Sadly Shelley never knew her mother as she died shortly after giving birth (Wollstonecraft was only 38 years old). Shelley went on to write Frankenstein which is less about monsters with bolts through their neck and more about the human condition, prejudice and the importance of companionship. It’s a very tender, sad book.