Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, June 16, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 22

On 28 October 1997 I began tracing Mary Wollstonecraft’s name in my own way—by reading all of her books—starting with her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, the landmark text that assures her permanent place of eminence in the pantheon of writers about women’s rights. In that volume she blasts the “false system of education” for creating such massive social inequality. “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it,” she urges, “and there will be an end to blind obedience ….”
After that, I proceeded to Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787;  A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790; her marvelous Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, 1796; The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria, A Fragment, 1798; Cave of Fancy, 1798; and Original Stories from Real Life, illustrated by William Blake, 1788, 1791, 1796.
Compiling this list today, I am alarmed to see that I did not read her An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, 1794. Why not?  It’s a key document, not just in the history of political ideas but in Mary’s personal life. It was the book she was researching and writing while living with Gilbert Imlay in and around Paris. (Much more about him later!)  She was working on it when her daughter Fanny was conceived and born. It was a book Mary Shelley had read, more than once.
But I didn’t read it back in the late 1990s. I did read other books about the Revolution—most notably Simon Schama’s massive and masterful Citizens. I read biographies of Napoleon and of Revolutionary notables, like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and Danton and Robespierre and Lafayette. So I feel a surge of shame as I consider this: Did I decide not to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s history because I didn’t take her seriously as a scholar?  After all, she had no formal training, no academic degrees. So how could she … ?
I see now my ugly bias is the very one she exposed and assailed in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Again and again she wrote how many men refused to perceive women not as creatures of reason but of affection or emotion.
As Hamlet cried, “Why, what an ass am I!” (2.2).
And so I’ve put I’ve put her book on the Revolution on my stack to read as soon as possible. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011. 
And now I’m in love with Mary Wollstonecraft all over again. As I near the end of her amazing book about the French Revolution, on every page I am feeling ashamed of myself for my failure to read it ten years ago when I was fully aswirl in Mary Shelley’s whirlpool world.
In words that would resonate with the recent Occupy protestors, she writes, early in the text, about the enormous wealth disparity in pre-Revolutionary France—and, of course, in many other places and times: “The luxurious grandeur of individuals has been supported by the misery of the bulk of their fellow creatures, and ambition gorged by the butchery of millions of innocent victims” (17). And, a bit later: “Let not then the happiness of one half of mankind be built on the misery of the other ….” These days, "one half" is more than generous.
There are some dazzling paragraphs about her visit to the abandoned Versailles—“How silent is now Versailles!” she cries. Throughout, she urges the importance to human potential and progress of virtue, a pure heart, education. “It is by thus teaching men from their youth to think,” she says, “that they will be enabled to recover their liberty … .” She sees as “pernicious” the “aristocracy of wealth.”
Reading these words—and so many others like them—I am, as I said, more than ever alarmed by my failure to read her book a decade ago. But, as I’ve also said, I’m more than ashamed and alarmed and regretful. I’m in love with Mary Wollstonecraft.
So why wasn’t Gilbert Imlay? What was wrong with you, Gilbert? You were living with one of the most remarkable women in history.

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