A Celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft

Many thanks to WSG member Emma Clery who organised this fascinating day and invited our group; the following report is by Charmian Kenner, one of a number of WSG members who attended.

A celebration of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) held on 27 April 2019, the 260th anniversary of her birth, invited us to consider her ‘in the round’ by discussing her life, work and legacy through research in history, literary criticism, politics and philosophy; and by experiencing representations of Wollstonecraft through art, film and drama. We met in the atmospheric Old St Pancras Church in London, with participants sitting on either side of the aisle that Wollstonecraft walked down to marry William Godwin, and with a lunchtime visit to the original site of her grave in the churchyard. Participants came from around the UK and as far afield as Japan and the US.

A theme throughout the event was how Wollstonecraft’s thinking prefigured and fed into ideas and struggles of today. Hannah Dawson focused on Wollstonecraft’s central concern with freedom, or rather women’s lack of it, since economic dependence on men meant vulnerability and loss of self, leaving women obsessed with beauty as their only asset to hold the male gaze – a condition from which we have yet to entirely escape. Wollstonecraft’s argument that women were playing a part assigned to them by society, rather than this being their authentic nature, links directly with today’s views on gender as a construct we can change. Catherine Packham pointed to connections between Wollstonecraft’s critique of modernity, in particular the late eighteenth-century social and economic order, and analyses by current theorists such as Thomas Piketty. Laura Kirkley highlighted Wollstonecraft’s cosmopolitan outlook, seeing humans as globally interdependent with shared moral obligations, exemplified in her support for Native Americans and her criticisms of empire.

A rousing discussion of ‘What would Mary do?’ with Shrabani Basu, Charlotte Gordon and Bee Rowlatt, imagined multiple possibilities for a contemporary Wollstonecraft, from having a strong social media presence to speaking out on modern slavery and refugee issues, to being a campaigning member of the academy. The latter position was impossible to achieve in her lifetime, and Andrew McInnes reminded us of the tensions in being a ‘philosophesse’ in the late eighteenth century, when women thinkers were both celebrated and stigmatised, though Wollstonecraft tried to take a gender neutral position and establish herself as a philosopher first and foremost. Isabelle Bour pointed out that Wollstonecraft’s reception was different in France at the time, where her life was not seen as scandalous, and she was appreciated as an intellectual in the mode of Germaine de Staël. Translations of Wollstonecraft’s work were popular with moderate Girondin revolutionaries and her ideas became part of progressive French thought.

Janet Todd and Lyndall Gordon, whose studies led the way in research on Wollstonecraft, both contributed to the day. Lyndall Gordon, looking for missing pieces in the jigsaw of Wollstonecraft’s life, shared her latest investigations into Mary’s stay in Hamburg, where she seems to have discovered a fraud that shook her faith in lover Gilbert Imlay. Janet Todd relished the burgeoning interest in Wollstonecraft studies, compared to the 1960s when her proposed PhD on Wollstonecraft was deemed ‘too obscure’. She also warned us against making Wollstonecraft, who characteristically was ‘always prickly’ and swam against the mainstream, into a ‘national treasure’. Speakers and audience at the conference agreed that Wollstonecraft sustains us today with her resilience in the face of life’s challenges, both personal and political.

A number of organisations carry on Wollstonecraft’s legacy. The Mary Wollstonecraft Fellowship celebrates her writing with talks and events; the Mary Wollstonecraft Philosophical Society disseminates her work and that of other women philosophers of the period, including through university curricula; the Wollstonecraft Society promotes education in schools; Mary on the Green fundraises to place a statue of Wollstonecraft by Maggie Hambling on Newington Green; and New Unity has a Heritage Lottery funded project at Newington Green Meeting House, ‘Uncovering the Dissenters’ Legacy at the Birthplace of Feminism’.

Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century

All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century. By Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. 2019. Pp 170. £25.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781526744616; £8.32 (ebook), ISBN 9781526744630.

All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century takes its name from Joanna Major and Sarah Murden’s highly successful blog. The volume provides readers with an array of short narratives concerning life in Georgian England between 1714-1830 that are designed to illuminate the complexity – and at times, tragedy and hilarity – of Georgian life. Major and Murden have a track record as co-authors having published three full-length biographies of lesser-known Georgian women with Pen & Sword in recent years. This volume presents twenty-five new tales to the reader, recounted with the same genuine scholarly excitement and skills for storytelling that readers have come to expect from this partnership. From actresses plucked from the streets of London and thrust into the spotlight of The Beggar’s Opera, to the first flight of air balloons and the discoveries of female astronomer Caroline Herschel, this volume brings together some of the most intriguing stories of the Georgian period in one illuminating compendium.  It is worth noting that as well as being a highly readable, enjoyable volume of short stories, it is clear that this book has been extensively researched. A glance down the ‘Notes and Sources’ pages gives the reader a sense of how familiar the writers must be with the inside of a Record Office.

Georgian women are certainly the stars of this volume, and it is refreshing to see so many tales with female protagonists from different ranks and social stations within the collection. What emerges from these stories is that a woman’s ability to succeed in this period was not always determined by their rank or by their ability to read and write, but instead owe a lot to skill, cunning, and a degree of luck. Intriguing accounts like that of Anne Rochford who rose from a nursery maid to gain royal favour as a coffee shop owner in the Royal Mews with a high-class of clientele despite being born illegitimate and made an orphan early in her childhood, exemplify this point. Readers interested in this theme will find the fate of sisters Sally and Maria Wallen particularly intriguing. Despite being sisters, these women entered into markedly different vocations: whilst ‘Crazy Sally’ became a famed female bonesetter at Epsom, her sister Maria Wallen found success playing Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera. Curiously for both women, the pinnacle of their success came during single life, indeed, both suffered disastrous marriages that lead to their respective downfalls. Maria ultimately ended up at the Old Bailey addressing charges of bigamy and was replaced by a younger actress, whilst Sally was abandoned by her husband who took her life savings with him, eventually being buried in a pauper’s grave. Of course such tales are tinged with sadness, but this volume is at its best when it is exploring the fortunes and fates of women like Anne, Sally, and Maria – women born into the lower echelons of society, forced to navigate their way through the complexities of Georgian public sphere and the harsh realities of life without the benefit of wealth or social security. By including these tales, the authors provide a much-needed insight into the Georgian period as a time of social change in which fortune, station, and marriage was not always a prerequisite for individual success.

Despite the well-selected range and scope of subjects in the twenty-five tales, there is one significant omission: the marked absence of minority groups in these tales.  For example there were thousands of black servants and enslaved people in Britain in the 1770s and yet, the only clues one finds in this book to their existence is in some of the portraits and cartoon illustrations included alongside the main tales. Recent scholarship in this field has made significant strides in accounting for these and other minority groups in the Georgian period, indeed, one can even find evidence of Major and Murden’s telling stories about individuals from a minority background in their blog. Given the considerable work that has clearly gone into representing different facets of Georgian life and the populace of England, it is a shame, then, to find minorities largely omitted. The inclusion of accounts to this effect would have helped to represent the diversity of England’s populace during this period, and been a great asset to the reader grappling with the intricacies of Georgian Society.

On this note, though, additional praise should be given that in the production of this volume the authors have worked hard to source and include various pertinent illustrations – over 100, in fact – to accompany the main text. The visuals provided throughout help add texture to the tales, whilst demonstrating the distinctiveness of this period. Indeed, Major and Murden have created a well-structured and well-researched book that makes for highly pleasurable reading. The volume will appeal to both those familiar with this era, who are bound to find something new and intriguing amongst this rich collection, and more broadly, those interested in social-cultural history and women’s studies.

KATHERINE WOODHOUSE
Loughborough University

*Disclosure: Sarah Murden is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837.

Elaine Hobby in conversation with Sara Read

Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity (Virago, 1988)

One of the aims of the WSG’s Commonplace Book, was to conduct interviews with some prominent academics who have been closely involved with WSG over the years. Late last year WSG member Sara Read sat down with Elaine Hobby, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Studies at Loughborough University, and this half hour audio is the result.

 

As some readers might know Elaine is a long-time associate of WSG who has encouraged her PhD students to join the group and give research papers at their seminars, and who recently gave a keynote on Aphra Behn at WSG’s 2015 workshop.  She is a renowned scholar of seventeenth-century women’s writing, especially autobiographical and lesbian writing, as well as midwifery manuals, whose books include Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing 1649-88 (1988) and an edition of Jane Sharp’s 1671 Midwives Book or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (1999).

She is currently leading a major project to produce an edition of Aphra Behn’s works. Sara spoke with Elaine about her research interests, her experiences of an “embryonic” WSG, her early influences and her latest project.  The conversation helps illustrate just how small a circle of people the feminist study of early modern women involved in the UK in 1987, and the changes that have transformed the field since.

Foundling Museum Basic Instincts Exhibition

Forget about the title of this exhibition, because the idea behind it is actually great.  Curated by Jacqueline Riding, the Foundling Museum, London has a new exhibition exploring attitudes to love, desire and female “respectability” in the Georgian period through the paintings of the artist Joseph Highmore (1692-1780).  Highmore was a successful painter whose art underwent a profound change thanks to his involvement with the new Foundling Hospital in the 1740s.  Highmore’s work with the Foundling and his new paintings started a debate about women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and the Foundling’s exhibition is the first major assessment of Highmore’s work for many years.

The exhibition runs until 7 Jan 2018, and there are several events around the exhibition that might be of interest to WSG blog readers. There is a talk on 21 October by Hallie Rubenhold on Georgian courtesans and prostitutes, and a symposium on 20 November, which will also feature a tour of the exhibition.  For further information and to find out how to get to the Foundling, see its website.

Charmian Mansell awarded WSG 30th Anniversary Bursary

The WSG is pleased to announce it has awarded its 30th Anniversary Bursary of £500 to Charmian Mansell for her project ‘A new history of female service in early modern England 1550-1650’, which will give a more accurate picture of everyday life for female servants, how they fitted within their local communities and how their work and sense of place shaped their identities.

Building on her PhD thesis, Charmian is producing a monograph on the history of female service.  The WSG bursary will assist with research costs for this as well as a journal article on female service and space within the rural community in early modern England.

In awarding Charmian the bursary, the WSG panel highlighted her thoughtful application, its social interest, and the fact that her dataset will be deposited with the UK Data Service at the end of the project, making these records open access. They thanked the other applicants for their applications, many of which were of very high quality.

Charmian, of the University of Exeter, recently gained her PhD for research examining the experiences of female servants in the south west of England from 1550-1650.  She is the current EHS Power Fellow at the IHR and tweets as @charmianmansell.