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’.

Reminder: WSG seminar November 2017

The next in WSG’s 2017-18 seminars takes place this month, with three papers on women authors and love, politics, and art.

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.

Saturday 25 November, 2017. Chair: Lois Chaber
Eva-Maria Lauenstein: ‘Within these tombes enclos’d’: delineating Renaissance love in Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius.
Mihoko Suzuki: Political writing beyond borders: Charlotte Stanley and Margaret Cavendish.
Valerie G. Derbyshire: Words and pictures: Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) and the works of the artists of her day.

Jackie Mulhallen: performing Sylvia Pankhurst

WSG members frequently combine their research into early modern and eighteenth-century women’s history with present day activism.  Here, long-time member Jackie Mulhallen reflects on her recent experiences touring her play Sylvia, about the life of Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), the prominent suffragette, communist and anti-fascist.

I lead a double life – apart from writing academic articles and books, I am an actor and playwright. I thought WSG members might like to know how a play, written in 1987, can evolve through performance, interaction with the audience and the impact of other events, despite the script changing very little. This is what is happening to Sylvia, a one woman play written and performed by me, about Sylvia Pankhurst’s early career as an artist and suffragette.

Sylvia was so successful that it ran 1987-1992 with a revival in 1997. Designed for schools (suffragettes were, and are, on the National Curriculum), we also visited museums, libraries and arts centres. Among the 250 slides accompanying the performance are most of Sylvia’s extant paintings which are generally acknowledged to have promised a brilliant career, if she had not given it up for politics.

We decided to take a break from the theatre and I began a Ph.D. But by 2013, three new biographies of Sylvia had been published, there had been a conference in Woodford, Essex, an exhibition of her art at the Tate, and a campaign to have a statue erected to her.

It was time to revive the play – but it could not be the same! In 1997 I was very fit. Now I have back problems, making it difficult to walk. Yet Sylvia got older and fatter – digestive problems were a consequence of the many hunger strikes she undertook – and walked with a stick. So my interpretation of Sylvia aged. Instead of a William Morris style dress with brown hair, she now is silver grey, wearing a 1950s suit! William Alderson re-directed the play to keep movement to a minimum. One side of the stage became an art studio with easel and stool, and a new emphasis was developed. Sylvia the artist had equal weight with Sylvia the suffragette.

Something else happened. The earlier Sylvia was still young and shy, although eager to encounter new challenges. Now she was an old woman, those challenges having been met. My knowledge of her had developed through keeping up with the biographies and exhibitions, resulting in an enriched performance of the older Sylvia who now had greater authority.

This spring we toured from Newcastle to Surrey. We follow the play with an open-ended discussion which ranges through history, politics and art to detailed contributions from the audience – many interesting people who added to our own research and knowledge. Often audience members had ancestors who had been suffragettes – one turned out to be Flora Drummond, a prominent suffragette, nicknamed ‘the General’. We were joined for one post-show discussion by Chris Wiley, an expert on Ethel Smyth, and for another by Dinah Iredale, author of The Bondagers, a study of women agricultural workers in the North East. Sylvia toured Britain in 1907 researching and painting women at work. We learnt more about the pit brow lasses from our audiences in Wigan; about a local suffragette and pottery worker, Sarah Bennett, at Stoke on Trent; and in Northampton someone had written about women working in shoe-making.

It struck me how similar our audiences were to Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes – they were women, men and children and included immigrants. At one performance, women hissed Christabel Pankhurst when she expelled the Federation from the Women’s Social and Political Union – just how Sylvia’s members must have felt! They reacted just like the uninhibited audience as the eighteenth century actors I had researched for my Ph.D. This is really interactive research!

Reminder: WSG November seminar 2016

WSG’s second seminar of the academic year takes place in a little over a week at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30. Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum afterwards.

For the November session organiser Carolyn Williams has put together talks on texts, images and objects and the strong emotions they provoke…

Saturday 19th November, 2016. Chair: TBC
Valerie SchutteCelebrating the 500th Birthday of Queen Mary I in Manuscript Images.
Emma NewportInterplay and Interpretation: Lady Banks’s “Dairy Book” and the collection and collation of Chinese Porcelain.
Chrisy Dennis“We were born to grace society: but not to be its slaves”: Chivalry and Revolution in Mary Robinson’s Hubert de Sevrac, A Romance of the Eighteenth Century (1796).

Valerie Schutte: 500th anniversary of Mary I

Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte (eds), front cover, Birth of a Queen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte (eds), front cover, Birth of a Queen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Independent historian and WSG member Valerie Schutte and her co-author Sarah Duncan have edited a new collection of essays on Queen Mary I for the 500th anniversary of her birth in 1516.  Entitled The Birth of a Queen, the collection reflects on Mary’s life, tumultuous reign, death and “cultural afterlife”.

Valerie has spoken at previous WSG seminars and her book Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications was also published by Palgrave in its Queenship and Power series earlier this year.  She’ll be talking about aspects of her work in the next WSG seminar, at the Foundling Museum on 19th November 2016, along with Emma Newport on Sarah Sophia Banks and Chrisy Dennis on Mary Robinson.