I am mulling over Waiting for Godot while listening to Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks, and watching the snow fall outside the window. A combination which seems destined to produce an upwelling of emotion if ever there was one. But instead of writing on either Beckett or Richter at the moment – I am going to focus on Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. (Side note: if you have never listened to Richter I highly advise it, he is on my top list of composers in the modern classical genre).
“Travellers who require that every nation should resemble their native country, had better stay at home.” Letter I
Wollstonecraft’s Lettters, written during a trip to Scandinavia in 1795 and revised for publications afterwards, is a far more engaging affair than one might think at first glance (I’m not much of a collected letters fan to start with). For not only does it reveal some remarkable insights about that region of the world naturally and socially, but it gives the reader a glimpse of the indomitable spirit that Wollstonecraft possessed. Her purpose for the journey is to track down a missing ship loaded with silver which her lover Gilbert Imlay had commissioned in support of the French Revolution – and so directed – this woman demonstrates a courage nothing short of amazing. At the very start we are treated to a description of arguing a ship’s captain into allowing her a boat to drop Mary, her infant daughter, and her maidservant off on a desolate lighthouse station islet where she negotiates a pair of lighthouse keepers to take her to mainland Norway. (This so she doesn’t miss the port which she must stop in to collect information about the whereabouts of the ship.) Throughout the book we are treated to these kinds of scenes involving very difficult and mostly solitary travel in countries of (according to her) hospitable but rough cultures.
What is probably most important about this collection – in addition to the ethnographic sketch of Scandinavian life during this pre-industrial period – is Wollstonecraft’s exploration of the sublime developed in her poetic reflections on the rugged natural landscapes she traveled through.
Where Vindication of the Rights of Women (which we read last semester) relied solely on rationalist argument to establish the truth as Wollstonecraft believed it (that is that women had inalienable rights just as men did) – Letters is much more in touch with the felt-sense, and the emotional truths that Mary saw reflected in stone and sea. Notable about this journey is that the author was undergoing a significant heartbreak at the time, had just survived a suicide attempt not long before, and also makes frequent reference to being in a weakened health state due to her recent pregnancy and labour. This would have been a time that Wollstonecraft’s interior emotion matcher her external viewpoint on the world exquisitely (and painfully) – giving rise to some beautifully emotional passages.
She describes some of her struggle in Letter I thus:
How frequently has melancholy and even mysanthropy taken possession of me, when the world has disgusted me, and friends have proved unkind, I have then considered myself as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind; — I was alone, til some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel that I was still a part of a mighty whole from which I could not sever myself — by snapping the thread of an existence which loses its charms in proportion as the cruel experience of life stops or poisons the current of the heart.
And we can see her personal fear of emotional exposure in this following passage on nature in Letter VI:
Nature is the nurse of sentiment, — the true source of taste; — yet what misery, as well as rapture, is produced by a quick perception of the beautiful and sublime, when it is exercised in observing animated nature, when every beauteous feeling and emotion excites responsive sympathy, and the harmonized soul sinks into melancholy, or rises to extasy, just as the chords are touched like the aeolian harp agitated by the changing wing. But how dangerous is it to foster these sentiments in such an imperfect state of existence; and how difficult to eradicate them when an affection for mankind, a passion for an individual, is but the unfolding of that love which embraces all that is great and beautiful.
Passages like these give us a connection to writer locked in intimate struggle with herself and others – and picking our way through her carefully chosen words, one can’t help but acknowledge the universality of what she reflects on. “How dangerous it is to foster these sentiments in such an imperfect state of existence” exhibits that very real fear we live in when we wonder if our hearts and lives have been placed into the wrong hands for safekeeping. When we hinge ourselves to another in love – how frightening that is. And the more open we are to the beauties and marvels of the world – provoked by nature – the more open we are to her miseries and dangers as well.
As she worries aloud for her daughter so she worries for herself: “I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart.”
And in several passages, Wollstonecraft shows us the solitude, the sovereignty in which she finds her peace:
Here I have frequently strayed, sovereign of the waste, I seldom met any human creature; and sometimes, reclining on the mossy down, under the shelter of a rock, the prattling of the sea amongst the pebbles has lulled me to sleep — no fear of any rude satyr’s approaching to interrupt my repose. Balmy were the slumbers, and soft the gales, that refreshed me, when I awoke to follow, with an eye vaguely curious, the white sails, as they turned the cliffs or seemed to take shelter under the pines which covered the little islands that so gracefully rose to render the terrific ocean beautiful.”
This peaceful solitude in which reason is used to reflect on the emotional responses demonstrates the counterbalance to Wollstonecraft’s depression and angst about the current state of her affairs back in England (where her lover was now carrying on a new romance unbeknown to her – though probably suspected). Separated from society and yet bound to it by a thread, there is the comforting hand of the natural order writ large on the landscape.
Of course she does not skimp on her cultural and political observations, her reflections on the lot of women in society, and the possibilities for revolution – giving the modern day reader a portal through which to understand the history we shared with Mary and the world we have built since then. Her book went on to great critical acclaim and was one of the most influential works in the budding Romantic movement – in particular Wordsworth, Coleridge and her second daughter’s future husband Percy Shelley. For all the fraught musings of her journey, this proved to be one of Wollstonecraft’s most influential works.