Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Chawton House Library Reading Group

The next meeting of the group will be on Monday 18 January and we will be reading:

The History of Mary Prince: a West Indian Slave (1831) by Mary Prince. It can be purchased from the Chawton House Library online store

The inclement weather meant that the Reading Group did not meet on Monday 21 December (we would have been snowed in at Chawton!) and I have promised the group members that we will discuss The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish first and then move onto Mary Prince, so that no reading, or preparation for the session, will be wasted.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

The book in October for the reading group was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, first published in 1796. It was Wollstonecraft’s last book published during her lifetime and the most popular. The book consists of twenty-five letters written whilst Wollstonecraft travelled round Scandinavia with her baby daughter Fanny.

The letters are primarily a travelogue of the countries Wollstonecraft visits, describing the countries, the people and the beautiful landscapes. She also comments on the political problems, she witnessed. In Norway, in letter thirteen she describes how peasants are recruited into the army, and how unfair the system is that they are not allowed to choose whether they go into service at sea of for the army: ‘And what appears more tyrannical, the inhabitants of certain districts are appointed for the land, others for the sea service.’ Compared with her other travels in France and England, the old aristocracy in Norway and Sweden seemed harsher to her. For instance she saw how criminals are enslaved in Norway, and how the people of Christiana rose to protest the cost of grain: ‘They threw stones at Mr. Anker, the owner of it, as he rode out of town to escape their fury.’

However one of the main themes throughout the book is Wollstonecraft’s questioning of commerce in the countries, and she does not hide her dislike of it. She discusses the war economy that has developed in Scandinavia, creating an unjust taxation on the people involved in the conflict. Her conclusion results in poor commerce, as well as allowing more merchants to take advantage, of more people. She believes that commerce: ‘wears out the most sacred principle of humanity and rectitude.’ She compares the systems in Norway and Sweden to those in England and France, believing that commerce helped with revolution but the people there should be careful of relying to heavily on the system, otherwise it will turn back to the old ways of governing. And by the end of her travels she is particularly scathing: ‘men, indeed seem of the species of the fungus; and the insolent vulgarity which a sudden influx of wealth usually produces in common minds.’

The book is very emotional one, as well as political. Wollstonecraft initially took the trip for her lover Gilbert Imlay, to retrieve a stolen treasure ship for him (although this is never mentioned directly in the book itself) in hope that this would mend their fading relationship. Her feelings over Imlay are reflected in many of the letters, particularly towards the end of the book, when she perceives that Imlay is no longer committed to the relationship or their daughter. The letters do not mention Imlay specifically as they are all written in the first person, but whilst discussing her ideas on commerce, it can be seen that she attacking a specific person: ‘Ah! I shall whisper to you –that you—yourself are strangely altered since you have entered deeply into commerce.’ This is from letter twenty-three when she is in Hamburg, where Imlay was supposed to meet her but failed to, so her emotional state had worsened and this can be easily felt through her writing. A result of this is she leaves for London earlier than expected and so ends the book, giving it a slightly rushed and unfinished feeling to it, reflecting the author’s troubled emotional state.

Morwenna Roche