Aside from having a bad case of the sniffles and finally getting a haircut (it had been about a year and it had gotten to the point where my split ends were getting split ends), I recently submitted an essay. It was on one of the letters from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) for one of my university modules: Literature of the Romantic period. This was probably the hardest piece of coursework I’ve had to submit so far, as this was a piece of work I hadn’t studied in seminars, I also had to think of the question and angle by myself as there were no set questions, and I lack confidence in my own interpretive abilities. I have a strong feeling that 90% of what I wrote was utter bollocks. But I guess we’ll see.
I was particularly interested in analysing Wollstonecraft’s works as I am actually kind of named after her. My first name is ‘Bethan’, chosen by my dad, but my mum chose ‘Mary’ for my middle name, and allegedly it was after Wollstonecraft, the first woman to publish feminist theory, alive during the time of the French Revolution. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to become the author of Frankenstein (1818), which apart from being one of my favourite works continues to have a significant influence on modern pop culture and is known all over the world. No pressure. Will I release something equally noteworthy in 2020? It’s unlikely. I was born about 200 years too late. Bloody Mary.
But anyway, I noticed while reading A Short Residence there were many parallels between Wollstonecraft’s writing style and my own when I was writing my daily blog from Japan. Not to honk my own horn or anything. I’m in no way suggesting my writing is as good as that of the critically acclaimed ‘original feminist’. But I noticed she often observed the landscape then would reflect back in on herself, which made up the larger part of the experience, it seemed, and I think I unconsciously did the same during my year in Osaka. In Denmark, she often glanced over ‘grandeur’ in favour of waxing poetic about some nondescript cornfields and the less-aesthetic margins of society, swept under the rug by the ‘king and prince royal’. It made for an interesting read. You can’t learn everything about a country from a travel guide, which accentuates all the prettiest places, or know everything about a country’s history just from learning about the monarchs and the battles. Wollstonecraft took the landscape and from it managed to form a political stance.
According to Marcia Tillotson, A Short Residence ‘reveals Wollstonecraft at her worst, trying to impress two different audiences – her lover and the book’s buyers – with two different things, her sensibility and her intelligence’. (“Recent Work on Mary Wollstonecraft.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 12, p. 60.) When she refers to the ‘lover’ she means Imlay, the one Wollstonecraft was writing these letters to before compiling them and editing them into a volume which became A Short Residence. People didn’t understand the reason for her trip to Scandinavia for nearly two hundred years, until it was revealed circa 1987 that she’d gone on Imlay’s behalf to recover a lost/stolen cargo ship. Imlay at that point had lost interest in her and apparently managed to keep the Channel between them most of the time, as well as have affairs with other women. (Arse.)
I was kind of surprised to hear all that and then read A Short Residence after reading her intelligent, heavily sarcastic response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and hearing about her political theory in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Maybe Tillotson has a point when she says it reveals Wollstonecraft at her worst. She also mentions ‘on the occasions when [Wollstonecraft] forgets to be at once an unusual woman, who reasons vigorously and an ideal woman, who feels strongly, she writes better’.
I also felt like my ramblings during my residence in Osaka were not that well-written, not only for the mere lack of proof-reading and my rapidly degrading English, and at times often whimsical and childish talk topics, but for similar reasons in that I often lost focus, tried to please multiple audiences with sensibility and intelligence (HA! I hear my father cry), and often came away from descriptions of the country itself to talk about my own personal feelings and political stances. But Virginia Sapiro, in contrast to Tillotson, calls A Short Residence ‘the only writing of Wollstonecraft that is lovely to read’. (A Vindication of Political Virtue: The political theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992) p. 36.) She certainly seems very human and flawed, and is swept away by imagination. As I often am. I guess it was nice to feel close to a famous writer of the Romantic period, and my namesake, when in reality I’m just a small-minded rambling wannabe with no idea what I’m talking about.
A classmate of mine on the Japanese half of my university course once asserted to me in our first year that ‘everything we do is political’, or politically motivated, whatever, which is an assertion which has stuck with me. That sounds a bit generalist, like in Donnie Darko when they have that class which implies that everything we do is motivated either by ‘love’ or fear’. You might as well say everything we do is scientific, or that everything we do can somehow be grouped into one big category. If it’s under the category ‘things we do’, then yes. Also, is a little three-year-old girl painting a picture of her cat ‘political’? (Oh, but, she likes cats, and she’s asserting she likes cats, therefore it’s political!) Yeah, I don’t buy that. Even just me trying to be a good person and trying to be someone I admire, is that politically motivated? Because it shows that I think a certain kind of behaviour is morally correct, over other forms of behaviour? The definition of ‘political’ is probably used quite broadly here. It sounds like a good, simple assertion to say ‘everything we do is political’, but I don’t know if it holds up when analysed. Kind of like Tumblr philosophy. But that’s another article for another time.