Wednesday 25 November 2020

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Tuesday 10th November 2020 was a big day for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It not only was it the day on which was unveiled a statue erected to commemorate her at Newington Green, but more importantly, it was the day was appointed for Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle to discuss the most popular of her works, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. William Godwin, her future husband, would say of it, ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’ Would it charm the grizzled online attendees of Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle?

Located very late in ‘our’ period, Mary Wollstonecraft has one foot firmly in the earlier ‘rational’ culture but another in the brewing maelstrom of Romanticism and this ambivalence is reflected in the book. It combines passages, some arguably purple, about the beauty of the Scandinavian landscapes with thoughtful assessment of land-use and its practical impact on the societies she travels through. 

Like Johnson exploring the Western Isles of Scotland, Wollstonecraft was travelling a landscape without an established travel itinerary. But unlike him, she was not travelling with a sociable native. She was either entirely alone, or had only her two-year-old daughter and her nursemaid for company. Nor did she know anything of Scandinavian languages. As Johnson travelled further away from Edinburgh, it was through a country perceived as still rising from barbarism. Similarly, Wollstonecraft traced a route from the relatively civilized to the still barbarous as she travelled from Sweden into Norway, furthest away from ruling Denmark. However, where a lack of trees prompted Johnson’s snark about the value of wood and a range of practical ideas on how to encourage tree growth, the stark rocks of Norway impact Wollstonecraft in a different way. Her response is an strongly emotional one, particularly when she arrives at a claustrophobic town penned in by looming cliffs: to her it seemed like a prison. When she travels further inland and into a forest, she too reflects on the usefulness of wood as a commodity and on the encroachments and improvements of farming. But unlike Johnson, she also reflects on the beauty of the light through the leaves and the calming effect of nature on her soul.

These passages show a deep emotional engagement with the natural world where she notes that the ‘rocks aspiring towards the heaven’ succeed in ‘shutting our sorrow’ and allow peace to ‘steal along the lake to calm my bosom.’ Later Mary Shelley, her younger daughter, when touring Switzerland, would read aloud from the book to her husband, Percy Shelley. Wollstonecraft’s book inspired other Romantics. Surely her description of a huge waterfall inspired Coleridge’s ‘chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething’ in ‘Kubla Khan’? Another of Coleridge’s poems, ‘Frost at Midnight’, seems to draw strongly on Wollstonecraft’s vision in depicting the poet as parent, lost in ‘abstruser musings’ by the fireside on a wintry night. Wollstonecraft had described a similar night in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in which she ‘contemplated, fearless of idle questions, a night such as which I had never before seen or felt to charm the senses or to calm the heart.’ In Coleridge’s poem, he too is soothed by the peaceful presence of child sleeping in a cot beside him, and on the peaceful calm outside:

‘… at my side 

My cradled infant slumbers peacefully. 

'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs 

And vexes meditation with its strange 

And extreme silentness.’

However, Wollstonecraft’s travels engage her analytical mind as much as her sentiments. She had been caught in the whirlwind of the French Revolution. This book finds her at a moment balanced finely between hope and fear. She frequently speaks of her hopes for the future, her belief that the world is improvable and improving, yet she finds greater freedoms in the places further removed from these improvements. When she contemplates Copenhagen, not looking its best after a terrible fire, she sees a decayed society ready for revolution and deplores the selfish nature of those trying to save their own houses from being pulled down and letting the fire rage out of control. At the end of her journey, when she travels to Hamburg, she finds a city where the deposed aristocracy of France are attempting to build businesses among the already established merchants of the city. What should be a place where ideas trade as freely as commodities, she finds a narrow-minded, money-grubbing smallness of vision where a love of wealth displaces a love of people. 

There’s also a vulnerability about Wollstonecraft that is exposed by her recently becoming a mother. She had strongly advocated female education in Vindication of the Rights of Women, arguing that if women were weaker it was only because they had been trained to be so. Now a mother herself, she doubts her ability to raise and educate her daughter. But it is less self-doubt, but a questioning of whether the world is ready to accommodate a woman equipped with an education that would allow her to show her full talents. Yet as she fears for the world her daughter will inherit, she maintains a hope that the world can be made better.

The book, for all its beauty and hope is followed by a dark shadow. Wollstonecraft did not make the trip as a mere jolly: she went to contract business for her lover, the father of her daughter, Gilbert Imlay. The relationship, kindled in revolutionary Paris, had begun to disintegrate: mere weeks before she left on the journey, she had tried to kill herself with laudanum. Shortly after returning, she was to make another attempt at ending her life, throwing herself off Putney Bridge. There are times in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark where she admits to a profound melancholy. The word itself appears many times in the book and suggests a suffering that is in some way beautiful. But her private letters to Imlay (when she tends to talk of depression rather than melancholy) betray a far bleaker sense of hopelessness and despair. Yet the book isn’t weighted down by this sadness, there’s a notion of healing through nature. This seems strangely apt for us reading the book in yet another period of lockdown, when walking through parks is one of few permitted recreations. There are moments of peace, joy and hope for the future which burst out of the book, all the more powerful for the dark place they spring from.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark inspired a lot of conversation in the group. Among other subjects we discussed methodism and wondered if Lutheranism, with its happy Sundays, was a comparatively less dour form of Protestantism. We also considered the shades of meaning covered by the word ‘tolerable’ and the ever-so-slightly different etymologies of ‘innoxious’ and ‘innocuous’ (broadly with the same meaning but the second starting life in zoology). 

There was also discussion of the new statue.

The Mary on the Green campaign has campaigned and raised money for a statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green for the past decade. In 2018, the two shortlisted designs were announced: a traditional depiction of Mary in bonnet and frock with a pile of books and a quill to be cast in bronze by Martin Jennings, and Maggi Hambling’s silvered naked woman emerging from a wave of feminine forms, described as a statue for Mary, not of her. Hambling’s design was chosen, and perhaps unsurprisingly has provoked instant controversy: some of us remember the early reactions to ‘The Scallop’ on Aldeburgh beach, her commemoration of Benjamin Britten, now much loved. The general mood of the group, none of us having yet gone to see it, was that if the statue was striking, controversial and deserving of comment and debate, which would seem to make it fit Mary Wollstonecraft quite admirably.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Review: Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

Todays post is about my initial thoughts about this book, next weeks shall be my report of the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle reading.

 In 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft went to Norway to transact business for Gilbert Imlay, common-law husband and father of her daughter, who she took with her. The relationship was already in terminal decline and the week before she left on her journey she’d already tried to commit suicide with Laudanum. Already the author of Vindication of the Rights of Men and Vindication of the Rights of Women and a novel, so she decided to make a little money with a travel book.

…And it’s a wonderful example of the genre. Wollstonecraft has an ability to describe the sublime and the beautiful in a way that evokes memories of similar feelings I’ve had and, what is more amazing, doesn’t bore the shit of of me. How many travelogues and novels have tried to describe dramatic landscapes and raise my flagging sensibilities but succeeded in putting me to sleep? As well as all this, the descriptions are mixed with interesting readings of social and political life and some genuinely interesting reveries. The book shows a keen mind married to depth of feeling with  the ability to actually craft meaningful prose out of it.

I warmed to the book on the first page, where she is in a boat in peril off the Swedish coast and remarks that in England, there’d be a rash of lifeboats out to save them, though this isn’t due to any special English benevolence but because they’d be paid per rescue. 

The journey itself involved travelling into Sweden, where her two year old daughter, Fanny and her nurse were left behind while she went into Norway to set about the legal wrangling she’s been sent to sort out. Coming back, she then meets up with her baby, travels through Denmark and into Germany where she took a boat back to England from Hamburg. 

Sweden she finds a worn down, with lots of people merely existing, an impression that strengthens after she returns from Norway, which she finds to be more independent. Worse that Sweden is Denmark, especially Copenhagen, which had burnt down months before and was not looking its best but, for Wollstonecraft, the worst place she visits is Hamburg. It’s a town where the nouveaux riche and the fallen French aristos mix, though that’s not the problem, it’s the money-grabbing narrow-mindedness of the place. I found it funny read of Wollstonecraft talking about the Scandinavian countries as places on their way out of barbarism as they’re now ofte considered as models of statehood.

She mixes with people, very few of which she can properly communicate with and spends as much time as she can outside by herself, admiring a field “enamelled with the sweetest wild flowers” and a great many impressive rocks. She finds it hard to be social, not only can she speak none of the languages, she doesn’t enjoy the forms of entertainment her hosts have for her, eating very large dinners in stuffy, closed rooms accompanied by lots of booze and smoking. She also takes up rowing, which gives her plenty of fresh air and time to think, “my train of thinking kept time, as it were, with the oars.”

Many of her thoughts are about, “my favourite subject of contemplation, the future improvement of the world.” She has a really interesting view of progress, in general it was extremely positive, convinced that ‘civilisation is a blessing.’ She even says that  “The increasing population of the earth must necessarily tend to its improvement, as the means of existence are multiplied by improvements.” She sees this is particularly true in the case of women, where she sees greater cultural and social capital having a trickle-down effect and raising the possibilities for women above mere domestic drudges. 

She’s also worried about progress, she lambasts the avariciousness of early capitalism and the way it can narrow minds to anything but money. At one point she worries about the future when humans have used up all resources and even moved into the wildernesses of Norway. She admits it’s a silly thing to worry about that may not come to pass for thousands of years, something which was very uncomfortable to this reader two-hundred and twenty years later living in a time where her fear could take place in the next eighty years.

As she says, “common minds rarely break through general rules,” and Mary Wollstonecraft clearly has no common mind. She dismisses the notion of national characteristics, especially the notion of them being formed by weather or landscape but shaped by social systems. She also sees this simplification of complex systems to be an easy cop-out for writers who should do better. 

     “The most essential service, I presume that authors could render to society, would be to promote enquiry and discussion, instead of making those dogmatical assertions which only appear calculated to gird the human mind round with imaginary circles.”

Of course, one of her big interests is the life of women in the countries she visits, apologising for, “still harping on the same subject you will exclaim- How can I avoid it when most of the struggles of my eventful life have been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex.”

One of the other interesting little ideas is one she has about how “the preservation of the species, not the individual, that is the design of the Deity,” - a very interesting notion that points to Darwin.

The thing that makes the book really spark, is the sense of vulnerability. There are many luminous, numinous moments in the book but there’s always a sense that they’re moments of joy that bring light in a bedrock of distress. She’s so aware of her own passions, declaring that she “must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness,” and that she has to “catch pleasure pleasure on the wing - I may be melancholy tomorrow.” This is an author who’d tried to kill herself mere weeks before writing the book, and would try again shortly after.

   “How frequently has melancholy and even misanthropy taken possession of me, when the world has disgusted me, and friends have proved unkind. O have then considered myself as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind; - I was alone, till 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.”

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of this book also has excerpts of the genuine letters she wrote to Gilbert Imlay as the trip progressed. From these letters it’s clear that the journey was much harder and Wollstonecraft’s emotional pain much stronger than the published book shows. It’s clear that Imlay is not answering letters and if he is, he’s replying in simple business terms. She spends many of these letters describing her pain and demanding that Imlay either properly commits to her and his daughter, or makes a certain decision to leave them which he doesn’t seem to do. She goes through the pain of breakup, sometimes excusing Imlay, 

“my imagination is perpetually shading your defects,” and other times relishing his being out of her life as, “this heart is worthy of the bliss its feelings anticipate.” Those real letters are a difficult read, showing genuine pain that does enter into the published work but in a way that elevates that book beyond ordinary travelogue.

The title may not suggest much but the book is certainly worth a read.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Review: Jeoffry, the Poet's Cat by Oliver Soden

One of the troubles with being a Christopher Smart fan is that there’s a limit on how much there is to read so I was extremely excited when something Kit Smart related popped up on my Twitter feed, I was even more excited when I saw the unusual nature of this project.

Jeoffry the Poet’s Cat is the biography of a cat. Namely the one which Smart praised in Jubilate Agno, a section of the book which is now so widely anthologised I can easily lay may hands on a copy at the primary school I work in. As there’s no more information about Jeoffry than appears in the poem, there’s a fair bit of poetic licence, creating a wonderfully indefinable book presented in language that is both wonderfully simple yet detailed. 

Our imagined backstory for Jeoffry has him born in a cattery, or brothel, because of course he is, not just for pun related reasons but to let Jeoffry (and the reader) explore the world of eighteenth century sex for sale and Covent Garden in general. He spends his kittenhood “underneath the bed” while his owner, a prostitute called Nancy spends her time “underneath a cavalry officer.” His early pranks involve scattering venereal disease pills and his favourite toys are the re-washable condoms, his claws probably making them even less useful than they were anyway. We also briefly meet a lord who likes to be treated like a baby.

As Jeoffry gets older, he starts to explore more and we get a cat’s-eye view of the variety and life of Covent Garden, from the market stalls with their rotting vegetables, so a glimpse of the king outside Drury Lane theatre. He becomes a favourite of the doormen at the opera as well as the theatre, is stroked by an actor with a pleasing voice and jostles with strange cats.

    “Of dogs, and his encounters with their noxious enthusiasm or salivating rage, we shall not speak.”

Alas, even brothels as well-connected as Mother Douglas’s are raided at times and in the confusion, Jeoffry finds himself with a young volunteer constable. Oliver Soden has a very skilful way of telling parts of the story from Jeoffry’s perspective, getting right down among the legs and shoes of the other characters, feeling his fear and injury as the raid happens as well as his lack of understanding, but then pulling back to giving the historical and character context. This is done so smoothly that the changes of point-of-view never jar. 

The scene where Christopher Smart and Jeoffry are introduced is beautifully done. Each is wary of the other, nursing a distrust but also a longing to connect. Their meeting is a delicate wordless series of actions, tentatively done after which the book admits that an accurate portrayal of the moment can’t be described. Then the reader is taken back to find out a little more about Smart as he is, though a supporting player, is a major one.

The book gives a really good overview of Smart as a person and a writer. That he was from an upper servant class, that he became a sizar in Cambridge where he worked hard to become a fellow. That his sense of fun and his poetic gifts took him to London where he entered the Grub Street pattern of ‘conveyor-belt churn-out and genuine inspiration’ and that he married the step-daughter of Newbery, the publisher. I’d have included the transvestite revue shows in there but I can see they complicate things a little. The exact timeframe of the next events are a little unsure and Soden does well to turn them into a coherent narrative; Smart gets sick and upon his recovery decides to take instructions from the Bible to pray at all times literally, where he stops traffic in St James’s Park. The book admits that the exact cause (and extent) of Smart’s madness is unclear and has been debated about; with no-one certain whether it was a manipulation by his father-in-law, whether it was bi-polar disorder hinted at by Smart’s admission that he has ‘a greater compass for mirth and melancholy’ than other people, or whether it was stress deepened by an alcoholism that was notable even in those alcoholic times. 

For whichever reason, or combination of reasons, Christopher Smart ended up in a private madhouse, where he started writing Jubilate Agno, a poem built on a Hebrew model that involved call and response lines. In this case the call lines starting with ‘let’ and the responses with ‘for’. There’s the suggestion in the book that sometimes Smart wrote ‘let’ lines without their corresponding ‘for’ and vice versa, though I am more inclined to think that corresponding lines have simply been lost in the manuscripts many journeys. However, the book is very accurate in how Jubilate Agno stopped being a just a poem and also became a way of marking time, of recording his thoughts and feelings and trails off into an almost mechanical act.

One of the fascinating elements to how this part of the story is told is again the viewpoint of Jeoffry. Both the poet and the cat find themselves in the prime of their lives but locked in a small room with access to a little garden. As such imprisonment for Smart is also imprisonment for Jeoffry and this diminishes the cat just as it did the man. However, there are moments of company and ‘Jeoffry made occasional contact with distinguished legs’, including Johnson, Burney, Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. Now, I love Goldsmith almost as much as Smart and he so rarely makes an appearance in things that I treasure him whenever he does. Now, it makes sense, Goldsmith was a closer friend to Smart than Johnson, sharing a publisher and a circle of friends that included lesser poets like Samuel Derrick. However, Goldsmith is portrayed reading out his novel in progress, doing the character’s voices and making Smart laugh. While I don’t doubt Goldsmith would make him laugh (and I love the image) I can’t imagine him reading from a work in progress, but that could just be me.

The peculiar ease with which Smart was broken out of the mad house is well done, leading to (perhaps) the sadder part of his life, as a hack with his reputation shattered and no luck at all. Jeoffry makes the most of freedom to again explore, where of course he meets Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge. We follow Hodge back to Johnson’s living room to hear most of the Samuel Johnson ‘bits’ about being as happy to pray with Smart as anyone else. Though we don’t get Johnson’s assessment of Smart’s poetry, where upon being asked who was better, Smart or Derrick, he replied, ‘Sir , there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea’.

From Jeoffry’s point of view, this is a particularly sad time, as Smart’s need to churn out words and lack of money ground Smart down bit by bit. The man who had elevated his cat with poetry and viewed him as a natural worshipper of God, now had little time for the animal and his ‘reek of despair was unmistakeable’. We get a beautiful rendering of Smart’s friend John Kempe playing his flute for him, ‘the notes hit the panelled walls and died instantly, falling to the floor to lie at Smart’s swollen feet like faded rose petals’. I do have a quibble with this section though, as many of Smart’s writings from this time have a fragile yet definite hopefulness, this is when he wrote the words ‘we never are deserted quite’ and found himself helping other people with money he’d been given for himself. I don’t think Smart ever gave up hope as he does in this book.

The last part is with Jeoffry as an old cat, living in the countryside and gradually losing his faculties until he lies down for one last sleep. ‘Nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.’ It’s a fitting choice for a last sentence, leaving poor old Jeoffry with the dignity he deserved.

In many ways, this is a book crafted of bits, many of them from other books and all of those bits are ones I’ve encountered before, this being possibly the only book I’ve encountered where I’ve already read the entire bibliography. What makes is brilliant is that the author has clearly read their own bibliography (unlike Catherine Arnold in her Bedlam book) and the way those bits are put together and presented. They tell an entire story, taking in many interesting aspects of the eighteenth century, the shadowy interplay of brothels, theatres and authors to Smart in his private madhouse in a way that is both melancholy and dignified. 

While enjoyable to a fan of Christopher Smart and the eighteenth century, this would be an even better present to someone to introduce them to the world and characters and let them dip their toes in (and would make a really good half-hour animation, I think).

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Inanna Underground Blurb/Pitch

 I haven’t talked much recently about what I’m writing and Grubstlodger was a place where I intended to intersect ideas of eighteenth century writing and my own scribblings from the outlands. Currently I’m working in a psychological thriller called Inanna Underground and to help structure the thing in my head, I wrote a little blurb/pitch.

The Cricklewood branch of a bunker enthusiast club meet on a cold, September morning, excited to open their pride and joy to the waiting public. During safety checks they make a grim discovery. Inanna had joined them the winter before and her unpredictable joie de vivre had changed the life of each member for better, worse or both. Now her body is lifeless in their prize bunker.

What series of misadventures led Inanna underground?

I’m really enjoying writing this book, it’s a little different to my usual novels, with a tighter plot and style, dealing with the intricate social connections of a small group of characters. It came from an unexpected pairing of two semi-ideas for novels floating about in my head and gave me that very satisfying feeling as more and more pieces clicked into place.

However, I have two main misgivings as I write the text:

The first is the horrible cliché of starting with a woman’s body being found which I generally find a pretty loathsome way to start a story. I tried recasting the body in the bunker with the other members of the club but only makes sense if its Inanna. In my defence, she’s not an inciting incident but the main character, most of the book tells of her interactions with the other club members and I can promise the solution to the mystery is not as hackneyed as a killer. 

The other is the narrator. Stuart is one of the members of the Cricklewood branch, a man with an obsession for detail who is proud of his lack of imagination, which he thinks makes him more accurate. My hope is that there’s a sense of tension, and even humour, between Stuart’s detailed account and the big picture forming in the reader’s head. If I pull his style off, I think it’ll be something pretty special, though I’m not exactly there yet.

I’d be interested in what anybody thinks of this piece from the glimpse of it and if anyone has books of a similar nature they could recommend I try.