By Alice Theobald
So much more than an exercise in travel writing, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark accounts her unrequited love for her supposed partner, Gilbert Imlay. Reading more like a tragedy in epistolary form, Wollstonecraft’s account of the landscape is interwoven with personal reflections on her ‘days of weariness’ as she laments her travels that ‘have so exhausted [her] spirits’.
The undeniably literary and narrative standpoint of the work is immediately signalled by the use of the term ‘scenes’ in her description of the ‘observations’ she will give. Rather than depicting the scenery from a purely factual or objective stance, Wollstonecraft not only injects a decided degree of artistic ornamentation (such as ‘my eyes, fatigued by the sparkling of the sun on the water, now contentedly reposed on the green expanse, half persuaded that such verdant meads had never till then regaled them’) but even goes so far as to project her personal disposition onto the external landscape, creating a kind of reverse pathetic fallacy whereby her emotions reflect the state of the natural environment. Feeling both inwardly and externally confined after being cooped up ‘on the water near fourteen hours’ dwelling upon her failed relationship, the land becomes a ‘sort of emancipation’ and Tonsberg wears ‘a face of joy’ as a welcome alternative to her failed mortal companions.
Although it was later revealed that Imlay endorsed Wollstonecraft’s trip (searching for his stolen cargo), he nevertheless proved an inconstant lover. Throughout the work, there is a tension between Wollstonecraft’s preoccupation with her personal woes and, quite conversely, her desire to immerse herself wholly in the new environment. However, she maintains devoted to the honest presentation of her subjective experience as a valid means of documenting her travels. While this has often been considered from a feminist perspective as a reconciliation of ‘masculine understanding’ and ‘female sensibility’ (as conjectured by Mary Favret), it would seem that Wollstonecraft is simply appealing to the power and creative capacity of the human spirit in conceptualizing its surroundings. Frequently using the term ‘sprit’ as a metonymic description of the people she comes across on her travels, it is clear that Wollstonecraft is primarily concerned with what ‘internally’ shapes characters as she seems to esteem her psychological perception above her purely speculative faculty: ‘What little I have seen of the manners of the people’. Nevertheless, the relationship between people and place is an overarching theme: just as Wollstonecraft’s emotions are intertwined with the depiction of the landscape, so too do physical structures offer a reflection of their inhabitants – as expressed in her succinct description of an inn at Laurvig: ‘It is a good one – the people civil, and the accommodations decent’.
The topics under consideration prove as vast as the landscape Wollstonecraft traverses. Ranging from personal recollections to discussions on capital punishment (with her decrying their being a ‘scene of amusement for the gaping crowd’), the Letters demonstrates her polemical temperament and eagerness to decode and recode social mores. While Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe of 1719 sympathises with the condition of the ‘noble savage’, Wollstonecraft delivers a much more scathing account of the state of some of the ‘foreigners’, ‘insolent vulgarity’ and ‘disgusting […] rooms and men’ she encounters. Mankind continually proves unreliable while the ‘beauties of nature’ and open landscape are her only solace as she privileges ‘intercourse with the world’ over contact with ‘the inhabitants of the country’ exuding ‘artificial manners’. In one passage seeming to anticipate her daughter’s (Mary Shelley’s) renowned Frankenstein, Wollstonecraft even celebrates the natural process of bodily decay as a testament to our affinity with the natural world:
‘A desire of preserving the body seems to have prevailed in most countries of the world, futile as it is to term it a preservation, when the noblest parts are immediately sacrificed merely to save the muscles, skin, and bone from rottenness. When I was shown these human petrifactions, I shrank back with disgust and horror. “Ashes to ashes!” thought I—“Dust to dust!” If this be not dissolution, it is something worse than natural decay—it is treason against humanity, thus to lift up the awful veil which would fain hide its weakness. The grandeur of the active principle is never more strongly felt than at such a sight, for nothing is so ugly as the human form when deprived of life, and thus dried into stone, merely to preserve the most disgusting image of death. The contemplation of noble ruins produces a melancholy that exalts the mind. We take a retrospect of the exertions of man, the fate of empires and their rulers, and marking the grand destruction of ages, it seems the necessary change of the leading to improvement. Our very soul expands, and we forget our littleness—how painfully brought to our recollection by such vain attempts to snatch from decay what is destined so soon to perish. Life, what art thou? Where goes this breath?—this I, so much alive? In what element will it mix, giving or receiving fresh energy? What will break the enchantment of animation? For worlds I would not see a form I loved—embalmed in my heart—thus sacrilegiously handled? Pugh! my stomach turns. Is this all the distinction of the rich in the grave? They had better quietly allow the scythe of equality to mow them down with the common mass, than struggle to become a monument of the instability of human greatness.’
Somewhat ironically, Wollstonecraft’s future husband William Godwin wrote of the book: ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man [sic.] in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book’. Despite her frequently jaded tone, the piece is injected with moments of hope – and even humour – whereby Wollstonecraft not only undercuts her morose monologue, but in fact confronts the ‘dark cavities’ of nature and ‘life and its misery’ to consider the ‘sublime’ in positive terms as indicative of an imminent ‘immortality’ or ‘eternity, bounding over the dark speck of life to come’. Her devotion to the position of women (most explicitly articulated in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women) is evident in her digressions when considering the differing characteristics in ‘the conduct of the two sexes’. Portraying women as vulnerable citizens ‘seduced’ by wily men, Wollstonecraft goes beyond her personal lamentation as she extends her sympathies to those afflicted by ‘the tyrant of the creation’. Even as Wollstonecraft wryly predicts the complaints of her critics – ‘Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim’ – she upholds the gravity of her assertion and its urgency:
How can I avoid it, when most of the struggles of an eventful life have been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex?
Here, Wollstonecraft lapses into a rhetorical question: the depiction of the Scandinavian landscape may be the book’s titular focus but it is the importance of her political viewpoint that she wishes to emphasise to the reader. While she avows rather self-effacingly that her work serves ‘merely to note the present state of morals and manners’ in the region, Wollstonecraft goes beyond plain description in ‘trac[ing] the progress of the world’s improvement’ as she actively attempts to guide and determine the direction such progress takes.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life by Janet Todd (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2000)
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin (Penguin, 1992)