A Marriage of Minds: Mary Wollstonecraft & William Godwin


I didn’t plan on commemorating Valentine’s Day, but then I thought it would be a good excuse to write about my favourite historical couple: the rather amazing Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, who were political philosophers, novelists and key figures in a British discourse on the French Revolution, known as the Revolution Controversy, which took place in the 1790s.

Wollstonecraft is mostly known for A Vindication on the Rights of Women (1792) in which she attacks the sexual double standard, argues the necessity of “a revolution in female manners” and emphasises the need for women to receive proper education. She envisioned a society founded on republican principles, in which the cornerstones were educated women who were the intellectual equals of their husbands.

Godwin was an early utilitarianist who is remembered for his novels, one of which is Caleb Williams, Or Things as They Are (1794), in which he criticises the abuse of aristocratic and institutional power. He met Wollstonecraft for the first time in 1791 at a dinner hosted by the radical publisher and bookseller Joseph Johnson, a dinner to which Godwin had invited himself because he wanted to meet Thomas Paine who were among the guests. Paine was not a particularly talkative man however and to Godwin’s dismay it was Wollstonecraft who dominated the conversation that evening. In his biography on Wollstonecraft, published after her death, he writes:

We touched on a considerable variety of topics, and particularly on the characters and habits of certain eminent men. Mary, as has already been observed, had acquired, in a very blameable degree, the practice of seeing every thing on the gloomy side, and bestowing censure with a plentiful hand, where circumstances were in any respect doubtful. I, on the contrary, had a strong propensity, to favourable construction, and particularly, where I found unequivocal marks of genius, strongly to incline to the supposition of generous and manly virtue. We ventilated in this way the characters of Voltaire and others, who have obtained from some individuals an ardent admiration, while the greater number have treated them with extreme moral severity. Mary was at last provoked to tell me, that praise, lavished in the way that I lavished it, could do no credit either to the commended or the commender. We discussed some questions on the subject of religion, in which her opinions approached much nearer to the received ones, than mine. As the conversation proceeded, I became dissatisfied with the tone of my own share in it.

He thought she was too critical and talkative and he was annoyed that he did not get to lead the conversation or talk as much as he wanted to. When he made a note of the evening in his diary he misspelled her name. “The interview was not fortunate.” he states “Mary and myself parted, mutually displeased with each other.”

They met a few times after this, but then Wollstonecraft went away to France to write. She met the radical author Helen Maria Williams, experienced the tumult of the revolution and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay. They had a daughter, Imlay left them both and Wollstonecraft tried to win him back by travelling to Scandinavia in 1794 to do business on his behalf. Imlay attempted to profit from the political situation by transporting goods through the British blockade of France, but his ship and its valuable cargo went missing. Wollstonecraft didn’t manage to locate the ship or reconnect with Imlay, but the trip resulted in her autobiographical memoir and travel narrative Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796.) It was very well received and it made a deep impression on Godwin. Wollstonecraft visited him in January shortly after the publication of her Letters and they fell in love, slowly but passionately. Godwin writes:

The partiality we conceived for each other, was in that mode, which I have always regarded as the purest and most refined style of love. It grew with equal advances in the mind of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was before, and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which long-established custom has awarded it, nor the other overstep that delicacy which is so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either party can assume to have been the agent or the patient, the toil-spreader or the prey, in the affair. When, in the course of things, the disclosure came, there was nothing, in a manner, for either party to disclose to the other. […] It was friendship melting into love. Previously to our mutual declaration, each felt half-assured, yet each felt a certain trembling anxiety to have assurance complete.

The couple  lived together for seven months in two adjoining houses, making it possible for them to both enjoy domestic happiness and be able to work independently. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant they decided to marry in order for their child to be legitimate, despite neither of them initially wishing to be wed. Wollstonecraft were (according to Godwin) reluctant to legally commit to another man after her ill fated relationship with Imlay and Godwin abhorred the institution of marriage which he considered: “so contrary to the genuine march of sentiment, as to require the overflowing of the soul to wait upon a ceremony, and that which, wherever delicacy and imagination exist, is of all things most sacredly private, to blow a trumpet before it, and to record the moment when it has arrived at its climax.”

Tragically Wollstonecraft died from an infection shortly after giving birth to her second daughter Mary (who later married the poet Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.) Godwin despaired and wrote in a letter to a friend: “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” After her death Godwin wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which he recalled her unconventional life and defended her actions, both of which were frequently criticised by her contemporaries. “There are no circumstances of her life, that, in the judgment of honour and reason, could brand her with disgrace.” he writes. “Never did there exist a human being, that needed, with less fear, expose all their actions, and call upon the universe to judge them.” Godwin described not only her intellectual talent but also included accounts of her love affairs, suicide attempts and illegitimate child. He undoubtedly wrote the memoirs to pay his last respects to a woman he loved and admired, but it was badly received and he was accused of stripping his dead wife naked for all to see. Rather than celebrating Wollstonecraft, the biography gave her an undeservedly bad reputation and she was barely read for the next hundred years. Talk about killing someone with kindness. At least their reputation.

In a rather sentimental, but undeniably evocative passage in his book Shelley, Godwin and Their Circle (1913), Brailsford writes: “Had Mary Wollstonecraft lived they must have moulded each other into something finer than nature had made of either. The year of married life was ideally happy, and the strange experiment in reconciling individualism with love apparently succeeded.”

So there you have them, my very favourite couple: the-very-nearly-but-not-quite-proto-feminist and the-very-nearly-but-not-quite-proto-anarchist, and their unconventional marriage of minds.

All quotes are taken from Godwin’s ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ except for the first which is from Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’

This post presents their relationship only from Godwin’s point of view, as I did this a quick write up for Valentine’s Day. I will probably revisit this post later to add some of Wollstonecraft’s thoughts as soon as I can locate an edition of her letters.

The Feast of Santa Lucia

Today is the feast of Santa Lucia which is celebrated in Scandinavia and Italy. In Scandinavia the celebration is a mishmash of folklore, Pre-Christian and Catholic traditions and closely associated with Christmas.

Santa Lucia 2015

Accounts vary but Lucia of Syracuse seems to have been a Sicilian noblewoman who fell victim to the Diocletianic Persecution in ancient Rome and were later made virgin martyr. Lucia refused to renounce her Christian beliefs and forsake her vow of chastity and was consequently stabbed in the throat after having survived being burnt alive. In some narratives her eyes are gouged out, either because she wants to get rid of a suitor who admires them, or as a form of torture before being killed.

Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Lucy Before the Judge (1532), detail

In Scandinavia Lucia became associated with Lucifer and 
incorporated in folklore as Lussi, a demonic, witch-like figure, riding across the skies and roaming in the night, followed by her band of supernatural creatures. She was thought to be particularly active on the night between the 12th and 13th of December, known as Lussinatta, which used to be the longest night of the year, when she would punish households which had not yet finished their preparations for Christmas. Lussi was also associated with Åsgårdsreia, a wild hunt consisting of the souls of the dead which rode across the skies, warning about an impending catastrophe such as the plague, or even snatching people’s spirits if they were not careful. Christmas celebrations in Scandinavia were therefore traditionally focused on symbols and decorations intended to keep evil sprits away and people would typically paint a cross over their door and keep objects with qualities believed to ward off supernatural creatures on their windowsill.

Aasgaardreien Peter Nicolai Arbo
Peter Nicolai Arbo, Åsgårdsreien (1872)
Nils Berglien, Julereia (1922)

Nowadays in Scandinavia Lucia is mostly associated with the martyr rather than the demonic Lussi and is depicted as a saint of light crowned with a wreath of candles, to brighten the dark winter. The current Norwegian celebration is very similar to the Swedish and dates from the 1890s, with children dressed in white, walking in a torchlight procession, singing a song set to a Neapolitan melody while handing out lussekatter (saffron buns) shaped like ancient symbols of the sun.

Santa Lucia 2015

Happy feast of Santa Lucia! May you eat all the saffron buns and not have your eyes gouged out.

Leighton House Museum

The Leighton House Museum, located in the Holland Park district of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London, is the former home and studio of the Victorian neoclassicist painter Lord Frederic Leighton. It was designed by the architect George Aitchinson who Leighton befriended in Rome and over the course of thirty years the unique studio-house was expanded, developed and ornamented. The construction of the house began in 1865 and when Leighton died in 1896, it was still not finished. 12 Holland Road eventually became the ultimate architectural expression of Leighton’s admiration of Aestheticism, Orientalism and the Arts and Crafts movement.

Leighton House MuseumView of the house from the garden.

Leighton House MuseumThe winter studio, an extension made in 1889-90. It was built to provide studio space for artists working towards exhibiting at the Royal Academy.

Leighton House Museum
Leighton’s studio, where he also hosted musical evenings.

Leighton House Museum  Leighton House Museum Left: The Arab Hall built between 1877-81. It was modelled on an interior at La Zisa, a 12th century palace in Palermo, Sicily. The hall displays Leighton’s extensive collection of late 15th and early 16th century tiles, most of which he bought on his trip to Damascus in 1873. Right: Leighton’s An Italian Lady, which hangs in the dining room.

Leighton House MuseumThe Silk Room, with paintings by Tintoretto and Millais. It was the last room to be completed before Leighton’s death.

Leighton House Museum  Leighton House Museum
Leighton’s Corinna of Tanagra and Clytie, both in neoclassical frames. Corinna was an ancient greek poet and Clytie a water nymph rejected by Appollo in Ovid’s Metamosphopses, after she buried his new lover alive in an attempt to win him back. After watching him ride across the skies in his golden chariot for nine days, Clytie is said to have been transformed into a heliotrope or a sunflower.

Leighton House Museum  Leighton House Museum
An amazing little nook with Egyptian latticework windows, overlooking the Arab Hall, complete with a running fountain. I was very reluctant to leave that spot – the view of the hall and the sound of the water was mesmerising. It is like being engulfed by a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Frederic Leighton, Self portrait (1880)Frederic Leighton, Self portrait (1880)

Frederic Leighton was born in 1830, in Scarborough, to a financially independent and close knit family that supported him throughout his life. He received an allowance from his father until the latter died, and his older sister Alexandra strived to preserve 12 Holland Road as a memorial to Leighton after his death. He travelled a great deal and lived abroad for most of his twenties, first in Italy and then in Paris, before he returned to London in 1860. Once back home, Leighton joined the 38th Middlesex Artist Rifle volunteers and started associating himself with the Pre-Raphaelites. By 1875 he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and become Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most important artistic rival. Leighton continued to travel throughout his life, making several trips to the Middle East in the 1860s and 70s, collecting tiles and pottery. In 1878 he was appointed president of the Royal Academy in and in 1896 he was granted the shortest hereditary peerage in British history lasting only until the next day, when he died of heart failure. He never married or had any children, though there has been speculations as whether we was homosexual or possibly had a child by one of his models. In 1900 some of his work was exhibited at the Paris exhibition.

Leighton House MuseumThe Leighton House Museum is quite possibly my favourite London museum, rivalled only by Sir John Soane’s Museum. It is not just a painter’s studio, it is a living work of art, demonstrating Leighton’s artistic vision and ambitious nature, and a grand home fit for entertainment and receiving guests – even Queen Victoria visited once. It is a museum with an amazing atmosphere and both Leighton’s own work and paintings from his collection are on display throughout the house, though the elaborate aesthetic and orientalist interiors are in themselves a strong argument for a visit.

The Leighton House Museum website
Take a virtual tour of the museum
Desiring Women: Myth, Love and Leighton’s Clytie

Dress Like A Georgian Day 2013: A Ramble in St. James’s Park

Georgian Picnic in St James's Park
Yesterday was Dress Like A Georgian Day and as I didn’t participate this year I thought I would write a post about the picnic I attended in St. James’s Park in 2013, hosted by Kitty Pridden and Rose Deacon of Bramfoy’s Purveyors of Living History.

Georgian Picnic in St James's Park
I had slept in rag curls and attempted 1790s style hair, as opposed to the more simplistic, 1810s styles I usually do for reenactments. The dress (which I have on an unintentional long term loan from a friend) was made by Marion May, the neckerchief by Historika and the cameos weren’t really suitable at all as they date from the late 1800s, but needs must and all that.

Georgian Picnic in St James's ParkGeorgian Picnic in St James's Park
The activities of the day included elevated conversation, games of chess, duels, reading in the grass and off course the intake of copious amounts of champagne and cake.

Georgian Picnic in St James's ParkI finally had occasion to use my 18th century reproduction glasses from Scanglas. This one is a copy of a glass from the collections of The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History.

Georgian Picnic in St James's ParkGeorgian Picnic in St James's ParkGeorgian Picnic in St James's Park
Georgian Picnic in St James's ParkGeorgian Picnic in St James's ParkGeorgian Picnic in St James's ParkGeorgian Picnic in St James's Park
If you want read more about Dress Like a Georgian Day you can head over to Huzzar, an 18th Century inspired fashion and lifestyle webzine (yes, such a thing does exist) and have a look at their post about the picnic.

Tanker omkring nedleggelsen av Grand Café

Grand Hotel

Et sentralt argument for nedleggelsen, bortsett fra at det angivelig ikke kan drives lønnsom bedrift i det historiske lokalet, er at tiden har løpt fra spisestedet. Den nye ledelsen prioriterer å pusse opp resten av hotellet, avskriver seg ansvaret for restauranten og ønsker å gjøre det om til butikk.

På twitter mener noen at nedleggelsen er uunngåelig, at kvaliteten på maten var så som så og at man kun kan være trist over nyheten dersom man var stamkunde. Dette viser at mange ikke forstår betydningen av nedleggelsen, ordføreren inkludert, da han mener det spiller liten rolle i og med at det finnes andre restauranter og utesteder i Oslo.

Viktigheten av å bevare Grand som et serveringssted bygger virkelig ikke på at Riksantikvaren eller historientusiaster argumenterer for at Grands glanstid ennå ikke er forbi og at vi fremdeles befinner oss på 1890-tallet, men at når det er snakk om Grands fremtid så nytter det ikke å begrense seg til den velkjente remsa om tilbud og etterspørsel. Det historiske spisestedets verdi burde vurderes i forhold til sin status som kulturminne – for problemet er ikke at man mister en tilfeldig restaurant, men at man mister et uvurderlig stykke norsk historie dersom Grand ikke får beholde sin originale funksjon som serveringssted.

Videre kom nyheten om nedleggelsen angivelig som en overraskelse både for de ansatte og for Byantikvaren og det er ikke blitt invitert til offentlig idémyldring av noe slag. Spørsmålet er vel ikke først og fremst om det er mulig å drive lønnsomt, men heller om de nye eierne av hotellet ønsker å drive restauranten i det hele tatt. De signaliserer iallfall klart og tydelig at de ikke bryr seg nevneverdig om kulturarv eller arkitektur, noe som burde stå sentralt når man driver et historisk hotell.

Videre lesning
Dagens Næringsliv: Stenger Grand Café etter 141 år
NRK: Grand Café stenger dørene etter mange år med underskudd
Dagbladet: Byantikvaren: Grand Cafe kan bli vernet
Dagbladet: “Det blir neppe slipsbutikk. Det blir vel heller damestrømper.”
Dagbladet: Legger ned Grand Cafe på Karl Johans gate etter 141 års drift
Osloby: Stenger Grand Café etter år med milliontap
Osloby: “Det er næsten som om det ikke er Oslo lenger”