There’s something about Mary
Writer Bee Rowlatt recalls her efforts to bring her heroine, ‘the foremother of feminism’ Mary Wollstonecraft, back from the dead
07 November, 2019 — By Bee Rowlatt
A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie
MARY who?” Mary Wollstonecraft.“She’s the one who wrote Frankenstein?”
No, that’s her daughter Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft was a self-made best-selling writer and Enlightenment philosopher whose ideas changed our world.
She was an educational pioneer; the foremother of feminism and an early architect of what we now call human rights. And still most people have never heard of her.
I’ve had many variations on this conversation throughout the years of my Wollstonecraft obsession. It took off when my fourth child was born, and I rediscovered her 1797 travel book Letters From Norway. This work, hugely admired by the Romantics, charts her voyage over the treacherous waters of the Skagerrak sea, around Scandinavia and Germany. The first thing you notice is her complete fearlessness: “I enter a boat with the same indifference as I change horses; and as for danger, come when it may, I dread it not sufficiently to have any anticipating fears.”
She doesn’t mention it directly, but Wollstonecraft was in fact on a perilous treasure hunt in search of smuggled silver from revolutionary Paris.
As if that wasn’t sufficiently fierce, she undertook this crazy mission with her baby daughter. That image got its hooks into me, so much so that I set off to retrace her journey, bringing my own 11-month-old along for the ride. The resulting book, In Search of Mary, was my own biographical treasure hunt in her footsteps.
If I’m honest there was more than a hint of escapism involved too.
The historical re-enactment was so fruitful, and so addictive, that I ended up pursuing the life and legacy of this extraordinary woman onwards to other destinations. We travelled to Paris and San Francisco, both homes to radical uprisings of their own, and along the way we encountered activists, witches, a porn star, and surprising quantities of humour and generosity. Who’d have thought life with an 18th-century feminist would be such a barrel of laughs?
In Search of Mary continues to take me to surprising places. It was listed as a “best biography” by the Independent and won a National Reading Group Award, but the adventure didn’t stop there. I ended up running the Mary on the Green campaign for her memorial. In 2017 we selected the artist Maggi Hambling to create the artwork, but still needed to raise the money.
Bee Rowlatt, whose new book goes in search of Mary Wollstonecraft
I’ve shared Wollstonecraft’s story everywhere from Glasgow to Moscow, with book clubs, primary schools, students, women’s groups, lawyers, scholars, literature festivals and debates. I even took her to Glastonbury, into an international Poetry Society challenge, and onto the stage in London’s West End.
We finally closed the funding gap last month, and her long-overdue memorial sculpture will be unveiled next year on her old stomping ground of Newington Green.
Her links to Camden are significant too, not least to St Pancras Old Church, but Newington Green was the place that developed her radical politics. Maggi Hambling’s artwork will feature Wollstonecraft’s timeless words: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
A gala event at the Lyric Theatre last month marked the launch of the Wollstonecraft Society, a new human rights education charity. Anita Rani’s electrifying stage debut highlighted Wollstonecraft’s relevance to so many areas of our modern lives. Jude Kelly reminded the audience how fragile human rights are; of the importance of what’s been won on our behalf and what could be lost if we don’t protect it.
It felt like a watershed moment in getting Wollstonecraft into the spotlight. As Wollstonecraft herself wrote in her foundational human rights defence in 1790: “It is necessary emphatically to repeat, that there are rights which men inherit at their birth, as rational creatures, who were raised above the brute creation by their improvable faculties.”
It’s been a long slog. But it’s been worth it, because the recovery of missing voices is important. Time and again women’s achievements have been erased, but restoring them to our cultural landscape sets an important example for future generations.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a brilliant and tireless working single mum who stood up to the authorities of the day, and she paid the price when her reputation was annihilated following her early death. How many more Wollstonecrafts are buried in our history?
I spent golden and wondrous times following in the footsteps of the original feminist. But like her, we too are living through a period of political upheaval.
Every day the news reminds me of the history of the fight for human rights. Not only do we stand on the shoulders of giants, but we forget their sacrifices at our peril.
In Wollstonecraft’s words: “The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilisation is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress.”
• In Search of Mary. By Bee Rowlatt, Alma Books, £12.99
• Readers can get a special offer by visiting almabooks.com/product/in-search-of-mary/?imprintname=