Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written During a Short Resilience in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark makes one of the most important, contributions during the Romantic period to the understanding of history as progressive. In one sense Letters engages in an Enlightenment discourse that privileges city refinement over the barbarism of country life, and views progress insofar as it corresponds with economic development. Thus Wollstonecraft's work might seem to participate, as critics and historians like Gary Kelly and Virginia Sapiro argue, in and discourse of enlightened bourgeois liberalism. But there is also much in the text to complicate that view, although I don't see the complication residing solely within the realm of the domestic cultivation of sensation and sensibility--as it has appeared in recent critics such as Anne Mellor, Cynthia Richards, and Elizabeth Wingrove. Instead, I believe that the role of the imagination in Letters removes notions of improvement from the additive or accretive logic of refinement and posits new possibilities in which observed human agents are released from their present burdens and resituated within new configurations of political obligation. And this politico-aesthetic perspective, I'll also suggest, connects with, and extends, a logic at work in Wollstonecraft's writing on the French Revolution.
When Wollstonecraft undertook the writing of the Letters, the publication of AVindication of the Rights of Woman had made her famous, but she was also enduring a period of life marked by personal and political misfortune. She embarked on the voyage to Scandinavia in 1795, on which the letters are based, with a maid and her daughter, in the wake of two attempted suicides following the disintegration of her relationship with Gilbert Imlay. Imlay, even in this crumbling state of affairs, suggested the voyage as a way for her to recover money and property owed to him. She openly acknowledges in the letters (addressed to Imlay, although written for publication), furthermore, that the work constitutes a struggle to come to terms with another kind of disappointment--the disappointment following the "horrors" of the French Revolution, a matter about which I'll have more to say toward the end of the essay (247).
These personal and political occasions of distress prompt the frequently articulated melancholy and weariness throughout Wollstonecraft's work; but those occasions are also closely connected with the work's sustained, and quite contrary, preoccupation with the nature of social improvement. Any reader of Wollstonecraft's Letters would have to be struck by the way that the author in a sense engages in a popular 18th century' mode of evaluating the real and illusory advancements in her country and in others. According a distinct privilege to what Caroline Franklin identifies as a "Utopian belief in individual perfectibility and social enlightenment," Wollstonecraft continually comments on degrees of cultivation and barbarism of various kinds (148); in this sense she joins a long tradition of writers like Montesquieu, Mary Wortley Montagu, and Ann Radcliffe.
In this vein, Wollstonecraft wants to credit England and France with superior cultivation, being "much further advanced in knowledge" (289) compared to the "remnants of barbarism" that she observes in the countries she visits (253). A crucial part of that argument has to do with the advancements represented by the greater size and influence of urban spaces in some countries versus others; country towns lack the cultivation of cities, and their predominance tends to curb at least one kind of progressive impulse. "No place is so disagreeable and unimproving as a country town," she remarks; cities, in contrast, "rub off the rust of thought" and "polish" one's "taste" (296).
At the same time, despite this celebration of advancing knowledge and improved taste, Wollstonecraft just as--or perhaps more--often moves in a different direction, taking an equal if not greater interest and pleasure in the "wild beauties" of landscape apart from the existence of either towns or cities or any kind of obvious cultivation (263). In fact, when she writes that "what little cultivation which appeared did not break the enchantment," she openly suggests the very advancements registered from one perspective seem like possible impediments from another (263). Perhaps these two alternatives might seem to comport, with the views of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers of improvement on the one hand, and the celebration of natural man in Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the other. For if one set of observations seems to support the view of history--found, for instance, in Lord Raines's Sketches of the History of Man--as gradually accumulated knowledge, the appreciation of nature might seem like a Rousseauvian contradiction of that view in his anti-progressive notion of progress. And certainly that would fall in line with other Rousseauvian echoes in her writing more broadly, which (even when she openly opposes Rousseau in the Vindication) often echoes Rousseau's second Discourse in her critique of the falsity of conventional refinement--a falsity that both disguises and perpetuates social inequality.
Still, when Wollstonecraft speaks of pleasures in uncultivated landscape,
her use of the word "enchantment" leaps off the page, for the resonance of that word suggests that she is not simply providing contrasting views aligned with celebrated thinkers who were well known to her. "Enchantment," rather, connects with oilier expansive states of mind--most often described as "imagination"--and of the enlivened "soul" described throughout the letters. The work of the mind in these states of enchantment is not necessarily attached to natural scenery; it can appear virtually anywhere. Indeed, perhaps even the full title of Wollstonecraft's Letters gestures toward tins point; a singular "residence" in many places, the name of the text oddly points to the fact that the letters are written from and about somewhere and nowhere at the same time.
Wollstonecraft's self-consciousness about these imaginative states registers frequently in the letters; as she reflects with particular clarity at a late moment, "my feelings produce ideas that remind me of the origin of so many poetical fictions" in that the imagination bodies forth "unrestrained" conceptions, and "stops enraptured to adore the beings of its own creation" (286). And while: the imaginative work in Wollstonecraft's text may appear to be abstracted from conditions of cultivation, as Mary Favret has suggested in her illuminating essay on the Letters, it would be still more accurate to describe it as enabling an inventive commentary on those conditions. (1) That commentary is on "the future improvement of the world" (338), an improvement that cannot be reduced either to a conventional account of cultivation through gradual improvement or to an opposing worship of uncultivated nature. Instead, the imaginative interludes throughout the work are harbingers of a future state of peace and equality that logically stands free of a claim that history is or is not progressive (that is, that temporality translates into accumulated value). Moments of imaginative abstraction "carry the helpless wight into futurity, who, in bustling life, has vainly strove to throw off the grief which lies heavy at the heart" (252). Imagining future states, in Wollstonecraft's view, allows one the possibility of imagining the conditions for lifting the weight of present circumstances, helping the "helpless" to remove present "grief."
In the passage about the burdens of "bustling life"--presumably in those very cities (praised elsewhere in the work) whose mechanisms for cultivation allow one to remove the rust of thought or polish one's taste--one hears once again a certain uneasiness that Wollstonecraft has with the conventional discourse of cultivation that crops up intermittently throughout the work. But one can see now that her aim is not simply to oppose the notion of progress in Rousseauvian terms, but rather to recover and revise it so that it is disarticulated from a conventional logic of gradual improvement in knowledge. It's also particularly important to emphasize here that the author's work of imagination is actually not viewed in terms of a personal property, since the conventional attributes of the person are precisely what can be overcome in imaginative effort. This work results instead in an impersonal form, and its status as a vision of an improved state of affairs depends on its ability to transport author and reader to a space--an "asylum" or "retreat" cleared of grief and burden (308).
Wollstonecraft's manipulation of imaginative abstraction in her writing could be seen in league with the tradition of Romantic prophecy so astutely' analyzed by Ian Balfour The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy. But with this commitment to a prophetic vision of social order--a commitment to ending poverty and oppressive government--we also see an unfortunate cost as a byproduct of the way that Balfour sees prophecy underlining the ability of literary works to be read and reread in different contexts (79): the poetic thinker dedicated to future improvement will be abused by others even while she shows them the way. At one of the most incisive moments in Letters, imagination is contrasted to learning by rote or convention; those who learn by imagination "seem marks set up to be pelted at by fortune, or rather as signposts, which point out the road to others, whilst forced to stand still themselves amidst the mud and dust" (337). In an anticipation of Percy Shelley's notion of the poetic legislator, Wollstonecraft speaks--as Shelley does--of her own writing as an insight that will bring pleasure and benefit to future generations. But her insistence at this point that the author's vision of a "road" will benefit others but not herself, and her way of characterizing "fortune" as the visionary's abuser, emphasizes the notion of improvement as a political ideal that, while inevitably undone by present politics, nevertheless remains as an ideal invested with considerable future political value. It is an ideal removed from present circumstances to which others in the future can refer and receive benefits.
This view of the progressive work of the imagination allows us to address her position on the most prominent competing discourses on the French Revolution during her age. The position of imagination in Letters constitutes a compelling response to the revolution that differs from critical attacks by the likes of Edmund Burke even while it dislodges itself from the kind of sympathy found in Helen Maria Williams. For if the imaginative work of the text allows the author to claim that she "forgot the horrors I had witnessed in France" (247), that work is not merely a diversion but a means for producing anticipations of future states and countless "discoveries" (251), without allowing the "disappointed affection" inspired by the Revolution utterly to dampen them (247). This aspect of her work is utterly consistent with Mackintosh's Vindiciae Gallicae and Catherine Macaulay's Observations on the Reflections of the Hon. Edmund Burke, both of which emphasize the need to withhold judgment on the outcome of the Revolution, and therefore to make changes based upon hopes for future improvement. In Wollstonecraft, likewise, the imaginative work of the text is to anticipate a future for the French Revolution that is better than its present state: despite its present "horrors," it will eventually make politics a "subject of discussion," which "enlarges the heart by opening the understanding" (274).
In more particular terms, it is also possible to add something here about Wollstonecraft's own more extended account of the French Revolution and how Letters could be said to comment on and amplify it. In many ways, the work employs a rhetoric of passion and imagination that she explicitly criticizes in her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which associates those terms with the extravagance and despotism of the French monarchy; readers of the Vindication will likewise recall that similar terms characterize Wollstonecraft's account of woman's submission to a purely conventional domestic virtue (25). In the View, her primary argument is that the French Revolution is the product of the "progress of knowledge" (236). Good government comes from the advancement of political science, which is in turn inseparable from an enlightened, progressive approach to "analytical truths" likened to the method of Isaac Newton (236). And she puts that claim into effect in her own argument by looking back to the work of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau as early voices in the search for political truth that democratic ideas and systems (like those in England and America) have subsequently built on according the model of scientific experimentation (10).
Equally prominent in that text, however, is a view that is traced out with less predictable clarity, and yet closely related to the work of imagination in the Letters. The advance of justice is construed as "heaving off" burdens of monarchy (76). Just institutions, moreover, are not quite an empirical truth: they are not a thing to be known but rather imaginatively invented, like the National Assembly, which is a "novelty" inspiring, and inspired by, "enthusiasm" in "every heart" among the French (109). The work of the French legislators, furthermore, is most vividly described not as building on prior knowledge but as a disregard and forgetting of the massacres and tyranny of the past. If it is part of her point in this text to show how the French, under its previous monarchical system, had never empirically known anything like "justice," the National Assembly and Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen, she seems to be implying, could not emerge by uncovering an empirical truth but by turning away from the world, which she keeps describing as a shadow coming across the "sunshine" of vivid imaginative effort (201).
At one level of the simplest explanation, Wollstonecraft's argument suggests that, in the absence of a proper progress in political organization, the French in fact had no alternative. They could pursue justice only as a dream or novelty, and this further accords with her attempt to excuse the murderous outcome of revolutionary events by seeing them as necessary or inevitable, given the history of tyranny and debauchery that she has documented. But this reading can't quite encompass the way that Wollstonecraft, in the View's most eloquent passage on the mournful silence and emptiness of Versailles, and on the horrors of guillotine, does not seek out reason and its progress for her support. Her hopes for a future of "benevolence" and "industry" depend upon her mind's powers of "imagination," the very faculty that is consistently derided elsewhere in the text. And she credits the imagination at this moment with a "heroic" ability to avoid future "injustice" (162-68). What the Scandinavian Letters argues, and what they help us to see in the View is that it may be a mere hallucination to think that social improvement progresses on a model given by empirically-directed reason and scientific experiment. Conversely, social improvement as justice--by which Wollstonecraft most often means general happiness or the common good--arises from an enthusiastic dream.
(1) I am in agreement with Barbara Taylor's emphasis on the importance of "imagination" throughout Wollstonecraft's writings; her account, however, tends to view imagination less in terms of its political effectiveness and more in terms of its psychological attributes (60).
Balfour, Ian, The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy, 2002; Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790; Favret, Mary, "Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark: Traveling with Mary Wollstonecraft," The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft," ed. Claudia Johnson, 2002; Franklin, Caroline, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Literary Life, 2004; Kames, Lord, Sketches of the History of Man, 1774; Kelly, Gary, Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1992; Macaulay, Catharine, Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, 1790; Mackintosh, Sir James, Vindiciae Gallicae, 1791; Mellor, Anne, Romanticism and Gender, 1993; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch, 1997; Sapiro, Virginia, "Wollstonecraft, Feminism, and Democracy: 'Being Bastilled,'" Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Maria J. Falco, 1996; Taylor, Barbara, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, 2003; Williams, Helen Maria, Letters Written From France, 1790; Wingrove, Elizabeth, "Getting Intimate with Wollstonecraft," Political Theory 33 (2005): 344-69; Wollstonecraft, Mary, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, 1794;--, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Janet Todd, 1989;--, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody, 1975.
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