Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

 "...I adhere to my determination of giving you my observations, as I travel through new scenes, whilst warmed with the impression they have made on me."

In the summer of 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft sailed from Hull, England for Scandinavia, making her first stop Gothenberg (Göteberg) in Sweden. 

By 1795 Wollstonecraft is an established author, with several important and popular books in her past, including Vindication of the Rights of Men (a response to Burke's attack on the French Revolution) and Vindication of the Rights of Women.

She travels with her older daughter, Fanny, and a French nurse. She mentions she has business reasons, though the text doesn't offer details. But it's also clear that it's an opportunity for a new book and while the 'you' of the letters, the 'you' of the quote above, is an actual person, it is also you, the reader.

But the original you is Gilbert Imlay, Fanny's father, who was capable of claiming to be married to Wollstonecraft without having done so, and had just left her for another woman. He was engaged in some dodgy commerce, likely trading confiscated Bourbon wealth for food, and the ship on which his goods were traveling had gone missing somewhere in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft volunteers to go look, hoping to win Imlay back.

I liked this even better than Vindication of the Rights of Women. Vindication is, whether we've read it or not, a book we know--it's been that influential. And by and large (though, alas, not entirely) the grounds for debate have moved beyond it. This was more of a surprise. 
"Talk not of bastilles! To be born here, was to be bastilled by nature..." [of Sweden]

"...the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces." 

Of the three countries Norway is her clear favorite. Since the Other Reader is a quarter Norwegian, I was pleased to be able to report this. 

But it's not all snark--much as I enjoy a good snark. There's some fine nature writing, which leads her to meditate on our relative need for nature and civilization. 

"...the line of beauty requires some curves..."

She compares government and society in the three countries: at this time Sweden is going through a conservative, anti-Jacobin phase, and its finances are problematic because of a recent war against Russia and Denmark; Denmark is led by a Crown Prince who's an enlightened despot, which is (marginally) better than a plain despot; and Norway, nominally under Danish suzerainty, is suffering benign neglect, and its sturdy yeomanry little troubled by aristocrats. Anyway, that's what she says...

A map of her travels:

I read the book in the Oxford edition shown above, which has some nice additions: an introduction, the map, contemporary reviews, and several of the Wollstonecraft's original letters to Imlay. And notes. Glad to have them, though the description of England as 'impatient at the neutrality of Denmark' struck me as rather an odd phrasing. Not how the Danes thought of English actions when I was there. The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Then I read Sylvana Tomaselli's overview of Wollstonecraft, which came out from Princeton earlier this year. I think I would have preferred a more biographical approach, though this was quite good. Tomaselli organizes Wollstonecraft's thought by subject. Wollstonecraft is an important thinker, and one of the nice things about Letters is watching her think; still, for better or worse, she's a (successfully) practicing journalist, not an academic philosopher, and I'm not sure there's entirely a system there to be found. I'm suspicious of systems anyway. 

But it was fun to discover that Letters was Wollstonecraft's most successful book, rapidly translated into the Scandinavian languages. Coleridge was inspired by the book to plan a trip to Scandinavia, but like a lot of Coleridge's projects, it didn't come off. Likely he got no further than Porlock

The book works for a couple of my challenges this year:

"Adieu! I must trip up the rocks..."


  1. Oh, this sounds so interesting! I already have a different 'Letters from Denmark' book, I'll have to add this one too. Did you say that you have visited DK? What did you do there, and for how long? I was an exchange student on Fyn, 89-90. :)

    1. A couple of times actually, about 3 weeks altogether. The first time my wife was going to a conference in Copenhagen & I went along for the ride. We became friends with a women who's a professor there and went back a second time explicitly to visit her. Denmark (& Sweden) are pretty fun. Norway yet to come!

    2. And what's the other Letters from Denmark?

  2. fascinating... never heard of this book, i'll have to get a copy... love the "Porlock" comparison!

    1. I almost read it last fall from Gutenberg when I was reading Vindication, but I saw it was available from my library (with those notes!) and I ordered it up. It only got here now, though.

      Couldn't resist the Coleridge comment...

  3. Interesting! I never knew she did so much traveling.

    1. She spent a fair amount of time in France, too, and went to Portugal at least once. It was a busy life to die at 38.

  4. How wonderful. I went through a Wollstonecraft phase in school but there wasn't much to read at the time; obviously there is plenty more, now. (I really enjoyed Frances Sherwood's Vindication as a fictionalized bio, from 1993, but at the time there was only one "big" bio, so I might have been willing to forgive some stuff just to have more Mary...not sure how it might stand up now.) Thanks for posting about this and bringing up some happy Mary memories.

    1. She's a pretty recent discovery for me. I've known about her for a long time, of course, but never read anything until recently. She's good! (Surprise, surprise...)