'A Revolution in Female Manners'’: The Political Portraiture of Mary Wollstonecraft

by Lucy Peltz
 
From America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Britain’s economic, social and political stability was in turmoil. Against this backdrop of revolution abroad, the relations between the sexes – and their proper roles — were increasingly challenged. While the figure of the respectable female writer of sentimental novels, poetry or didactic literature had become a cultural commonplace, there was a new backlash against the literary woman asserting her views in the more ‘masculine’ genres of history and politics. The tightening of gendered boundaries can be particularly identified in the reception and troubled reputation of a new generation of political voices, including the radical Mary Wollstonecraft.
 

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, oil on canvas, 1797. National Portrait Gallery, 1237

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, oil on canvas, 1797. National Portrait Gallery, 1237


 
In 1787, Mary Wollstonecraft was a relatively unknown writer who was running a school when she published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. This was a ‘conduct book’, one of the few genres deemed acceptable for women writers. A year later Wollstonecraft wrote Mary, A Fiction, a semi-autobiographical novel in which she created an independent female protagonist whose ‘grandeur is derived from the operations of [her] own faculties, not subjugated to opinion’. It was also in 1788 that Wollstonecraft began to write for the Analytical Review. It was in this radical newspaper, that she first declared her admiration for the controversial republican thinker, Catherine Macaulay.  This happened when Wollstonecraft was reviewing the older woman’s Letters on Education, where there was a clear overlap between Macaulay’s ideas and those Wollstonecraft had published in Letters on Education, especially around the importance of parental nurture and the coeducation of girls and boys. Wollstonecraft also empathised with Macaulay’s attack on the way girls were expected to ‘counterfeit . . . weakness in order to attract the notice of the male’. And while Wollstonecraft had formerly imagined herself the ‘first of a new genus’, in 1790 she was pleased to identify Macaulay as a female role model. Her enthusiastic sense of affinity with the ageing radical is evinced in the unsolicited and bold letter that Wollstonecraft wrote to Macaulay.

Madam,
Now I venture to send you < blank >, with a name utterly unknown to you in the title page, it is necessary to apologise for thus intruding on you – but instead of an apology shall I tell you the truth ? You are the only female writer who I consider in opinion with respecting the rank our sex ought to attain in the world. I respect Mrs Macaulay Graham because she contends for laurels whilst most of her sex only seek for flowers.

Mary Wollstonecraft autograph letter signed to Catharine Macaulay, 30 December 1790, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1790.

Mary Wollstonecraft autograph letter signed to Catharine Macaulay, 30 December 1790, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1790.


 
Whereas the final sentence of this letter captures the spirit of the two writers’ shared interest in promoting a new model of assertive womanhood, it is the first (now expurgated) sentence that indicates Wollstonecraft’s main excuse for writing to Macaulay without prior introduction. With this letter, we can deduce that Wollstonecraft had sent a copy of her recent publication the Vindication of the Rights of Men. This was her impassioned reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) which had appeared a few months before — Observations on the Reflections of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France (1790). Her letter to Macaulay thus attempted to reach out to a kindred political and intellectual woman whose own published attack on Burke’s Reflections had also just appeared. Both pamphlets reflect the feeling among radicals who had welcomed the French Revolution, in its first years. Wollstonecraft later summed up the mood when she stated that a ‘new spirit has gone forth, to organise the body-politic . . . Reason has, at last, shown her captivating face.’
 
The Vindication was Wollstonecraft’s first major success and it moved her into the masculine terrain of political discourse. It argued in favour of a more meritocratic society and scorned the privilege and property of the aristocratic hierarchy which Burke had defended. The first edition of the pamphlet made no mention of Wolstonecraft’s name and many critics assumed it was the work of a man. The Analytical Review knew better and their critic could not resist mocking Burke on this point:  ‘How deeply must it wound the feelings of a chivalrous knight . . to perceive that two of the boldest of his adversaries are women!’ For conservatives in Britain desperate to maintain the status quo the deferential relationship expected between men and women took on an increasingly politicized charge at this time at this time. In this context, the image of the empowered woman – as identified particularly in the French mob — became deeply emotive. An example of this can be seen in the satire Don Dismallo running the Literary Gauntlet.
Don Dismallo Running the Literary Gantlet, published by William Holland, 1790

Don Dismallo Running the Literary Gantlet, published by William Holland, 1790


 
This etching was published by William Holland, a radical printseller, just one month after the publication of Burke’s Reflections. It portrays Burke in the character of Don Dismallo, the deluded knight from Don Quixote who champions chivalrous but pointless causes. The inference here is that Burke’s support for the French monarchy was just such a pointless cause. To reinforce this point, Burke is presented in a fool’s costume running the gauntlet past a line of opponents who are each armed with a cat-o’-nine-tails to punish him. On Burke’s left we can see: Helena Maria Williams, the poet, Richard Price, the Dissenting minister and polemicist, Anna Letitia Barbauld, the poet and educationalist. To Burke’s right, are: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an MP who opposed Burke in the House of Commons, and the figures of Justice, holding out her sword, and Liberty, who turns her back on Burke to support a frail figure with a banner bearing scenes from the storming of the Bastille. To their right, are John Horne Tooke another radical MP and Catharine Macaulay. She, like the other women, wears French tricolours.
 
The people in this print are all linked by their support for the Revolution. The women were distinguished for refuting Burke in print, or so it seemed. Williams who was noted for her sympathetic, eyewitness Letters Written in France had just published a poem in praise of the storming of the Bastille. Catharine Macaulay’s forthcoming attack on Burke’s Reflections had been announced and Barbauld, who had first opposed Burke in March1790, was assumed to be writing another refutation of his Reflections.
 
While only a handful of the responses to Burke were by women, Don Dismallo indicates how the female political voice raised special anxieties. Horace Walpole, who shared Burke’s anti-revolutionary conservatism, dismissed them as cheap hacks who ‘spit their rage at eighteenth pence a head’. He vilified further, describing them as ‘Amazonian allies, headed by Kate Macaulay and the virago Barbaud, whom Mr Burke calls our poissardes’. By referring to Burke’s description of working-class women in the French mob — as fishwives, or the ‘furies of hell’ – Walpole’s comments reflect the conservative fear of female activism.
 
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men appeared just a few days before Don Dismallo which explains why she is not figured in the print. According to her biographer, the Vindication received ‘extraordinary notice’, especially once it was identified as the work of a woman.
 
At the same time, her name became associated with other leading revolutionaries who, like Tom Paine, had attacked Burke’s Reflections. She met Paine and many others through Joseph Johnson, the bookseller who was like a father figure to her. He gave weekly dinners which were a meeting place for London’s religious dissenters and political radicals. Among them were Henry Fuseli an extrovert but married artist for whom Wollstonecraft developed a desperate infatuation and eventually proposed a ménage à trois — and William Godwin – a shy and awkward philosopher who was initially irritated by the way she monopolized the conversation but would later become her husband.  It was also through Johnson that Wollstonecraft met John Opie, the fashionable artist who became her life-long friend. This was his first portrait of Wollstonecraft painted in the period immediately following the Vindication. It is a sensitive and confident image of a female author, showing her distracted momentarily from her studies.
 
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c.1790-1), Tate Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c.1790-1), Tate Gallery


 
With Opie’s typically dark palette we have the sense that Wollstonecraft is working late into the night. Although Fuseli had criticized her as a ‘philosophical sloven’, Wollstonecraft is shown here with the powdered hair and silk gown of a polite woman. There is no record of Wollstonecraft’s views on this portrait. But her comments on sitting for the portrait below, at about the same time are, however, revealing.
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Williamson, 1791. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Williamson, 1791. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery


She wrote to her supporter William Roscoe, stating that ‘I do not imagine that it will be a very striking likeness; but, if you do not find me in it, I will send you a more faithful sketch – a book that I am now writing, in which I myself . . . shall certainly appear, hand and heart’. This comment contains both prosaic and psychological insight. Apparently Wollstonecraft doubted Williamson’s work but, more importantly, she was did not like giving up control over her own self-representation. The book that she refers to in this letter was her The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
 
It would be an overstatement to call the Rights of Woman an autobiography. The work does however tackle issues of female education, identity and autonomy that had preoccupied and effected Wollstonecraft for most of her adult life. English women she argued had been forced into narrow roles within society, were denied access to education and were thereby trivialized as frivolous creatures whose purpose was only to please men. Moreover, women were complicit in their own cultural subordination through their love of sentimental novels, gossip and fashion. Advocating serious study to lift a woman from sensation to intellect, Wollstonecraft’s rallying cry was aimed at the radical reform of Britain as a whole. “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore them their lost dignity – and make them, as part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.
 
Having renounced Christianity in 1790, Wollstonecraft’s proposals were rooted in her belief in ‘perfectibility’ – the doctrine that people can achieve perfection in their lifetime. The work was also based on a levelling principle which took its inspiration from the French Revolution. Both were contentious positions to adopt and yet the Rights of Woman was greeted with approval in 1792. That is because most reviews treated it as ‘an elaborate treatise on female education’. The Analytical Review, for one, managed to overlook the radical elements and conclude that ‘If the bulk of the great truths which this publication contains were reduced to practice the nation would be better, wiser and happier’. The only periodical to attack the Rights of Woman was the Critical Review. This Tory paper correctly identified the revolutionary ambitions and implications of Wollstonecraft’s proposals. It envisaged a world in which Wollstonecraft’s proposals were put into action and decried the social impact if women, once educated to the level of men, refused to continue their allotted duties of child care and nursing the sick. Ironically the French Revolutionary government concurred. Although Wollstonecraft had dedicated the book to the French diplomat Talleyrand, his report on education to the National Assembly in France expressed the view that women were indeed the weaker sex and should follow the ‘will of nature’ in pursuing gentler, domestic occupations.
 
Despite its initial success, the Rights of Woman and its author would become synonymous with libertarian immorality and would soon be shunned. The reasons for this fall from grace were manifold including the reception of Wollstonecraft’s subsequent writings, the details of her private life and the increasingly repressive social and political situation. The personal details were revealed by her widower William Godwin whose Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was rushed into press four months after Wollstonecraft’s gruesome death in childbirth in 1797.
 
William Godwin, by James Northcote, oil on canvas (1802). National Portrait Gallery, 1236.

William Godwin, by James Northcote, oil on canvas (1802). National Portrait Gallery, 1236.


 
Godwin, a leading radical philosopher, was grief-stricken and stayed away from Mary’s funeral writing ‘I have not the least expectation that I can ever know happiness again’. During a deep and prolonged melancholy, his one consolation was reading Wollstonecraft’s manuscripts including her unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. Within two weeks, he had begun to write her Memoirs which were published with four volumes of her posthumous works. If this was a cathartic exercise for Godwin, his inability to dissemble ruined the Wollstonecraft’s reputation for generations to come.
 
True to his philosophical ideal that perfection could be achieved by reason alone, Godwin made no attempt to hide the scandals of her life. He shocked readers with details of how Wollstonecraft had lived out of wedlock and had a child with another man, had twice attempted suicide, had become pregnant before her marriage to Godwin and, finally, had refused religious rites on her deathbed. In focussing on her personal life and distress, Godwin aimed to present his dead wife as a ‘female Werther’ – the doomed character in Goethe’s influential novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). But in the end, Godwin’s writing is in fact more an exploration of his own feelings and the culture of sensibility than the Wollstonecraft’s political philosophy.
Mary Wollstonecraft, stipple engraving, by John Chapman, possibly after an anonymous painting (1798)National Portrait Gallery, D7842.

Mary Wollstonecraft, stipple engraving, by John Chapman, possibly after an anonymous painting (1798) National Portrait Gallery, D7842.


 
Before her death in 1797, Wollstonecraft was the most widely read political woman in Europe. While her death had been recorded by respectful obituaries, Godwin’s Memoirs made a spectacle of her unconventional life. Describing her as having ‘sentiments as pure, as refined, and as delicate, as ever inhabited a human heart’ his principle mistake was to ask for sympathy for her plight and pose her as ‘the fairest source of animation and encouragement to all who would follow’. Godwin was of course deluded by grief but he also misjudged the moral climate in presenting Wollstonecraft as a role model. Those periodicals that had applauded the Rights of Woman were almost unanimous in wishing Godwin had never written such a ‘tribute’. Her posthumous reputation was also poorly served by his publication of her unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman which excuses adultery, argues for women to have control over their own property and is frank about female sexual appetites.
 
In the end, there was no literary model which Godwin could use to represent Wollstonecraft as a subjective, intellectually assertive woman with desires in a way that did not render her contemptible. Moreover, his catalogue of her sexual exploits and political beliefs provided a rod with which to beat all radical women writers. The grand inquisitor was Reverend Richard Polwhele whose long verse-diatribe The Unsex’d Females, of 1798, was one of the most concerted critiques of late eighteenth-century feminist writers. Using the inflammatory category ‘unsex’d’, Polwhele named and attacked a band of women who, he declared, had abandoned ‘natural’ modesty, supported the introduction of democratic politics and who even went as far as to demand equality with men. Unsurprisingly, he considered Wollstonecraft the archetypal ‘unsex’d female’:

See Wollstonecraft, whom no decorum checks,
Arise, the intrepid champion of her sex;
O’er humbled man assert the sovereign claim,
And Slight the timid blush of virgin fame.

Besides Wollstonecraft, Polwhele named eight other ‘unsex’d’ women: Mary Hays, Helen Maria Williams, Catharine Macaulay, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Charlotte Smith. This may have been was a disparate group, but on close inspection what the ‘unsex’d’ women have in common is their temerity in claiming literary independence  but worse still, their support for progressive politics and their criticisms of Britain’s political, social and religious institutions.
 
All this was manna to Wollstonecraft’s opponents in the increasingly repressive climate that followed the Treason Trials, the Naval mutinies, and the Irish Rebellion in the late 1790s. Thus Wollstonecraft’s life was turned into an emblem of revolutionary, immorality in action. The European Magazine declared her a ‘philosophical wanton’ and the government-sponsored Anti-Jacobin Review led an intense scurrilous attack to defame her and her beliefs. In the index for 1798, under the heading ‘Prostitution’ was printed simply: ‘see Mary Wollstonecraft’.
 
 Lucy Peltz is Head of Collection Displays (Tudor to Regency) and Senior Curator, 18th Century Collections, at the National Portrait Gallery. She is a Wordsworth Trust trustee. Her book Facing the Text: Extra-illustration, Print Culture and Society in Britain, ca. 1769-1840 is about to be LucyPeltz_120published. Other recent publications are Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, with A. Cassandra Albinson and Peter Funnell, Yale University Press, 2010; Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings, with Elizabeth Eger, National Portrait Gallery, 2008 and the guide book to Beningbrough Hall, with Roger Carr-Whitworth, National Trust, 2006.
 
 

Mary Wollstonecraft on Men

by Simon Court

Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the first recognisably feminist texts. Yet earlier, in December 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which introduces some of the arguments extended in Woman, and which also anticipates some of the beliefs expressed in the highly influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) by the anarchist thinker William Godwin, who was later to become her husband.
Although Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was relatively short (she died in 1797, aged only thirty-eight), it was both extraordinary and controversial. Independent-minded and often courageous, her adventures included: setting up (unsuccessfully) a school in London; entertaining a doomed passion for the artist Henry Fuseli and proposing co-habitation with him and his (appalled) wife; travelling to Paris alone in December 1792 to witness the French Revolution, and staying there as Louis XVI was guillotined and the ‘Reign of Terror’ unfolded, and having a turbulent affair with the American businessman, Gilbert Imlay.
Mary became pregnant by Imlay, who abandoned her in France before the birth of their illegitimate child, Fanny. Imlay remained indifferent to both Mary and Fanny on their return to London in 1795, and this led to two unsuccessful suicide attempts by Mary in that year, one by laudanum overdose, and the other by jumping into the Thames. (Sadly, Fanny proved to be more successful in her own suicide attempt by laudanum overdose, dying aged just twenty-two, in 1816).
Wollstonecraft started an affair with William Godwin in 1796 and, despite his principled objections to the institution of marriage, they married in March 1797, after Mary discovered she was pregnant. Yet this domestic tranquillity was tragically short-lived: Mary died on 10 September 1797, after complications from giving birth eleven days earlier to her second child, Mary (later author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley).
In 1790, the Whig politician Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France: a famous critique of the abstract ‘metaphysical’ reasoning of the French Revolutionaries, and the murderous tyranny which it produced, and a staunch defence of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church of England. Wollstonecraft, who was a regular contributor to the Analytical Review, took up her pen (with the encouragement of her publisher, Joseph Johnson) and produced the first of many critical responses to Burke’s Reflections in her A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Initially published anonymously, it was reviewed extensively and sold out in weeks, the second edition bearing her name, and establishing her reputation as a political thinker.
Vindication
It is wholly unsurprising that Burke’s Reflections irked Wollstonecraft, because the political principles upon which the Reflections is based contrasts dramatically from her own. In a nutshell, Burke was, in political ideological terms, a conservative. He had a pessimistic view of human nature, and believed the virtues of tradition and custom preserved the continuity of society, and controlled the citizens within it. He denounced as futile and dangerous any attempt to artificially impose ‘metaphysical’ rational principles upon society – in other words, abstract principles which are not derived from practical political experience. For Burke, this would always lead to failure, tyranny, and the wilful destruction of society, and the French Revolution in 1789 was the latest, most horrifying example.
Wollstonecraft, by contrast, was a radical liberal (and emerging feminist). She believed that the French Revolution was self-evidently a good thing. She took from the Enlightenment generally, and John Locke in particular, the view that people possess inalienable rights to freedom, and property (in the sense of ownership acquired through labour, rather than inherited). Further, she assumed that people, in using their rational faculties, are capable of a degree of social co-operation which leads to an equal and just society, in which all irrational prejudices and customs are removed. This progress was, for Wollstonecraft, inevitable. Given that optimism, coupled with the notion of the perfectibility of human nature, and armed with an emerging ‘feminist’ insight, there is little wonder that her reaction to Burke was explosive.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men was a political pamphlet, and part of the contemporary controversy concerning the French Revolution and the merits of monarchy over republicanism which was being waged in a propaganda war. As such Men contains lively, and entertainingly savage, rhetorical flourishes, and remains heated throughout. Take, for instance, this opening salvo aimed at Burke in the advertisement printed at the beginning:

“Not having leisure or patience to follow this desultory writer through all the devious tracks in which his fancy has started fresh game, I have confined my strictures, in a great measure, to the grand principles at which he has levelled many ingenious arguments in a very specious garb”.

Much of the discussion in Men amounts to a relatively conventional liberal response to a conservative view of political society. Hence there are arguments about the scope and meaning of ‘liberty’, the redundancy of established political institutions and classes (notably the monarchy, the Church of England and the aristocracy) and the just allocation of private property and wealth.
On the usefulness of the Church, she observes that “It is a well-known fact, that when we, the people of England, have a son whom we scarcely know what to do with – we make a clergy-man of him”. And she has no time for what she takes to be Burke’s sentimental affection for country life: “you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and a dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer”.
However, what most interests us now is to examine how Men charts the emergence of Wollstonecraft’s own distinctive political ideas: most obviously, how her discussion of the place of women in society in Men serves as an introduction to ideas further developed in Woman (making Men, perhaps, the first feminist work?). For Wollstonecraft aspires to a society in which women play their fullest part, employing their reason and demanding to become useful members of it. Yet she despairs at seeing how “women of fashion take husbands that they may have it in their power to coquet, the grand business of genteel life, with a number of admirers, and thus flutter the spring of life away, without laying up any store for the winter of age, or being of any use to society. Affection in the marriage state can only be founded on respect – and are these weak beings respectable?”  There is no suggestion here that women are helpless victims. Far from it, they are letting themselves down by perpetuating their role as “vain inconsiderate dolls”, whose “luxury and effeminacy” has introduced “so much idiotism into the noble families”.
Wollstonecraft’s call to women is, in effect, to disregard the silly weaknesses of ‘effeminacy’, and instead, as a matter of moral duty and respectability, exercise their reason to acquire the virtue of being “prudent mothers and useful members of society”. A forceful message at the time, which still has resonance today.
Wollstonecraft also addresses the issue of ill-health and poverty in the emerging industrial cities, which she contrasts with the countryside. Yet in doing so she presents an idealised portrayal of rural life. She asserts that whereas London is where “misery lurks in pestilential corners”, the English countryside, “with all the rustic contrivances of simple, unlettered taste”, is where she saw that “the cheerful poultry were fed by the chubby babes, who breathed a bracing air, far from diseases and the vices of cities”. She seeks a radical transformation of the ownership of land, asking “why cannot large estates be divided into small farms?” and “why might not the industrious peasant be allowed to steal a farm from the heath?” Her demand for common ownership of land, coupled with a utopian portrayal of agrarian society anticipates the same, essentially anarchist, views expressed by William Godwin in Political Justice, which influenced Coleridge and the ‘pantisocrats’.
Wollstonecraft first met Godwin on 13 November 1791, that is, a year after Men had been published, and while Godwin was writing Political Justice. Godwin had read Men but had been irritated with the polemical style, later dismissing it as ‘intemperate’. The meeting between them was not a success: a fellow guest that evening was Thomas Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) Godwin greatly admired, but, he later recalled, Paine was “no great talker….the conversation lay principally between me and Mary. I, of consequence heard her very frequently when I wished to hear Paine”.
Although most of Wollstonecraft’s attack on Burke concentrated on his Reflections, it is interesting to note her twist on his concept of the ‘sublime’, as expressed in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).  Her accusation was that Burke was guilty of what has subsequently been termed ‘aesthetic genderising’: that is, he had deliberately set out to persuade women that the quality of beauty is associated with femininity and weakness, while reserving the ‘sublime’ to masculinity and strength. She declares “you may have convinced them that littleness and weakness are the very essence of beauty…..thus confining truth, fortitude, and humanity, within the rigid pale of manly mortals…”
Even if we may not agree with this attack on Burke, we can still acknowledge that Wollstonecraft’s observation that a writer’s use of language can reflect their deeper assumptions about gender is, again, part of an early and recognisably feminist ideological view of the world.

A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and Romanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club. Simon

‘The happiest country in the world’: Mary Wollstonecraft in Denmark

by Cian Duffy

In 2013 and 2014, Denmark held the top spot in the annual World Happiness Reports compiled by the United Nations. It was beaten into third place in 2015 by Iceland and Switzerland, but a Carlsberg-sponsored advertisement in Copenhagen airport still welcomes you to ‘the world’s happiest nation’. No ‘probably’ in this case.

Denmark’s ranking has played an important part in the current British fascination with all things Danish, which began with the TV dramas Forbrydelsen and Borgen and carried on in a plethora of features and books about how and why you should live like a Dane. And, in the case of some dissenting voices searching for novelty, about how and why you shouldn’t.
Contemporary as it seems, however, the debate about Danish happiness is not all that new. In fact, it has an interesting prehistory in the eighteenth century and Romantic period.
In 1760, an apocryphal sequel to Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism (1759) – a satirical novel about a philosopher determined to see this world as ‘the best of all possible worlds’ – has the protagonist and his party settle in Denmark, where ‘everything is not too bad’. High praise indeed, in the context.

But the best-known British account of Denmark during the Romantic period was certainly Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), a book which Robert Southey said made him ‘fall in love with a cold climate & frost & snow, with a Northern moonlight’, and about which William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s future husband, wrote ‘if ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book’.

Wollstonecraft, in Copenhagen, found herself exasperated by ‘men of business’ whom she describes as:

domestic tyrants, coldly immersed in their own affairs, and so ignorant of the state of other countries, that they dogmatically assert that Denmark is the happiest country in the world; the prince royal the best of all possible princes; and count Bernstorff the wisest of ministers.

 Wollstonecraft herself, it is fair to say, was not convinced by these dogmatic assertions nor particularly taken with either Denmark or the Danes. She arrived in Copenhagen shortly after the fire of June 1795, which had devastated a large portion of the city. But still she was ‘surprised not to see so much industry or taste as in Christiania [Oslo]’ and was less than fulsome in her appreciation of the architecture:

I had often heard the Danes, even those who had seen Paris and London, speak of Copenhagen with rapture. Certainly I have seen it in a very disadvantageous light, some of the best streets having been burnt and the whole place thrown into confusion. Still, the utmost that can, or could ever, I believe, have been said in its praise, might be comprised in a few words.

 The cultural life of the city she found similarly sparse. The ‘childish incidents’ of a play ‘were sufficient to shew the state of the dramatic art in Denmark, and the gross taste of the audience’. The ‘public library’ had ‘a collection much larger than I expected to see’; there were ‘some good pictures’ in the royal collection; and ‘some respectable men of science, but few literary characters and fewer artists. They want encouragement’. ‘Public spirit’ seems to her ‘to be hardly alive here’.

Domestic life fares little better in Wollstonecraft’s opinion. ‘Love’, she writes, ‘here seems to corrupt the morals, without polishing the manners’. Nor was it just those dogmatic, tyrannical ‘men of business’ who met with her disapproval: ‘as for the women’ she assures her reader, ‘they are simply notable house-wives; without accomplishments, or any of the charms that adorn more advanced social life’, a ‘total ignorance’ which ‘may enable them to save something in their kitchens; but it is far from rendering them better parents’.

Despite disavowing any attempt to ‘sketch a national character, but merely to note the present state of morals and manners’, she concludes that ‘a kind of indolence, respecting what does not concern them’ was typical of the population and that ‘from everything I have had an opportunity of observing, the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces’. At times she seems positively to go out of her way to find fault:

One of the best streets in Copenhagen is almost filled with hospitals, erected by the government; and, I am assured, as well regulated as institutions of this kind are in any country; but whether hospitals, or workhouses, are anywhere superintended with sufficient humanity, I have frequently had reason to doubt.

Even ‘the climate’, she says, is ‘very disagreeable’.
But despite all this, the self-content of those whom Wollstonecraft met was inescapable: ‘if happiness consist in opinion, they are the happiest people in the world; for I never saw any so well satisfied with their own situation’. And she herself could see that despite living under the most absolute monarchy in Europe:

the inhabitants of Norway [then a Danish possession] and Denmark are the least oppressed people of Europe. The press is free…without fearing to displease the government. On the subject of religion they are likewise becoming tolerant.

She notes with approval that ‘one writer has ventured to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ…without being considered universally a monster’.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery

The late eighteenth-century Denmark which Wollstonecraft describes seems to possess many of the characteristics often cited today in explanation of the country’s ‘happiness’: a highly-regulated society committed to the promotion of social democratic values, freedom of expression, and personal and political liberties. But how then might we explain the remarkable antipathy of the radical feminist Wollstonecraft?

In part, it was her mood. Wollstonecraft acknowledges that she ‘may be a little prejudiced, as I write from the impression of the moment’ or ‘a little partial, and view everything with the jaundiced eye of melancholy – for I am sad’. Wollstonecraft was ‘sad’ because she had gone to Scandinavia at the request of her former lover, the London-based American businessman Gilbert Imlay – accompanied by their one-year-old daughter Fanny. Wollstonecraft had attempted suicide earlier in 1795 following the breakdown of their relationship and Imlay clearly felt that travel might provide a healthy distraction. However, there was also a far more serious purpose to the journey. In 1980, Per Nyström, a former governor of Gothenburg, discovered documents which proved that Imlay had been attempting to smuggle silver from Revolutionary France through the British blockade of the North Sea: the ship had gone missing and he had sent Wollstonecraft with full legal authority to investigate the disappearance and, if possible, to recover the cargo.[1] By the time she reached Copenhagen, both the ship and a hoped-for reconciliation with Imlay had failed to materialise.

There are other, culturally-specific reasons for Wollstonecraft’s antipathy. Denmark at the end of the eighteenth century was a colonial nation and a political contestant of Britain through the League of Armed Neutrality with Sweden and Russia – an alliance which would culminate in the British attack on Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. Wollstonecraft was sympathetic to, and seemed partly to identify with, the fate of the ‘poor’ and ‘unfortunate’ queen Caroline Mathilde, sister of George III, who was exiled following the collapse of her marriage to Christian VII of Denmark and Norway: ‘thou hast haunted me ever since my arrival’. And then Wollstonecraft, like many contemporary travellers, was influenced by new, Romantic ideas about nature and natural communities and hence more disposed towards the wild scenes and peoples of northern Norway and Sweden than to the urbane citizens of Copenhagen, those ‘men of business’ who must only have reminded her of Imlay.

But there are further clues to Wollstonecraft’s antipathy to the Danes hidden away in her account of Copenhagen. She thought that ‘the Danes, in general, seem extremely averse to innovation’, that ‘wealth does not appear to be sought for, amongst the Danes, to obtain the elegant luxuries of life; for a want of taste is very conspicuous at Copenhagen’, and that ‘nothing can give a more forcible idea of the dullness which eats away all activity of mind, than the insipid routine of court, without magnificence or elegance’.
These observations, which (perhaps it needs to be said) Wollstonecraft intends as criticisms, evidently anticipate some of the reservations expressed by today’s British commentators on Danish society: the idea that the Danish social model is conformist, discouraging individual ambition or distinction – a set of values often said to be embodied in the concept of Janteloven. Perhaps then Wollstonecraft’s antipathy towards Denmark and the Danes stemmed in part simply from a failure to understand the Danish mindset, from a failure to see that precisely those attributes which she saw as shortcomings (an aversion to aspirational materialism and ostentatious displays of ‘elegance’ and ‘taste’) were then, as they are now, an important cultural foundation of ‘the happiest country in the world’.

[1] See Per Nyström, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Scandinavian Journey, Acts of the Royal Society of Arts and Letters of Gothenburg, Humaniora 17 (1980).

Cian Duffy
Cian Duffy is Professor of English literature at St. Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill, UK. He is currently writing a book about romanticism and romantic nationalism in Britain and Denmark.

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