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A vindication of Mary

As a statue celebrating the great Mary Wollstonecraft is unveiled on Newington Green, Dan Carrier considers her importance

12 November, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Maggi Hambling’s Mary Wollstonecraft statue in Newington Green. Photos: Ioana Marinescu

PUTTING a 200-year-old injustice to rights was the starting point for a project that this week saw a sculpture celebrating the work of political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft unveiled in Newington Green.

Born in 1759, Wollstonecraft – who for a time lived in King’s Cross as well as near the site of the artwork – penned A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Considered to be the first truly feminist tome, it was cast in the heat given off by the French Revolution and in it she articulated the concept of universal human rights.

The sculpture, by artist Maggi Hambling, is aimed at “personifying the spirit, rather than depicting the individual” – and marking the life and work of a woman who changed the world.

Mary’s reputation, after her death while giving birth aged 38, was tarnished by smears and vindictiveness – as the monarchs of Europe fought back against the Revolutionary zeal gripping their working classes, the great enlightenment philosophers and the Romantic poets who followed were slandered at every turn.

A biography written by Mary’s widower William Godwin explained the personal challenges she had faced, but his work was used against her. Her analysis was truthful, readable – and therefore dangerous to those in power.

Bee Rowlatt on a boat in Norway, when she retraced the steps of Mary Wollstonecraft for her book

Writer Bee Rowlatt organised the project to create the piece cast in silvered bronze.

Her book, In Search Of Mary, saw Bee retrace the steps of the author after leaving Paris in 1795 to embark on a voyage to northern Europe.

Bee read Mary’s memoir Travels in Norway, while a student and recalls how struck she had been by a line in the preface.

Historian Richard Holmes states the writer had left France during the Revolutionary years to “go on a treasure hunt”.

“It really caught my imagination,” says Bee. “At the time, Mary had gone to Paris right in the midst of political intrigue and violence. She was on her own and went and met the leading figures.

“She was a bit of a celebrity – Vindication had been published by then and it was here she met Gilbert Imlay, who would become her boyfriend.

“He was a wrong ’un – he got her pregnant and left her starving, alone in Paris.”

“She was depressed and destitute, something critics would unfairly use against her to find flaws in her works. Then Imlay returned and asked her to board a ship north, to hunt down a missing shipment of silver.”

Imlay had taken up smuggling goods stolen from French aristocracy to neutral Scandinavia, where he could sell it at a nice profit. One shipment had gone missing – so he persuaded Mary to see if she could find out what happened.

“She had just had a baby and she went off, hitching lifts on cargo ships, fishing boats, staying with strangers,” adds Bee.

“It was extraordinary – and did not end well.”

It was another example of her strength of character, says Bee.

“Mary came from a horrible background,” she adds. “Her grandfather had been wealthy, but her father was a violent alcoholic.”

Her husband wrote that he believed the experience of protecting her mother from his drunken rages instilled an inextinguishable flame for equality and dignity.

“The blows of her father, instead of humbling her, raised her indignation,” he wrote.

“Mary would often throw herself between the despot and his victim, with the purpose to receive on her own person the blows that might be directed against her mother.”

He adds Mary would sleep outside her mother’s door to prevent her father from hurting her when he “broke out in a paroxysm of violence”.

This terrible ordeal helped set her on a path to quantify and explain the idea of universal human rights.

“It was to become the defining feature of her life,” adds Bee. “It was the first call in the English language for gender equality. Her 1790 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, is lesser known, but starts this process to set out a framework for universal human rights. The language of rights then was nascent. This mattered.”

Mary’s voice holds true today – and the team behind the sculpture hope it will remind those who pass it.

“We are living in times of massive political upheaval,” says Bee.

“It shows how relevant her thought is now. She focused on the human capacity of reason – that is what she fights for.

“And her spirit of adventure and her optimism was at the heart of her philosophy. That is inspiring.”

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