First things first, the actual text of the novel is correct (as far as I'm aware) however the production of this edition is shoddy and contains unacceptable errors. The author's name is misspelled on the front cover! It's Mary Wollstonecraft, not Mary Wollenstonecraft... a name which they do in fact manage to get right elsewhere. The `about the book' and `about the author' are from Wikipedia so if you were expecting any interesting critical insight from an authority in the field you will be disappointed. As a student studying this as part of my degree I was sorely disappointed with this text, and feel it was a complete waste of money, there are much better editions out there (particularly the Penguin edition which comes complete with Godwin's `The rights of women'). According to the publishers note `Forgotten Books takes the uppermost care to preserve the wording and images from the original book'. I find this hard to believe.
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If the guiding spirit of Wollstonecraft's `Original Stories' was Dissenting Christianity tinged with a little pantheism, in the `Letters' it is the other way round. Her typically rational, enquiring manner is still evident ("At supper my host told me bluntly that I was a woman of observation, for I asked him men's questions") but the landscape inspires her to frequent outbreaks of wonder at the sublime scenes before her. These rhapsodies are not confined to waterfalls and mountains, however, but also gentler, more homely scenes - the kind of thing that Burke would have called merely `beautiful' - in her solitary evening rambles. She cheerfully relates that, occasionally losing her way, she would to the consternation of the locals, have to clamber over ditches and hedges to get home. But even as she celebrates the simple life, she also attacks Rousseau's idealism. That the world needs improving, she does not question; we need to clear the forests and plant, to cultivate both crops and manners. She is no revolutionary; a middle-class radical at most, taking a `good manners' view of the Progress of Society. You can certainly tell that she had worked as a governess. She accepts entirely that there are to be strata in society, from the highest to the lowest, when she writes that `we' should care for `our' servants and treat them well; it is hard to imagine that she would ever dream of emancipating them.
Where Wollstonecraft's radicalism comes through most strongly is in her contrast of Norway and Sweden. She wishes to show that Norway is more advanced and sophisticated due to the political freedoms enjoyed by its populace, their relative economic independence and self-determination having served to elevate their minds. Norway was a tenant state of Denmark, yet enjoyed relative autonomy: she delightedly relates that when the Danish Prince Royal made an expedition to Sweden some years earlier, he was obliged to request the Norwegian militia to accompany him; he could not command them. More significant to us today might be the recourse to law, and appeal at law, of the Norwegian peasantry; that tenant farmers could not be summarily dismissed from their farms if they displeased a powerful man, and the freedoms of the Norwegian Press. In all of this it seems to me that Wollstonecraft went rather against the spirit of the time, which tended to see the advanced social order of Sweden as the nobler, in that it more closely resembled England, of course; but then she made her travels in the country, and was more interested in the state of the people as a whole than in High Society.
The final thing that intrigued me was a short flight of fancy she takes (Letter XI), on the possibility of future overpopulation and famine, when the earth in "a million or two years" has reached its carrying capacity. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, never knew her poor mother, but she certainly read her books; we know in fact that Percy read this particular book aloud to her the summer they eloped together. I wonder whether it sowed a seed for her apocalyptic late novel "The Last Man"?
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