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Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Cosimo Classics. Travel & Exploration) Kindle Edition
|Length: 204 pages|
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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.
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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An excellent company that reproduces out of print books for the public.
Highly recommended for the brain un-dead.
So back to the text of Mary's letters. If you have ever wondered what it was like to be an active, passionate, capable and brave woman at the latter end of the 18th century, when the French Revolution and the tides of Romanticism were sweeping over Europe, and challenging Enlightenment thought-- or even if you've never given a damn-- this is an attention-grabbing and engrossing account. Provided you can get over its prose, or approach it open-mindedly (which many easily bored illiterati might not be able to), you will be struck by its poetic qualities, and by Wollstonecraft's candid emotional intensity.
In the early 1790s, a poltically radical Englishwoman woman took a business trip to Scandinavia on behalf of her common-law husband, an American businessman involved in smuggling. She took with her only her young daughter, still a child, and her French maid. "Residence in Sweden" is an account of her journey written in the form of letters to the man she left behind (though this doesn't show up in the text itself, the informative introduction gives the background). Partway into her trip, she leaves her child and the nurse behind and continues on her own to regions remote and picturesque, and foreign not only to most English women of the period, but to the majority of English men as well.
Wollstonecraft goes on philosopical rambles, as the images of social life and the landscape around her remind her of her experiences in revolutionary France. The text raise many questions important to the Enlightenment philosophes, about the role of women, man's place in nature, human habits and manners. Never are we allowed to forget that we are reading the words of a flesh and blood woman who feels deeply. Many of her recollections are painful, and sometimes she is depressed. But there is always something arrestingly beautiful in what she describes, some touch of the author's vivacity and the newness and intensity of her travels, to steer one away from the melancholy, or at least to make it something more sublime.
I'm taking this one with me to college, and I foresee many re-readings. Holmes calls it Mary's best literary work: it has none of the bombast of her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" but instead is something even more thoughtful and readable.
For companion reading I highly recommend Claire Tomalin's "Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft".