The philosopher traveller: ‘Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark’ by Mary Wollstonecraft (1796)


As the days get shorter, my armchair travelling tends to shift north.  Crisp snow and endless ice can seem a pleasant imaginative contrast to the grey days of rain that mark a London winter and I have plenty of Finnish fiction saved up (starting with ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg, ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen and, of course, Tove Jansson’s ‘The Winter book’).  With this in mind, Mary Wollstonecraft’s travel writings seem like a good entry into those cold, icy regions that produce such world-class literature.

Like all great life-writings though, these letters are as much about their author as about their location.  Wollstonecraft is travelling in the summer of 1795, trying to sort out a business affair for Imlay, her neglectful lover.  What already sounds like a difficult journey is compounded by Wollstonecraft’s personal situation; she is accompanied by fears for the relationship, her two year old daughter and the after-effects of her first suicide attempt (which took place two weeks before setting out).  She is also dealing with the philosophical and emotional upheaval of visiting France in 1792-4, at the height of the French revolution.  She had hoped to see the flowering of modern society and ended up witnessing the Reign of Terror.  Undeterred, the letters in this volume show a determination to believe in the potential for improving society through education and social reform.

It may be my ignorance of the genre, but I don’t think I’ve ever read travel writing that is so dogmatic in its view of the places and people visited.  Wollstonecraft does not sugar-coat her thoughts about the societies she sees, and is very clear about how they must be improved.  In the first letter she is highly unimpressed with the local community:

‘I wondered that curiosity did not bring the beings who inhabited it to the windows or door. I did not immediately recollect that men who remain so near the brute creation, as only to exert themselves to find the food necessary to sustain life, have little or no imagination to call forth the curiosity necessary to fructify the faint glimmerings of mind which entitles them to rank as lords of the creation.  – Had they either, they could not contentedly remain rooted in the clods they so indolently cultivate.
Whilst the sailors went to seek for the sluggish inhabitants, these conclusions occurred to me; and, recollecting the extreme fondness which the Parisians ever testify for novelty, their very curiosity appeared to me a proof of the progress they had made in refinement. Yes; in the art of living – in the art of escaping from the cares which embarrass the first steps towards the attainment of the pleasures of social life’

I honestly can’t imagine such a frank belief in the hierarchy of culture presented in modern British travel writing!

Wollstonecraft’s letters contain beautiful descriptions of nature, shocking descriptions of people, implied descriptions of depression and overt descriptions of contemporary political philosophy.  Overall, they’re a confusing but enjoyable read, and very much a journey through time as well as space.

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8 Responses to The philosopher traveller: ‘Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark’ by Mary Wollstonecraft (1796)

  1. Fascinating. I’m just now reading Frankenstein. I’ve read a little about her, but this really piques my interest.

  2. Izzy says:

    She doesn’t pull her punches, does she ? It’s a pity she couldn’t have read Claude Levi-Strass’ Race and History. It would have taught her something.

    • Seriously, she did have a very interesting take on contemporary ideologies. For one, she was really against Montesquieu’s theory that ‘national character’ was formed by geography (ie people from Southern countries are more ‘fiery’) and lots of her more polemical sections are arguing for education and governance being more significant than climate – I just wish she’d been more 21st century when expressing her own ideas!

  3. Pingback: A real-life Zweig novella: ‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti | Shoshi's Book Blog

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