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Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“These emotions … appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea.”

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue,” philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) wrote in her 1792 proto-feminist masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.” Independence became the animating force of Wollstonecraft’s life, and there was no form of it she valued more highly than the independence of the imagination — something her second daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, would come to inherit.

Wollstonecraft saw the imagination as the gateway to liberation, the most vitalizing nectar for the mind, and the most seductive aphrodisiac; she saw love as the domain in which “the imagination mingles its bewitching colouring” — for better or for worse, to enchant into rapture as well as to delude into despair. (A quarter millennium later, philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to write brilliantly about the imperfect union of the two.)

Wollstonecraft found herself afflicted with “the reveries of a disordered imagination,” which frequently caused her embarrassment and dejection — nowhere more so than in the passions of the heart, which coexisted with equal vigor alongside her formidable intellect.

“The pictures that the imagination draws are so very delightful that we willing[ly] let it predominate over reason till experience forces us to see the truth,” she wrote to her sister in a letter found in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library). But a pure love, she believed, was a region “where sincerity and truth will flourish — and the imagination will not dwell on pleasing illusions.”

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Keenan, 1787

In December of 1792, shortly after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a month before the execution of Louis XVI furnished a cornerstone of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft left London for Paris. There, she met and became besotted with the American diplomat, businessman, and adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Although in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she had renounced sexual passion as complicit in women’s oppression, Imlay awakened in her a magnitude of desire both dissonant with her political views and personally disorienting in far exceeding what she had previously thought herself capable of experiencing.

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter in the spring of 1794, just as Britain was preparing to declare war on France. Imlay had made clear his disinterest in marriage and domesticity but, alarmed by the political turmoil and the danger in which it placed British subjects in Paris, he registered Wollstonecraft as his wife in order to protect her and the baby, even though no legal marriage took place. It was an act more necessary than noble — many of Wollstonecraft’s compatriots in Paris had no such protection and were either arrested or guillotined — but it was also the beginning of the end of their romance. A slow-seething commitment panic began bedeviling Imlay, who eventually left Wollstonecraft heartbroken and alone with an infant amid a raging revolution.

But even in their parting letters, as it becomes clear to Wollstonecraft that her lover wouldn’t return, her beseeching despair is laced with a lucid sense of her unassailable independence. Radiating from them is an awareness of how she had grown infatuated with the fantasy of a man whose reality of character was wholly unworthy of her love. Where her imagination had been the aphrodisiac responsible for her passionate infatuation — a state Julian Fellowes has called “a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers” — Imlay’s lack of imagination became the agent of disillusionment.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

In a letter to Imlay from September of 1794, she makes no apologies about calling out his fatal flaw:

Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination — I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions — animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her offspring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the conclusions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.

In a letter to Imlay from the following June, as his protracted abandonment drags on, she returns to the subject of the imagination and its role in human relationships. With an eye to the perennial question of telling love from lust — a question to which young E.B. White and James Thurber would provide a most delightful answer a century and a half later — and to the role the imagination plays in it, Wollstonecraft writes:

The common run of men, I know, with strong health and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason. — Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions, over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant; but they do not exist without self-denial.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

And yet for all the personal pain that her intense imagination caused her, it was also the wellspring of her creative and intellectual genius — the very thing that rendered her one of the most influential minds of her era. In a sentiment that echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Wollstonecraft adds:

These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea… I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.

The English political philosopher William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft married after recovering from the heartbreak with Imlay and who fathered Mary Shelley, would later edit her posthumous works and laud these very letters as having “superiority over the fiction of Goethe” and being “the offspring of a glowing imagination, and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe” — perhaps supreme proof the kind of sincere love Wollstonecraft imagined possible, for Godwin transcended the jealous ego’s knowledge that these letters were written to a former lover and instead celebrated Wollstonecraft for the faculty she valued above all else: her imagination.

Complement this particular portion of The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library) with Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace, whose own ascent as a woman of intellectual accomplishment was shaped by Wollstonecraft’s legacy, on the imagination’s three core faculties.

BP

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.

BP

How to Raise a Reader: Mary Shelley’s Father on Parenting and How an Early Love of Books Paves the Path to Lifelong Happiness

“The impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it.”

How to Raise a Reader: Mary Shelley’s Father on Parenting and How an Early Love of Books Paves the Path to Lifelong Happiness

In the final years of the eighteenth century, the radical political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) entered into a pioneering marriage of equals with another radical political philosopher and novelist: Mary Wollstonecraft, founding mother of what later ages termed feminism. While Wollstonecraft was pregnant with their daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, a Romantic radical in her own unexampled right — Godwin began channeling their nightly conversations about how to raise happy, intelligent, and morally elevated children in a series of essays later published as The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — a title that gives it a deceptive air of politeness and dated propriety; it is in fact a radical work, scandalous to Georgian and Victorian sensibilities, centuries ahead of its time, anticipating the conclusions of modern social science and psychology, neither of which existed as a formal field of study in Godwin’s time, about some of the fundamentals of optimal parenting.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Godwin writes:

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.

At the heart of this happiness-generating education, Godwin places the importance of instilling in children an early love of literature, which would “inspire habits of industry and observation” that by young adulthood would ferment into “a mind well regulated, active, and prepared to learn.” Although his language is bound in the era’s biases — an era far predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of man as the universal pronoun — Godwin’s ideas soar with timelessness, on the wings of poetically articulated truth:

There is perhaps nothing that has a greater tendency to decide favourably or unfavourably respecting a man’s future intellect, than the question whether or not he be impressed with an early taste for reading… He that loves reading, has every thing within his reach. He has but to desire; and he may possess himself of every species of wisdom to judge, and power to perform.

Art by Ping Zhu from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

He considers how books not only enrich us with the wisdom of the ideas contained in them, but also sprinkle upon us some the splendor of mind that originated them, producing in us a quickening of both sense and sensibility:

Books gratify and excite our curiosity in innumerable ways. They force us to reflect. They hurry us from point to point. They present direct ideas of various kinds, and they suggest indirect ones. In a well-written book we are presented with the maturest reflections, or the happiest flights, of a mind of uncommon excellence. It is impossible that we can be much accustomed to such companions, without attaining some resemblance of them. When I read Thomson, I become Thomson; when I read Milton, I become Milton. I find myself a sort of intellectual camelion, assuming the colour of the substances on which I rest. He that revels in a well-chosen library, has innumerable dishes, and all of admirable flavour. His taste is rendered so acute, as easily to distinguish the nicest shades of difference. His mind becomes ductile, susceptible to every impression, and gaining new refinement from them all. His varieties of thinking baffle calculation, and his powers, whether of reason or fancy, become eminently vigorous.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Having thus outlined the invaluable lifelong benefits of reading, Godwin endeavors to lay out the elementals of raising a reader. Building on the most central, most radical ethos of his Enquirer essays — the countercultural idea that children ought to be treated not as subjects to authoritarian rule but as equal citizens of life, endowed with intellect and sensitivity, and must be granted the dignity of truth rather than being bamboozled with hypocrisies and shielded from the world’s disquieting realities — he writes:

The child should early begin in some degree to live in the world, that is, with his species; so should he do as to the books he is to read. It is not good, that he should be shut up for ever in imaginary scenes, and that, familiar with the apothegms of philosophers, and the maxims of scientifical and elevated morality, he should be wholly ignorant of the perverseness of the human heart, and the springs that regulate the conduct of mankind. Trust him in a certain degree with himself. Suffer him in some instances to select his own course of reading… Suffer him to wander in the wilds of literature.

Two centuries later, the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would echo the sentiment in her wonderful meditation on fairy tales and the importance of being scared.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

In consonance with what every wholehearted reader knows — that we bring ourselves to the books we read and what we take out of them depends on what we bring — Godwin adds:

The impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it.

Complement with A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — an illustrated collection of testaments to Godwin’s impassioned insistence on the life-shaping value of reading by 121 of the most visionary humans of our own time — then revisit Rebecca Solnit, modern-day cultural descendant of Mary Wollstonecraft, on how books solace, empower, and transform us.

BP

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Nature and the Meaning of Happiness

“Coming to this delightful spot during this divine weather, I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings.”

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Nature and the Meaning of Happiness

In the early summer of 1816, weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — then still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin — dreamt up Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in a creative challenge she and her companions, her stepsister Claire and the twenty-something poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, devised to pass the time. Her book would go on to influence generations of writers and presage pressing questions of science and social responsibility.

Like most Romantic writers, Shelley saw no divide between her literary art for the public and the private prose of her diaries and letters — rather, the latter served as a sandbox for developing and refining the former. In fact, it was during her difficult journey to Switzerland, after her elopement with Percy Shelley, that she first began composing letters of exquisite literary splendor. While her early love letters to the poet exude a teenage girl’s exuberant steam-of-consciousness outpouring, her letters to friends and family from this self-elected exile take on the tone of a literary travelogue, made all the more dramatic by the unusual state of nature at the time. The eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora the previous spring — to this day the largest eruption in recorded history — sent a cloud of volcanic ash around the globe, enveloping the northern hemisphere in a cool sheath of gloom. While the summer of 1816 became the summer of love for the four young people traveling together, the world came to know it as “the year without a summer.”

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In a particularly beautiful letter to her sister Fanny from the spring of 1816, included in Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (public library), Shelley describes the perilous but almost unbearably breathtaking journey from France to Lake Geneva in Switzerland — the largest and deepest of the Swiss lakes, where she would soon compose Frankenstein. What emerges is a lyrical travelogue of both body and spirit — describing nature’s striking costume changes in exquisite detail, Shelley chronicles her journey toward her destination across microclimates and terrains, not only toward her physical destination but toward a new psychic summit of happiness, harmony, and self-actualization.

More than a century before trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd gave her stunning account of the living mountain, Shelley writes:

The road was serpentine and exceedingly steep, and was overhung on the side by half distinguished precipices, whilst the other was a gulf, filled by the darkness of the driving clouds. The dashing of the invisible mountain streams announced to us that we had quitted the plains of France, as we slowly ascended, amidst a violent storm of wind and rain, to Champagnolles, where we arrived at twelve o’clock, the fourth night after our departure from Paris.

The next morning we proceeded, still ascending among the ravines and valleys of the mountain. The scenery perpetually grows more wonderful and sublime: pine forests of impenetrable thickness, and untrodden, nay, inaccessible expanse spread on every side. Sometimes the dark woods descending, follow the route into the valleys, the distorted trees struggling which knotted roots between the most barren clefts; sometimes the road winds high into the regions of frost, and then the forests become scattered, and the branches of the trees are loaded with snow, and and half of the enormous pines themselves buried in the wavy drifts. The spring, as the inhabitants informed us, was unusually late, and indeed the cold was excessive; as we ascended the mountains, the same clouds which rained on us in the valleys poured forth large flakes of snow thick and fast. The sun occasionally shone through these showers, and illuminated the magnificent ravines of the mountains, whose gigantic pines were some laden with snow, some wreathed round by the lines of scattered and lingering vapour; others darting their dark spires into the sunny sky, brilliantly clear azure.

As the evening advanced, and we ascended higher, the snow, which we had beheld whitening the overhanging rocks, now encroached upon our road, and it snowed fast as we entered the village of Les Rousses, where we were threatened by the apparent necessity of passing the night in a bad inn and dirty beds. For from that place there are two roads to Geneva; one by Nion, in the Swiss territory, where the mountain route is shorter, and comparatively easy at that time of the year, when the road is for several leagues covered with snow of an enormous depth; the other road lay through Gex, and was too circuitous and dangerous to be attempted at so late an hour in the day. Our passport, however, was for Gex, and we were told that we could not change its destination; but all these police laws, so severe in themselves, are to be softened by bribery, and this difficulty was at length overcome. We hired four horses, and ten men to support the carriage, and departed from Les Rousses at six in the evening, when the sun had already far descended, and the snow pelting against the windows of our carriage, assisted the coming darkness to deprive us of the view of the lake of Geneva and the far-distant Alps.

With an eye to “the natural silence of that uninhabited desert,” she adds:

Never was [a] scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.

“Mont Blanc after sunset from the Secheron” by Thomas Henry Graham (1793–1881), New York Public Library

Upon finally arriving at Lake Geneva — the waters of which she would laud as “blue as the heavens which it reflects,” adding to the chromatic canon of literature’s most beautiful celebrations of blue — Shelley finds a wholly different manifestation of nature:

We arrived… to the warm sunshine and to the humming of sun-loving insects. From the windows of our hotel we see the lovely lake, blue as the heavens which it reflects, and sparkling with golden beams. The opposite shore is sloping and covered with vines, which however do not so early in the season add to the beauty of the prospect. Gentlemen’s seats are scattered over these banks, behind which rise the various ridges of black mountains, and towering far above, in the midst of its snowy Alps, the majestic Mont Blanc, the highest and queen of all. Such is the view reflected by the lake; it is a bright summer scene without any of that sacred solitude and deep seclusion that delighted us at Lucerne.

Against this backdrop of ecstatic serenity, Shelley arrives at a state of contentment that calls to mind Walt Whitman’s most direct articulation of happiness. She writes:

Twilight here is of short duration, but we at present enjoy the benefit of an increasing moon, and seldom return until ten o’clock, when, as we approach the shore, we are saluted by the delightful scent of flowers and new mown grass, the chirp of the grasshoppers, and the song of the evening birds… Coming to this delightful spot during this divine weather, I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings.

A year later, now married to Percy and working on completing her manuscript of Frankenstein, she would adapt her letters and the joint travel journal the couple kept into a slim book titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (public library), modeled on the popular Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark by her mother — the pioneering feminist and political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died of childbed fever after giving birth to her.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

Shelley published her travelogue under her new husband’s name, hoping that his nascent prominence as a poet would lend it more credibility than exposing the author as a woman. (Three months later, she would publish Frankenstein anonymously.)

Complement with Vita Sackville-West’s beautiful letter to Virginia Woolf about rock climbing and the meaning of life and an arresting account of climbing Mount Vesuvius during an eruption by Shelley’s contemporary Hans Christian Andersen, then revisit Shelley on creativity.

BP

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