Monday, 27 January 2020

Liz Willis on Mary Wollstonecraft (1998)

Mary Shelley’s Smarter Mother?
Written By: Liz Willis
Date: April 1998
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 3: Summer 1998 

It was rather belatedly and reluctantly that the English cultural establishment, as represented by the National Portrait Gallery, mounted an exhibition from the 28th November last year through to the 15th February to commemorate the lives and works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. The compact but reasonably comprehensive display in the NPG of portraits, artefacts, manuscripts and early editions, many not usually on public view, was well worth an extended browse and would have added to most people’s knowledge of the two and several of their contemporaries.

An associated event was held at the Conway Hall on 14th February 1998. In her opening remarks Claire Tomalin, biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, mentioned the tendency for the tragic motif of their life stories to be emphasised and accepted by early biographers and readers, rather than the transgressive nature of ideas and behaviour. Judith Chernaik’s play, The Two Marys, ironically in view of the introduction, seemed at first to be heavily loaded towards the personal and pathetic, with a plangent cello accompaniment. But with the use of forceful quotations and the résumé of life-events, the political necessarily got more of a look-in. Of course it cannot be denied that the dual aspects were and are inextricably linked, and one of Mary W.’s most significant achievements was to show this. Even Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy”, as Paul Foot pointed out before his reading of it, although centred on a public event (the Peterloo Massacre), was composed in a particular personal context, and the play had helped to locate it for us. In the period of British politics after Mary Wollstonecraft’s death, her ideas were not openly given much attention, except by marginalised figures like Shelley. The reading and prefatory remarks about the Peterloo Massacre constituted a virtuoso performance, much appreciated. Finally, after a break, the 1935 film of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff (story credited to “Mrs Percy B. Shelley”) was shown. This not only provided light relief, but also demonstrated the imaginative power of the author’s central idea more than a century after its conception.

It is to be hoped that the continuing power of her mother’s utterances also stayed with a few who hadn’t heard them before. Such events, crossing the boundary between the literary and the political, associating different strands of thought and stimulating new ones, matter when so much of the anti-establishment cultural heritage is under threat of being, if not suppressed, then patronised and depoliticised. There may be some concern that the latter could have happened to the Marys but this is not likely, as long as we have their words to address us directly. Openness of vision, emphasis on people thinking for themselves and resisting authority, on relating to reality without accepting things as they are, show the way forward even as society changes, are ultimately not co-optable, and constitute a major claim on our attention.

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