Apr 272016
 

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Today is the birthday (1759) of Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so only because they frequently lack the education that men receive. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. Nowadays anyone who has half a brain takes her ideas as self evident, but in her day they were revolutionary.

Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s personal life received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the prime movers in the anarchist movement. She died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. This daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, had an illustrious career of her own as a writer, although tends to be remembered as the wife of Percy Shelley and the author of Frankenstein (as Mary Shelley) http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-shelley/

After Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published a Memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.

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To be blunt, I’d classify you as a moron if you judge the value of people’s work by the manner in which they choose  to live their lives. Granted, certain writers can be branded as hypocrites if they say one thing and do the opposite. But that fact does not diminish the value of their work. Men are often guilty of such hypocrisy, yet frequently judged less harshly than women for the same behavior. Wollstonecraft can hardly be called a hypocrite; she lived according to the values that she preached. Yet she was judged harshly for over a century because she did not conform to the social mores of her times (as well as later times). This too is rank hypocrisy.  There are plenty of famous men of the 18th and 19th centuries who flouted the norms of marriage, and yet their behavior is excused or treated as a minor footnote to the “greatness” of their work. I rather hope there comes a time (probably not in my lifetime) when ideas are judged on their own merits, and not ranked according to the perceived social value of their authors. I also hope there comes a time when a person (male or female) is not termed a “feminist” for believing that men and women should have the same rights and benefits, but is called “rational” and a person who does not, “bigot.”

In this light I am going to downplay what people have judged the prurient aspects of Wollstonecraft’s and, instead, say a little about her life challenges. Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in London. She was the second of the seven children of Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon. Although her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, her father gradually squandered it on speculative projects. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during Wollstonecraft’s youth. The family’s financial situation eventually became so dire that Wollstonecraft’s father compelled her to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of her mother’s bedroom to protect her.

Two friendships shaped Wollstonecraft’s early life. The first was with Jane Arden in Beverley. The two frequently read books together and attended lectures presented by Arden’s father, a self-styled philosopher and scientist. Wollstonecraft reveled in the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household and valued her friendship with Arden greatly. In some of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Arden, she reveals the volatile and depressive emotions that would haunt her throughout her life.

The second and more important friendship was with Fanny (Frances) Blood, introduced to Wollstonecraft by the Clares, a couple in Hoxton who became parental figures to her. Wollstonecraft credited Blood with opening her mind. Wollstonecraft was unhappy with her home life and, in consequence, struck out on her own in 1778, accepting a job as a lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). In 1780 she returned home, called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Dawson’s employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods. She realized during the two years she spent with the family that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than was Wollstonecraft at the time. But Wollstonecraft remained dedicated to her and her family throughout her life, and frequently gave financial assistance to Blood’s brother.

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Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood. They made plans to rent rooms together and support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream collapsed under economic realities. In order to make a living, Wollstonecraft, her sisters, and Blood set up a school together in Newington Green, a Dissenting community. Blood soon became engaged and after their marriage her husband, Hugh Skeys, took her to Lisbon to improve her health, which had always been precarious. Despite the change of surroundings, Blood’s health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school and followed Blood to nurse her, but to no avail. Moreover, her abandonment of the school led to its failure. Blood’s death devastated Wollstonecraft and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).

After Blood’s death, Wollstonecraft’s friends helped her obtain a position as governess to the daughters of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family in Ireland. Although she could not get along with Lady Kingsborough, the children found her an inspiring instructor. Margaret King later wrote that she “had freed her mind from all superstitions”. Some of Wollstonecraft’s experiences during this year would make their way into her only children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).

Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women—an impediment which Wollstonecraft eloquently describes in the chapter of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters entitled “Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune”—she decided, after only a year as a governess, to embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing. As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become “the first of a new genus”. She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts, most notably Of the Importance of Religious Opinions by Jacques Necker and Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children by Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. She also wrote reviews, primarily of novels, for Johnson’s periodical,  Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft’s intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson’s famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, they were both disappointed in each other. Godwin had come to hear Paine, but Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject. Johnson himself, however, became much more than a friend. She described him in her letters as a father and a brother.

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While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, even though he was married. She was, she wrote, enraptured by his genius, “the grandeur of his soul, that quickness of comprehension, and lovely sympathy”. She proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli’s wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship with Wollstonecraft.  After Fuseli’s rejection, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to France to escape the humiliation of the incident, and to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her recent Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She had written the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and it made her famous overnight. She was compared with such leading lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) was the most popular of the responses to Burke. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most famous and influential work.

For a variety of reasons Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795. Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson’s circle again, in particular with Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons through William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s courtship began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. Godwin had read her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and later wrote: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.” Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin received  criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. After their marriage on 29 March 1797, they moved into two adjoining houses, known as The Polygon, so that they could both still retain their independence. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.

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On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; puerperal  fever was a common and often fatal occurrence in the 18th century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797.

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There is no better source for a recipe to celebrate Wollstonecraft than Hanna Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Simple (1749). Glasse was a woman in Wollstonecraft’s mold. She was the family breadwinner because her husband John Glasse could not make a decent living, and she wrote the book to train up literate girls to be professional cooks, a profession dominated by men at the time. In fact, for many years it was believed that the book was written by a man because it was assumed that a woman was incapable of producing such a work. The original edition gave simply “A Lady” as the author. The book opens:

I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet though worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven ; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.

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Here’s her original recipe for Portugal cakes:

MIX into a pound of fine flour, a pound of loaf sugar beat and sifted, then rub it into a pound of pure sweet butter till it is thick like grated white-bread, then put to it two spoonfuls of rose-water, two of sack, ten eggs, whip them very well with a whisk, then mix into eight ounces of currants, mixed all well together; butter the tin pans, fill them but half full and bake them; if made without currants they will keep half a year; add a pound of almonds blanched and beat with rose-water, as above, and leave out the flour.   These are another sort, and better.

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It’s a bit obscure at the end, but reasonably clear overall. The basic recipe is made with wheat flour, but she is suggesting that it is finer if you use almond flour. She says “almonds blanched” but you are meant to understand that the almonds are beaten to flour. You can buy almond flour (sometimes called “almond meal”) at health food stores. It makes very rich cakes. Go careful, though, and don’t do this too often because almonds are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Sack is sweet sherry.  I would halve the recipe and use decorative muffin tins, rather than baking a single cake. Bake in a 375°F/190°C oven for 20 minutes. Serve with tea or a glass of sherry.

Aug 302013
 

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Today is the birthday (1797) of Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin),English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. She was very well known in her day as an author, but nowadays she tends to be be reduced to the role of creator of Frankenstein and Shelley’s wife.  It’s time to correct that misperception.

Mary’s mother died when she was eleven days old from complications of the birth. She and her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, were raised by her father initially, but when Mary was four, Godwin married his neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont, primarily for her money, although contemporaries say it was a loving marriage.  Mary was not happy with her stepmother, however, probably because she favored her own children over Godwin’s. Though Mary received little formal education, her father tutored her in a broad range of subjects. He often took the children on educational outings, and they had access to his library, and met the many intellectuals who visited him, including the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the former vice-president of the United States Aaron Burr. Godwin admitted he was not educating the children according to Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy as outlined in works such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but Mary Godwin nonetheless received a solid education for a girl of the time. She had a governess, a daily tutor, and read many of her father’s children’s books on Roman and Greek history in manuscript. Her father described her at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to stay with the family of the radical William Baxter, near Dundee. He wrote to Baxter, “I am anxious that she should be brought up … like a philosopher, even like a cynic.” Mary reveled in the spacious surroundings of Baxter’s house and in the companionship of his four daughters. She returned north in the summer of 1813 for a further stay of ten months. In the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, she recalled: “I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.”

In 1814, Mary (aged 17) began a romantic relationship with Shelley who was one of her father’s political followers (and married at the time). Together with Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, they left for France and travelled through Europe. Upon their return to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child. Over the next two years, she and Percy faced ostracism, constant debt, and the death of their prematurely born daughter. They married in late 1816 after the suicide of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

In 1816, the couple famously spent a summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont near Geneva, where Mary conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein. 1816 was known as the “Year Without a Summer,” when Europe was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by several natural events including the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors talking into the wee hours. Among other subjects, the conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life, and to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale. Shortly afterward, in a waking dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With her husband’s encouragement, she expanded this tale into a full-fledged novel. She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life.”

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The Shelleys left Britain again in 1818 for Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary Shelley gave birth to her last, and only surviving child, Percy Florence. In 1822, Percy drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm in the Bay of La Spezia. A year later, Mary returned to England and from then on devoted herself to the upbringing of her son and a career as a professional author. The last decade of her life was dogged by illness, probably caused by the brain tumor that was to kill her at the age of 53.

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I am inclined to believe that in the main people nowadays do not know Mary Shelley AT ALL; not even from Frankenstein, because I don’t believe the vast majority ever read the book.  All people know are Halloween images, and usually, and mistakenly, refer to “the creature” as Frankenstein. Thankfully in recent years there has been an increasing interest in her literary output, particularly in her novels, which include the historical novels Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). Studies of her lesser-known works such as the travel book Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) and the biographical articles for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia (1829–46) support the growing view that Mary Shelley remained a political radical throughout her life. Her works often take the point of view that cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practiced by women in the family, were the ways to reform civil society. This view was a direct challenge to the individualistic Romantic ethos promoted by Percy Shelley and the Enlightenment political theories articulated by her father, William Godwin.

It’s an impossible task to review her entire philosophy, but even scratching the surface of Frankenstein gets at much of it.  My main advice is – if you have not read it yet: READ IT. The core tale of a scientist animating a creature made of spare parts is just the beginning. Frankenstein is a deep reflection on the nature of humanity (as were all the founding novels of what became the genre of Gothic literature).   Of central importance is the fact that the creature is gigantic and hideous, due not to the fact that he is made out of spare parts, but because Frankenstein does not have the skill to fashion anything more pleasing to look at. Many of the working parts, such as veins, are exposed, and the creature is huge because Frankenstein is unable to work on a smaller scale. His immediate rejection of the creature because of its gruesome appearance is the crux of the matter.  What does a child/creature do when his own father/creator rejects him? In Mary Shelley’s pre-Freudian world the answer is remarkably Freudian. The creature is driven to try to please his creator, while simultaneously harboring profound anger towards him.  In popular culture the angry monster piece is abundantly represented, but not the other side of the picture.  After his initial rejection by Frankenstein, the creature lives on the edges of society learning first to speak and then to read.  He becomes both articulate and well read.  He constantly seeks approval from others, but is constantly rejected purely for his appearance.  In response he becomes murderous.

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In many ways Frankenstein foreshadows themes in Mary Shelley’s later works, notably the roles of men and women in society and the family. In a sense the creature is a product of the male-only world.  He is intelligent and thoughtful, but prone to rage and destruction.  He is an outgrowth of the Romantic era’s notion of the heroic individual battling the world which Shelley implicitly condemns. The Romantic hero must ultimately fail.  In her later novels, including Lodore and Falkner, Shelley attempts to show, a little too didactically, that love, compassion, and family can be redemptive for men, and are more powerful than individual struggle. What would the creature have been like if created by a woman? Answer: a woman would not have created him!

Many classic omnibus cookbooks have a section on leftovers, what Mrs Beeton calls the “art of using up.” In a sense Frankenstein’s creature was made out of leftovers, so this seems the perfect time to have a recipe made from spare parts.  I’ve lived alone for several years but can’t seem to get into the swing of making a meal for one. How do you make ONE bowl of lentil soup? Besides I like big pots of soup or stew that simmer gently for hours and fill my apartment with delicious aromas. My freezer’s pretty full most of the time with remnants, but my refrigerator is also usually stuffed with leftover ingredients.  So this is more about using up what you have lying around than about leftovers per se.   I have the general belief that you can stick just about anything that is hanging around in the refrigerator in stock and make a good soup.  I always have stock on hand.

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Over 25 years ago I was low on supplies, and in scrounging around I found some bacon, tomatoes, celery, and onions.  So I simply chopped them all into dice, simmered them in chicken stock and my version of refrigerator soup was born.  My wife liked it so much that it became a standard as a quick lunch.  I’d still be making it were it not for the fact that it is very hard to find bacon in Argentina, and, even if you do, it’s not really right for this soup.  You need ordinary old U.S. supermarket bacon; what Brits call streaky bacon.  Here’s a standard recipe for those who can’t work it out from my description.  Quantities are not really important, but having all the ingredients is.  There’s something about the combination that is magical. The soup has a particular freshness because the ingredients are not browned.

© Tío Juan’s Refrigerator Soup

Ingredients:

2 pints (1 li) chicken stock
4 strips bacon, cut in bite sized pieces
2 stalks celery, diced (leaves included)
2 medium tomatoes, cut in wedges
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic finely minced
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (or 2 tsps dried)

Instructions:

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a steady simmer.

Cook for 20 to 25 minutes.  I like the celery to retain a little crunch, but there is no harm in cooking the soup a little longer.

Serve with crusty bread.

Serves 4