Letters to Mr. Johnson, Bookseller in St. Paul's Church-Yard

By Mary Wollstonecraft

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Revolt Library Feminism Letters to Mr. Johnson, Bookseller in St. Paul's Church-Yard

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(1759 - 1797)

Grandmother of Modern, Western Feminism

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft's life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships at the time, received more attention than her writing. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and her works as important influences. 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. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. After Wollstonecraft's death, her widower published a Memoir of her life, revealin... (From: Wikipedia.org / Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosoph....)


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Letters to Mr. Johnson, Bookseller in St. Paul's Church-Yard

LETTER I

Dublin, April 14, [1787.]

        Dear sir,

I am still an invalid—and begin to believe that I ought never to expect to enjoy health. My mind preys on my body—and, when I endeavor to be useful, I grow too much interested for my own peace. Confined almost entirely to the society of children, I am anxiously solicitous for their future welfare, and mortified beyond measure, when counteracted in my endeavors to improve them.—I feel all a mother's fears for the swarm of little ones which surround me, and observe disorders, without having power to apply the proper remedies. How can I be reconciled to life, when it is always a painful warfare, and when I am deprived of all the pleasures I relish?—I allude to rational conversations, and domestic affections. Here, alone, a poor solitary individual in a strange land, tied to one spot, and subject to the caprice of another, can I be contented? I am desirous to convince you that I have some cause for sorrow—and am not without reason detached from life. I shall hope to hear that you are well, and am yours sincerely

Mary Wollstonecraft.


LETTER II

Henley, Thursday, Sept 13.

        My dear sir,

Since I saw you, I have, literally speaking, enjoyed solitude. My sister could not accompany me in my rambles; I therefore wandered alone, by the side of the Thames, and in the neighboring beautiful fields and pleasure grounds: the prospects were of such a placid kind, I caught tranquility while I surveyed them—my mind was still, though active. Were I to give you an account how I have spent my time, you would smile.—I found an old French bible here, and amused myself with comparing it with our English translation; then I would listen to the falling leaves, or observe the various tints the autumn gave to them—At other times, the singing of a robin, or the noise of a water-mill, engaged my attention—partial attention—, for I was, at the same time perhaps discussing some knotty point, or straying from this tiny world to new systems. After these excursions, I returned to the family meals, told the children stories (they think me vastly agreeable), and my sister was amused.—Well, will you allow me to call this way of passing my days pleasant?

I was just going to mend my pen; but I believe it will enable me to say all I have to add to this epistle. Have you yet heard of an habitation for me? I often think of my new plan of life; and, lest my sister should try to prevail on me to alter it, I have avoided mentioning it to her. I am determined!—Your sex generally laugh at female determinations; but let me tell you, I never yet resolved to do, any thing of consequence, that I did not adhere resolutely to it, till I had accomplished my purpose, improbable as it might have appeared to a more timid mind. In the course of near nine-and-twenty years, I have gathered some experience, and felt many severe disappointments—and what is the amount? I long for a little peace and independence! Every obligation we receive from our fellow-creatures is a new shackle, takes from our native freedom, and debases the mind, makes us mere earthworms—I am not fond of groveling!

I am, sir, yours, &c.    

mary wollstonecraft.


LETTER III

Market Harborough, Sept. 20.

        My dear sir,

You left me with three opulent tradesmen; their conversation was not calculated to beguile the way, when the sable curtain concealed the beauties of nature. I listened to the tricks of trade—and shrunk away, without wishing to grow rich; even the novelty of the subjects did not render them pleasing; fond as I am of tracing the passions in all their different forms—I was not surprised by any glimpse of the sublime, or beautiful—though one of them imagined I would be a useful partner in a good firm. I was very much fatigued, and have scarcely recovered myself. I do not expect to enjoy the same tranquil pleasures Henley afforded: I meet with new objects to employ my mind; but many painful emotions are complicated with the reflections they give rise to.

I do not intend to enter on the old topic, yet hope to hear from you—and am yours, &c.

mary wollstonecraft.


LETTER IV

Friday Night.

        My dear sir,

Though your remarks are generally judicious—I cannot now concur with you, I mean with respect to the preface[67-A], and have not altered it. I hate the usual smooth way of exhibiting proud humility. A general rule only extends to the majority—and, believe me, the few judicious parents who may peruse my book, will not feel themselves hurt—and the weak are too vain to mind what is said in a book intended for children.

I return you the Italian MS.—but do not hastily imagine that I am indolent. I would not spare any labor to do my duty—and, after the most laborious day, that single thought would solace me more than any pleasures the senses could enjoy. I find I could not translate the MS. well. If it was not a MS, I should not be so easily intimidated; but the hand, and errors in orthography, or abbreviations, are a stumbling-block at the first setting out.—I cannot bear to do any thing I cannot do well—and I should lose time in the vain attempt.

I had, the other day, the satisfaction of again receiving a letter from my poor, dear Margaret[69-A].—With all a mother's fondness I could transcribe a part of it—She says, every day her affection to me, and dependence on heaven increase, &c.—I miss her innocent caresses—and sometimes indulge a pleasing hope, that she may be allowed to cheer my childless age—if I am to live to be old.—At any rate, I may hear of the virtues I may not contemplate—and my reason may permit me to love a female.—I now allude to ———. I have received another letter from her, and her childish complaints vex me—indeed they do—As usual, good-night.

mary.

If parents attended to their children, I would not have written the stories; for, what are books—compared to conversations which affection inforces!—


LETTER V

        My dear sir,

Remember you are to settle my account, as I want to know how much I am in your debt—but do not suppose that I feel any uneasiness on that score. The generality of people in trade would not be much obliged to me for a like civility, but you were a man before you were a bookseller—so I am your sincere friend,

mary.


LETTER VI

Friday Morning.

I am sick with vexation—and wish I could knock my foolish head against the wall, that bodily pain might make me feel less anguish from self-reproach! To say the truth, I was never more displeased with myself, and I will tell you the cause.—You may recollect that I did not mention to you the circumstance of ——— having a fortune left to him; nor did a hint of it drop from me when I conversed with my sister; because I knew he had a sufficient motive for concealing it. Last Sunday, when his character was aspersed, as I thought, unjustly, in the heat of vindication I informed ****** that he was now independent; but, at the same time, desired him not to repeat my information to B——; yet, last Tuesday, he told him all—and the boy at B——'s gave Mrs. ——— an account of it. As Mr. ——— knew he had only made a confident of me (I blush to think of it!) he guessed the channel of intelligence, and this morning came (not to reproach me, I wish he had!) but to point out the injury I have done him.—Let what will be the consequence, I will reimburse him, if I deny myself the necessaries of life—and even then my folly will sting me.—Perhaps you can scarcely conceive the misery I at this moment endure—that I, whose power of doing good is so limited, should do harm, galls my very soul. ****** may laugh at these qualms—but, supposing Mr. ——— to be unworthy, I am not the less to blame. Surely it is hell to despise one's self!—I did not want this additional vexation—at this time I have many that hang heavily on my spirits. I shall not call on you this month—nor stir out.—My stomach has been so suddenly and violently affected, I am unable to lean over the desk.

mary wollstonecraft.


LETTER VII

As I am become a reviewer, I think it right, in the way of business, to consider the subject. You have alarmed the editor of the Critical, as the advertisement prefixed to the Appendix plainly shows. The Critical appears to me to be a timid, mean production, and its success is a reflection on the taste and judgment of the public; but, as a body, who ever gave it credit for much? The voice of the people is only the voice of truth, when some man of abilities has had time to get fast hold of the great nose of the monster. Of course, local fame is generally a clamor, and dies away. The Appendix to the Monthly afforded me more amusement, though every article almost wants energy and a cant of virtue and liberality is strewed over it; always tame, and eager to pay court to established fame. The account of Necker is one unvaried tone of admiration. Surely men were born only to provide for the sustenance of the body by enfeebling the mind!

mary.


LETTER VIII

You made me very low-spirited last night, by your manner of talking.—You are my only friend—the only person I am intimate with.—I never had a father, or a brother—you have been both to me, ever since I knew you—yet I have sometimes been very petulant.—I have been thinking of those instances of ill-humor and quickness, and they appeared like crimes.

Yours sincerely                

mary.


LETTER IX

Saturday Night.

I am a mere animal, and instinctive emotions too often silence the suggestions of reason. Your note—I can scarcely tell why, hurt me—and produced a kind of winterly smile, which diffuses a beam of despondent tranquility over the features. I have been very ill—Heaven knows it was more than fancy—After some sleepless, wearisome nights, towards the morning I have grown delirious.—Last Thursday, in particular, I imagined ——— was thrown into great distress by his folly; and I, unable to assist him, was in an agony. My nerves were in such a painful state of irritation—I suffered more than I can express—Society was necessary—and might have diverted me till I gained more strength; but I blushed when I recollected how often I had teazed you with childish complaints, and the reveries of a disordered imagination. I even imagined that I intruded on you, because you never called on me—though you perceived that I was not well.—I have nourished a sickly kind of delicacy, which gives me many unnecessary pangs.—I acknowledge that life is but a jest—and often a frightful dream—yet catch myself every day searching for something serious—and feel real misery from the disappointment. I am a strange compound of weakness and resolution! However, if I must suffer, I will endeavor to suffer in silence. There is certainly a great defect in my mind—my wayward heart creates its own misery—Why I am made thus I cannot tell; and, till I can form some idea of the whole of my existence, I must be content to weep and dance like a child—long for a toy, and be tired of it as soon as I get it.

We must each of us wear a fool's cap; but mine, alas! has lost its bells, and is grown so heavy, I find it intolerably troublesome.——Good-night! I have been pursuing a number of strange thoughts since I began to write, and have actually both wept and laughed immoderately—Surely I am a fool—

mary w.


LETTER X

Monday Morning.

I really want a German grammar, as I intend to attempt to learn that language—and I will tell you the reason why.—While I live, I am persuaded, I must exert my understanding to procure an independence, and render myself useful. To make the task easier, I ought to store my mind with knowledge—The seed time is passing away. I see the necessity of laboring now—and of that necessity I do not complain; on the contrary, I am thankful that I have more than common incentives to pursue knowledge, and draw my pleasures from the employments that are within my reach. You perceive this is not a gloomy day—I feel at this moment particularly grateful to you—without your humane and delicate assistance, how many obstacles should I not have had to encounter—too often should I have been out of patience with my fellow-creatures, whom I wish to love!—Allow me to love you, my dear sir, and call friend a being I respect.—Adieu!

mary w.


LETTER XI

I thought you very unkind, nay, very unfeeling, last night. My cares and vexations—I will say what I allow myself to think—do me honor, as they arise from my disinterestedness and unbending principles; nor can that mode of conduct be a reflection on my understanding, which enables me to bear misery, rather than selfishly live for myself alone. I am not the only character deserving of respect, that has had to struggle with various sorrows—while inferior minds have enjoyed local fame and present comfort.—Dr. Johnson's cares almost drove him mad—but, I suppose, you would quietly have told him, he was a fool for not being calm, and that wise men striving against the stream, can yet be in good humor. I have done with insensible human wisdom,—"indifference cold in wisdom's guise,"—and turn to the source of perfection—who perhaps never disregarded an almost broken heart, especially when a respect, a practical respect, for virtue, sharpened the wounds of adversity. I am ill—I stayed in bed this morning till eleven o'clock, only thinking of getting money to extricate myself out of some of my difficulties—The struggle is now over. I will condescend to try to obtain some in a disagreeable way.

Mr. ——— called on me just now—pray did you know his motive for calling[82-A]?—I think him impertinently officious.—He had left the house before it occurred to me in the strong light it does now, or I should have told him so—My poverty makes me proud—I will not be insulted by a superficial puppy.—His intimacy with Miss ——— gave him a privilege, which he should not have assumed with me—a proposal might be made to his cousin, a milliner's girl, which should not have been mentioned to me. Pray tell him that I am offended—and do not wish to see him again!—When I meet him at your house, I shall leave the room, since I cannot pull him by the nose. I can force my spirit to leave my body—but it shall never bend to support that body—God of heaven, save thy child from this living death!—I scarcely know what I write. My hand trembles—I am very sick—sick at heart.——

mary.


LETTER XII

Tuesday Evening.

        Sir,

When you left me this morning, and I reflected a moment—your officious message, which at first appeared to me a joke—looked so very like an insult—I cannot forget it—To prevent then the necessity of forcing a smile—when I chance to meet you—I take the earliest opportunity of informing you of my real sentiments.

mary wollstonecraft.


LETTER XIII

Wednesday, 3 o'clock.

        Sir,

It is inexpressibly disagreeable to me to be obliged to enter again on a subject, that has already raised a tumult of indignant emotions in my bosom, which I was laboring to suppress when I received your letter. I shall now condescend to answer your epistle; but let me first tell you, that, in my unprotected situation, I make a point of never forgiving a deliberate insult—and in that light I consider your late officious conduct. It is not according to my nature to mince matters—I will then tell you in plain terms, what I think. I have ever considered you in the light of a civil acquaintance—on the word friend I lay a peculiar emphasis—and, as a mere acquaintance, you were rude and cruel, to step forward to insult a woman, whose conduct and misfortunes demand respect. If my friend, Mr. Johnson, had made the proposal—I should have been severely hurt—have thought him unkind and unfeeling, but not impertinent.—The privilege of intimacy you had no claim to—and should have referred the man to myself—if you had not sufficient discernment to quash it at once. I am, sir, poor and destitute.—Yet I have a spirit that will never bend, or take indirect methods, to obtain the consequence I despise; nay, if to support life it was necessary to act contrary to my principles, the struggle would soon be over. I can bear any thing but my own contempt.

In a few words, what I call an insult, is the bare supposition that I could for a moment think of prostituting my person for a maintenance; for in that point of view does such a marriage appear to me, who consider right and wrong in the abstract, and never by words and local opinions shield myself from the reproaches of my own heart and understanding.

It is needless to say more—Only you must excuse me when I add, that I wish never to see, but as a perfect stranger, a person who could so grossly mistake my character. An apology is not necessary—if you were inclined to make one—nor any further expostulations.—I again repeat, I cannot overlook an affront; few indeed have sufficient delicacy to respect poverty, even where it gives luster to a character—and I tell you sir, I am poor—yet can live without your benevolent exertions.

mary wollstonecraft.


LETTER XIV

I send you all the books I had to review except Dr. J—'s Sermons, which I have begun. If you wish me to look over any more trash this month—you must send it directly. I have been so low-spirited since I saw you—I was quite glad, last night, to feel myself affected by some passages in Dr. J—'s sermon on the death of his wife—I seemed (suddenly) to find my soul again—It has been for some time I cannot tell where. Send me the Speaker—and Mary, I want one—and I shall soon want some paper—you may as well send it at the same time—for I am trying to brace my nerves that I may be industrious.—I am afraid reason is not a good bracer—for I have been reasoning a long time with my untoward spirits—and yet my hand trembles.—I could finish a period very prettily now, by saying that it ought to be steady when I add that I am yours sincerely,

mary.

If you do not like the manner in which I reviewed Dr. J—'s s—— on his wife, be it known unto you—I will not do it any other way—I felt some pleasure in paying a just tribute of respect to the memory of a man—who, spite of his faults, I have an affection for—I say have, for I believe he is somewhere—where my soul has been gadding perhaps;—but you do not live on conjectures.


LETTER XV

My dear sir, I send you a chapter which I am pleased with, now I see it in one point of view—and, as I have made free with the author, I hope you will not have often to say—what does this mean?

You forgot you were to make out my account—I am, of course, over head and ears in debt; but I have not that kind of pride, which makes some dislike to be obliged to those they respect.—On the contrary, when I involuntarily lament that I have not a father or brother, I thankfully recollect that I have received unexpected kindness from you and a few others.—So reason allows, what nature impels me to—for I cannot live without loving my fellow-creatures—nor can I love them, without discovering some virtue.

mary.


LETTER XVI

Paris, December 26, 1792.

I should immediately on the receipt of your letter, my dear friend, have thanked you for your punctuality, for it highly gratified me, had I not wished to wait till I could tell you that this day was not stained with blood. Indeed the prudent precautions taken by the National Convention to prevent a tumult, made me suppose that the dogs of faction would not dare to bark, much less to bite, however true to their scent; and I was not mistaken; for the citizens, who were all called out, are returning home with composed countenances, shouldering their arms. About nine o'clock this morning, the king passed by my window, moving silently along (excepting now and then a few strokes on the drum, which rendered the stillness more awful) through empty streets, surrounded by the national guards, who, clustering round the carriage, seemed to deserve their name. The inhabitants flocked to their windows, but the casements were all shut, not a voice was heard, nor did I see any thing like an insulting gesture.—For the first time since I entered France, I bowed to the majesty of the people, and respected the propriety of behavior so perfectly in unison with my own feelings. I can scarcely tell you why, but an association of ideas made the tears flow insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach, going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed. My fancy instantly brought Louis XIV before me, entering the capital with all his pomp, after one of the victories most flattering to his pride, only to see the sunshine of prosperity overshadowed by the sublime gloom of misery. I have been alone ever since; and, though my mind is calm, I cannot dismiss the lively images that have filled my imagination all the day.—Nay, do not smile, but pity me; for, once or twice, lifting my eyes from the paper, I have seen eyes glare through a glass-door opposite my chair and bloody hands shook at me. Not the distant sound of a footstep can I hear.—My apartments are remote from those of the servants, the only persons who sleep with me in an immense hotel, one folding door opening after another.—I wish I had even kept the cat with me!—I want to see something alive; death in so many frightful shapes has taken hold of my fancy.—I am going to bed—and, for the first time in my life, I cannot put out the candle.

m. w.

FOOTNOTES:

[67-A] To Original Stories.

[69-A] Countess Mount Cashel.

[82-A] This alludes to a foolish proposal of marriage for mercenary considerations, which the gentleman here mentioned thought proper to recommend to her. The two letters which immediately follow, are addressed to the gentleman himself.

From : Gutenberg.org

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