- The Rhetorical Strategies of "Tumultuous Emotions:"Wollstonecraft's Letters Written in Sweden
"How long will it be before we shall have read to better purpose the eloquent lessons and the yet more eloquent history of that gifted and glorious being, Mary Wollstonecraft?"William J. Fox in Westminster Review, 1831
Mary Wollstonecraft first set foot on the shore of a deserted area outside Gothenburg, Sweden during the summer of 1795 after traveling for "eleven days of weariness on board a vessel not intended for the accommodation of passengers" (63). Stepping out on that rocky coast, alone with her maid and infant daughter, she could not have known that her planned travel memoir of this unusual journey would come to exemplify quintessential elements of the emotion-laden rhetoric of self-in-text—elements not only characteristic of her early romantic age but of a newly-framed discourse of selfhood in general, with close textual affinities to both the essay and the novel. Wollstonecraft's Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is a text whose literary categorization over the years—when it was noticed at all—has largely been that of an interesting and unusual travel book and not much more than that. Written at a time when interest in travel was high and travel books were well in demand, Wollstonecraft had shrewdly judged that taking along a [End Page 277] journal to record her impressions while taking a trip out of the common way would likely yield a publication that could help her allay her always-pressing debts. She was quite right. Her text was arguably the most popular and successful book she ever wrote, quickly published in a second edition and translated into German, Dutch, Swedish, and Portuguese (36).
And while such literary success was not unusual for the time, it is striking to notice the kind of unusual reaction the Letters elicited from many of its contemporary readers. As Richard Holmes notes, "admiring references [to it] appear in the journals, poems, or correspondence of Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth and Hazlitt" (36). Even Robert Louis Stevenson "had a copy of the first edition when he went to Samoa in 1890" (36). And as we look more deeply into these contemporary references we find that this text seemed to make people care very deeply, with real "affection"—one of Wollstonecraft's own terms—about the woman Mary Wollstonecraft. Coleridge was prompted to write to her personally and offer religious solace for her sufferings after reading the Letters. The novelist Mary Hays felt she came to know Wollstonecraft "as a woman" by reading it. But even further, the language often used in communications about the Letters from Sweden is that of actual love. Robert Southey, as Holmes notes, "wrote excitedly to his publisher friend Joseph Cottle: "Have you met with Mary Wollstonecraft's [travel book]? She has made me in love with a cold climate, with frost and snow, with a northern moonlight'"(17). Since Wollstonecraft's journey took place entirely in the warm summer months, one can imagine that Southey supplied the cold northern frosts out of his own imagination and may have in fact been more in love with the author than with the "northern moonlight." Her future husband William Godwin was even more direct:
"The narrative of this [Scandinavian] voyage is before the world, and perhaps a book of travels that so irresistibly seizes on the heart, never, in any other instance, found its way from the press. . . .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."(249) [End Page 278]
Many other writers, even other women, had written popular and widely read travel books. Yet Wollstonecraft's Letters in Sweden is a striking and perhaps unique example of a travel text that prompted a Werther-like personal reaction from its readers.
This unique reaction is so, I will argue here, because the...