Pioneering Feminist Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on Loneliness, Friendship, and the Courage of Unwavering Affection
By Maria Popova
“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich observed in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships shortly before we began commodifying the word friend by egregious misuse and overuse in the hands of so-called social media. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in contemplating how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship.
A century before Mitchell and two centuries before Rich, another trailblazing woman — the British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) — considered the complexities of friendship and companionship in her 1796 book Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (public library | free ebook), composed four years after she ignited the feminist consciousness with her landmark treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman and shortly after she attempted suicide in the wake of heartbreak.
Part travelogue and part memoir, exploring subjects spanning from beauty and the sublime to divorce laws and prison reform, this collection of twenty-five pieces drawn from Wollstonecraft’s diaries and letters to her lover inspired readers to travel to Scandinavia and influenced the titans of Romantic poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge. A year after its publication, Wollstonecraft would die of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world.
In the twelfth letter, having left Norway’s Tønsberg for the next stop on her journey, Wollstonecraft considers how it is possible to arrive at a place with “a sort of emancipation” and yet suffer a hollowing loneliness in the absence of loved ones:
I dreaded the solitariness of my apartment, and wished for night to hide the starting tears, or to shed them on my pillow, and close my eyes on a world where I was destined to wander alone. Why has nature so many charms for me — calling forth and cherishing refined sentiments, only to wound the breast that fosters them? … Self-applause is a cold solitary feeling, that cannot supply the place of disappointed affection, without throwing a gloom over every prospect, which, banishing pleasure, does not exclude pain. I reasoned and reasoned; but my heart was too full to allow me to remain in the house, and I walked, till I was wearied out, to purchase rest — or rather forgetfulness.
From this paradoxical place of emancipation and loneliness, she laments the common pitfall of friendship and companionship:
Friendship is in general sincere at the commencement, and lasts whilst there is anything to support it; but as a mixture of novelty and vanity is the usual prop, no wonder if it fall with the slender stay.
Lasting relationships, Wollstonecraft argues, require a certain courage and tenacity of affection after the novelty and the flattery of the other person’s attention wear out:
Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose. Besides, few like to be seen as they really are; and a degree of simplicity, and of undisguised confidence, which, to uninterested observers, would almost border on weakness, is the charm, nay the essence of love or friendship, all the bewitching graces of childhood again appearing… I therefore like to see people together who have an affection for each other; every turn of their features touches me, and remains pictured on my imagination in indelible characters.
She revisits the subject in the seventeenth letter. After noting that under Swedish law, both husband and wife can easily obtain a divorce if they can prove the infidelity of the other party — not the case in England, where divorce at the time was readily available only to the rich and of great difficulty for women — Wollstonecraft writes:
Affection requires a firmer foundation than sympathy, and few people have a principle of action sufficiently stable to produce rectitude of feeling; for in spite of all the arguments I have heard to justify deviations from duty, I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.
Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is a beautiful and at times harrowing read, replete with insight into such facets of existence as gender, identity, politics, death, the building blocks of character, and the essential elements of social change. Complement this particular portion with Seneca on true and false friendship, Aristotle on the art of human connection, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the power of the imagination in human relationships.
Published July 4, 2018