Tag Archives: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft and I arrive in Sweden

Travellers who require that every nation should resemble their native country, had better stay at home. It is, for example, absurd to blame a people for not having that degree of personal cleanliness and elegance of manners which only refinement of taste produces, and will produce everywhere in proportion as society attains a general polish.

Thus writes Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796, and she may not blame the Swedish (or the Norwegians) for a lack of many of these things, but her letters certainly describe them thus.

We have arrived in Sweden! But late in the evening. I will compare notes with Mary…

The hospitality she encountered? She arrived in rather unorthodox fashion (I think, what do I know?) on a desolate patch of the Swedish coast:

There was a solemn silence in this scene which made itself be felt. The sunbeams that played on the ocean, scarcely ruffled by the lightest breeze, contrasted with the huge dark rocks, that looked like the rude materials of creation forming the barrier of unwrought space, forcibly struck me, but I should not have been sorry if the cottage had not appeared equally tranquil. Approaching a retreat where strangers, especially women, so seldom appeared, I wondered that curiosity did not bring the beings who inhabited it to the windows or door. I did not immediately recollect that men who remain so near the brute creation, as only to exert themselves to find the food necessary to sustain life, have little or no imagination to call forth the curiosity necessary to fructify the faint glimmerings of mind which entitle them to rank as lords of the creation. Had they either they could not contentedly remain rooted in the clods they so indolently cultivate.

We flew into Arlanda airport, Stockholm. The flight was just over two hours, no turbulence. Utterly uneventful. The airport looked just as any other, though it advertised a skycity which was neither a city, nor in the sky.

She cast around for lights, for anyone who would welcome her, found a house…

Still nothing was so pleasing as the alacrity of hospitality–all that the house afforded was quickly spread on the whitest linen. Remember, I had just left the vessel, where, without being fastidious, I had continually been disgusted. Fish, milk, butter, and cheese, and, I am sorry to add, brandy, the bane of this country, were spread on the board. After we had dined hospitality made them, with some degree of mystery, bring us some excellent coffee. I did not then know that it was prohibited.

I love the shocking knowledge that at one time both coffee and brandy were prohibited. I love that they were served anyway.

We were never, at any time, offered brandy.

Still, travel was harder then. Just a little.

I expected to have found a tolerable inn, but was ushered into a most comfortless one; and, because it was about five o’clock, three or four hours after their dining hour, I could not prevail on them to give me anything warm to eat.

We ourselves landed at the airport, wheeled our carry-on luggage to the free shuttle, and within ten minutes were entering the Radisson Blu. This Radisson Blu, I confess, resembles all other Radissons, particularly in the existence of a restaurant (open until 11 pm), and a bar. This one is also well provided with mysteries and thrillers in both Swedish and English in a kind of library decor, and a scattering of chess boards.

I have observed no one playing chess.

More from Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796.

The inns are tolerable; but not liking the rye bread, I found it
necessary to furnish myself with some wheaten before I set out. The beds, too, were particularly disagreeable to me. It seemed to me that I was sinking into a grave when I entered them; for, immersed in down placed in a sort of box, I expected to be suffocated before morning. The sleeping between two down beds–they do so even in summer–must be very unwholesome during any season; and I cannot conceive how the people can bear it, especially as the summers are very warm. But warmth they seem not to feel; and, I should think, were afraid of the air, by always keeping their windows shut.

We have comfortable beds (two beds pushed together Scandinavian style. Also German. Curious, but the older I get, the more I think it makes sense.) They involve no feathers I think, though the duvets are nice. Everything is white. I have no fear of suffocation.

But shit, we have no wheat bread.

Mary writes:

Travelling in Sweden is very cheap, and even commodious, if you make but the proper arrangements. Here, as in other parts of the Continent, it is necessary to have your own carriage, and to have a servant who can speak the language, if you are unacquainted with it.

This is now become one of the most expensive places in all of Europe. I shudder to think of how much we are spending. Yet neither of us come from families who would ever have had their own carriages, or the servants who come with them. A curious inversion.

Another fairly damning indictment of older traditions of hospitality — this refers to Gothenberg, and surprisingly enough to Dublin as well back in the day:

Hospitality has, I think, been too much praised by travellers as a proof of goodness of heart, when, in my opinion, indiscriminate hospitality is rather a criterion by which you may form a tolerable estimate of the indolence or vacancy of a head; or, in other words, a fondness for social pleasures in which the mind not having its proportion of exercise, the bottle must be pushed about.

These remarks are equally applicable to Dublin, the most hospitable city I ever passed through. But I will try to confine my observations more particularly to Sweden.

I found much more of interest in her letters beyond such observations on the travails of travelers, but more on those later and I shall end here, as I am tired. Just one fascinating fact before goodnight.

The distance was three Norwegian miles, which are longer than the Swedish.

St Pancras Church, Old & New and the Grant Zoology Museum

I have seen so much while I’ve lived here, though I have certainly slowed down the last couple years. Now staring my own leaving in the face, I sat and made a list of all the places I’ve been meaning to see for ages but just haven’t yet. I found a few new places to see while doing this as well, and of course, there are some amazing exhibitions on at the moment at places I know and love well.

Today, in a way, was quintessential London — as London was. As it won’t be for much longer. I started at Old St Pancras Church, just behind the station. People have called it the oldest site of Christian worship in England. There is some proof. The current church is lovely, Catholic, a modern reconstruction, but incorporates the many hundreds of years of its history within its walls as Roman tiles, Saxon altar stone, Norman pillars.

The graveyard…a big, beautiful, flowered open space. It was once even bigger, but being so close to the railway station, much of the graveyard was claimed for progress. Thus came into being the ‘Hardy tree’. Thomas Hardy, the novelist extraordinaire himself, was hired to deal with the exhumations, and he chose to arrange the tombstones around this tree like rays about the sun. It is curious, and strangely beautiful.

Old St Pancras Church

Here too is the tomb of Sir John Sloane, architect, whose home is another fabulous museum in Lincoln Inn Fields. It is a listed monument, most curious in design (as you would expect), and supposedly inspired the design for London’s iconic phone booths.

Old St Pancras Church

Best of all is the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), amazing feminist, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women — something that knocked me over with its awesomeness when I was young, one of the things that made me want to write.
Old St Pancras Church

Her daughter’s book Frankenstein also made me want to write — this is where Mary planned her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

It also features in Dickens Tale of Two Cities, but that can hardly compare.

This is the kind of place that inspires love for London — except for all those cranes in the background building the modern monstrosities around the station — more unaffordable housing.

Old St Pancras Church

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From there I walked to the Grant Museum of Zoology, which represents an early Victorian teaching collection — the goal was to have one of everything back in 1828 when it was founded. It is an extraordinary place, custom-made cabinets of glass and polished wood holding skeletons in various poses, preserved animals in varying degrees of dissection or preservation. Lots of jars.

Lots of moles.

Grant Museum of Zoology

A fossil compsongnathus (my dad used to tell us stories about them) and lungfish, a huge incredible skeleton of a boa constrictor, a tiny octopus (a few of those actually), an amazing ‘museum of tiny things’ (the micrarium). I loved it, despite the hordes of children. Also amazing, but a little more complicated by the connections between exploration, science, and colonialism. Here you can find the quagga and the tasmanian tiger, both hunted to extinction since this museum was founded.

Grant Museum Of Zoology

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the last stop was unplanned, but I’ve always wondered about the crypt of the New St Pancras Church. It was open, with an artist in residence — ‘Being Silence’ and the artist Evgenia Emets. It was cool seeing her large calligraphy canvases, experimenting with the space. I just took pictures of the space, it is quite amazing.

New St Pancras Church

Also, rather full of figures from the East India Company. Also complicated. But cool to get down here.

New St Pancras Church

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And then I got to drive the 68 bus all the way home. Happiness.

on the 68 bus

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