In Search of Mary by journalist Bee Rowlatt is a love story inside a love story. In actual fact, it is part travelogue, part biography; a history of groundbreaking feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and a walking in her shoes. Rowlatt was inspired by Wollstonecraft’s own book – Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, first published in 1796 – which narrates her intrepid travels, spurred on by a mission to recover stolen treasure for her lover, Gilbert Imlay. Rowlatt’s book, in turn, is testament to her admiration for Wollstonecraft. Or, as she admits, her outright ‘groupie’ status.
I meet Rowlatt at BBC Broadcasting House, in the midst of her busy press schedule and on the day of the book launch. Rowlatt is proud to call her own relationship with Wollstonecraft is “a full blown love affair”. A love affair which, like Wollstonecraft’s own, led her to embark across lands and seas – but in search of Mary, rather than of stolen treasure. And like Wollstonecraft, Rowlatt travelled to Scandinavia and beyond with a baby on board.
Before her overseas explorations however, Wollstonecraft’s home of Stoke Newington provided fertile ground for her radical roots. “It was absolutely critical in the making of her,” explains Rowlatt. Living in the then radical village allowed Wollstonecraft to tread new paths in more ways than one: she was a young woman living from her writing – “virtually unheard of at the time”. She also founded a school whilst living in the area, and came under the radical wing of the publisher Joseph Johnson and the Reverend Richard Price at the Unitarian Chapel on Newington Green.
The chapel today, which proclaims itself ‘the birthplace of feminism’, is still “remarkable, full of interesting people,” says Rowlatt – and it boasts perhaps the country’s only atheist minister. Rowlatt is a strong believer in honouring “these pockets of radical history, in a time when London is being increasingly scooped out and turned into luxury flats.”
What would Mary think of the area today, I ask. Rowlatt looks concerned and replies after some thought: “I think she’d be pretty appalled.”
“Wollstonecraft came from inequality and dragged herself up, so she really cared about the 99 per cent… it was the fundamental injustice that made her angry.” She eagerly adds though, that Wollstonecraft was “an inveterate optimist – it was in her DNA – she believed in the perfectibility of mankind.” And womankind, certainly.
Rowlatt was surprised to find that her attitude to motherhood and feminism changed significantly during the trip. “I started off from a position of outrage and ended up realising how bloody lucky I am,” and has come to believe that even a “toehold on both worlds” – of work and motherhood – is worth celebrating. I ask her if she thinks the same is true for men. “Don’t compare men to women,” she says, “compare them to their dads.” Like Wollstonecraft, Rowlatt’s belief in the perfectibility of mankind seems to prevail.
Nevertheless, Rowlatt is outraged that Wollstonecraft’s legacy as a pioneering feminist and influential author “hasn’t been commemorated in the way she deserves”, and is involved in the Mary on the Green campaign, which calls for a memorial statue of Wollstonecraft on Newington Green. Rowlatt continues to be in awe of the spirit that led Wollstonecraft to embark on her juggernaut of a journey, and her own was in large part a eulogy.
In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys is published by Alma Books. RRP: £12.99. ISBN: 9781846883781.