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Publishing one’s private papers

February 16, 2010

I think it is Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot who says the letters we write are meant to be read only by the person to whom we are are writing, not the whole world. And so what was Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband (William Godwin) thinking when he published all of the letters she wrote to her ex-boyfriend Gilbert? May G-d spare me such a fate. Those letters are astonishingly embarrassing and have led people to call her shrewish, desperate, and hysterical. But who wouldn’t sound hysterical when writing to a man who’d promised to love you forever, got you pregnant, disappeared, lied, said you were important to him, but that he couldn’t love you anymore, and then without telling you shacked up with a younger woman? I feel shrewish on Mary’s behalf. And even more shrewish at those who dare to assess her on this correspondence. Yes, these letters are self-revelatory. But they are not the whole picture. When she is writing the most desperate sounding missives to Gilbert, she is also revising her most highly polished literary work. I would not like some of the letters I have written to ex-lovers aired to the public. I can’t even imagine how I would sound: childish, demanding, greedy, histrionic. But isn’t that what love sounds like sometimes? At least, a certain kind of love.
I suspect Godwin’s motives.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 7:04 pm

    I hope you are writing in depth about this in your book because you are absolutely right. I can’t wait to hear more.

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