In Search of Mary: The Mother of all Journeys by Bee Rowlatt

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In Search of Mary: The Mother of all Journeys by Bee Rowlatt

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A BBC journalist and mother of four sets out, baby in tow, to trace the steps of Mary Wollstonecraft in Norway and France. A follow-up trip to California is a little off-topic, but allows Rowlatt to survey the development of feminism over the last few centuries.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Alma Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781846883781

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As a university student at Glasgow, Bee Rowlatt first encountered the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft through her epistolary travel narrative, Letters from Norway. This book is her homage to Wollstonecraft as well as an attempt to pinpoint why this particular work has meant so much to her over the years and helped her form her own ideas about feminism and motherhood. From Norway to Paris and then San Francisco, Rowlatt follows in Wollstonecraft's footsteps and asks everyone she meets how modern feminism and motherhood can coincide. By using a Dictaphone, she is able to recreate her dialogues exactly, making for lively, conversational prose.

At around the time of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft was living in Paris as man and wife with an American bounder named Gilbert Imlay. He cheated and she tried to kill herself. Hoping to get his melancholy girlfriend out of the way, Imlay sent her to Scandinavia to look for his missing ship off the coast of Norway. She dutifully set off with her baby daughter Frances and her maid Marguerite to try to trace his lost cargo of silver as far as possible.

In 2011 Rowlatt recreated this journey with her young son Will, flying to Sweden and then driving to a ferry terminal so as to approach Norway by sea like Wollstonecraft did. Upon arrival in Risør she stayed in a flat at the bottom of the garden of the communist mayor and met an impressive number of Norwegians who knew about Wollstonecraft and her brief connection to their country. Alas, from Wollstonecraft's account it seems she was unimpressed with the place, deploring the people's poverty and bad manners. Rowlatt fell in love with Scandinavia but had chosen an unexpectedly inopportune time; just three weeks after she left, Anders Breivik killed more than 70 people in his rampage of terror.

Rowlatt's next stop, with now-toddler Will, was Paris, where because it was harder to find historical traces of Wollstonecraft she had to do more general tourism, seeing the site of the Bastille and other revolutionary hotspots. Appropriately, she also stumbled onto a feminist march. It's with the book's third journey that Rowlatt lost me a bit. She decided to go to San Francisco to find the relics of 1970s feminism. Although this section has some of the book's best set pieces – a Goddess Grrrls meeting, learning about 'ecosexuality', seeing The Vagina Monologues and undergoing a rebirthing ceremony – it's barely relevant and also seems like an excuse to poke gentle fun at some hippies.

One of Rowlatt's major questions, something she asks wherever she goes, is how the feminist perspective accommodates motherhood. 'Having babies seems to make us different. Is this a good thing or something we should ignore? Where does motherhood fit into a revolutionary landscape?' Rowlatt sometimes feels guilty even bringing it up because she knows that she – an educated, professional woman with enough expendable income to hire a nanny for her four kids – is so much better off than many poor, vulnerable women, like the ones her friend Lucy works with in inner-city Leeds. Is the 'having it all' debate even pertinent anymore?

Really the topic of feminism over the centuries is too broad for Rowlatt to do justice to, and she's not enough of a Wollstonecraft expert to give a real sense of her heroine's life and work, despite frequently quoting long passages from Letters from Norway and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Still, it's easy to see why anyone would admire Wollstonecraft: she 'loved just as she lived, passionately, and at a hundred miles an hour – as if it was the last day of her life.' Rowlatt's life story also connects with Wollstonecraft's in one climactic particular: like Wollstonecraft, she had a retained placenta after her second delivery, a life-threatening condition even today. It was the immediate cause of Wollstonecraft's death, after she had just given birth to the baby who would become Mary Shelley.

This isn't as successful a 'bibliomemoir' as many I've read in recent years, such as Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch or Samantha Ellis's How to Be a Heroine, but for readers interested in engaging in the ongoing debate about how women can balance work life with motherhood, and especially for any women who have attempted travelling with children, it's a fun, sassy travelogue.

Further reading suggestion: To further explore how women's writing can be inspirational, try How To Be A Heroine: Or, what I've learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis. Mary Wollstonecraft plays a minor role in Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women by Kate Chisholm.

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Buy In Search of Mary: The Mother of all Journeys by Bee Rowlatt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In Search of Mary: The Mother of all Journeys by Bee Rowlatt at


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