A few weeks ago I announced here the discovery of a Cuban botanical book by Mary Wollstonecraft’s sister in law, Nancy, as well as an article by her in the Boston Monthly entitled ‘On the Natural Rights of Women’. A few days later, I found out through Wollstonecraft scholar Eileen Hunt Botting, that this ‘discovery’ had in fact been the research focus of Wayne Bodle. We contacted Prof. Bodle and he agreed to give us an account of his discovery of Nancy Wollstonecraft. The first installment is below. Enjoy!
In July of 1824 a ship from Cuba arrived in Portland, Maine. Its passenger manifest listed “Madame Mary Woolstencroft,” a “planter” from Matanzas, and a young boy, “Charles Woolstencroft,” (10), probably her son They may have traveled with the third listed passenger, Richard Keating, an American sea captain who was like Mary a recently-widowed single parent. Maybe they came to meet his mother, the Maine novelist, Sarah Sayward Barrell Keating Wood ( aka,“Madame Wood”), about any plans for remarriage? But “Mary,” whose actual name was Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft, hurried to Boston on business that seemed more professional than personal. She just as likely brought sample paintings of Cuban plant life that have recently been described on this blog, or letters and essays that she hoped to have published in Boston.
Nancy toured Harvard’s campus and its botanical garden, whose gardener she had criticized in notes to the pictures. She attended the college’s commencement ceremony, where she saw the Marquis de Lafayette on his celebrated tour of America. She sparred with a friend, the writer Hannah Adams, over whether “this good republican” or any European “kings and emperors,” would be worthier figures to be introduced to. Spoiler alert: Nancy did not seem quite as radical on that issue as her late sister-in-law Mary Wollstonecraft would have been. Within two years her essay on the “The Natural Rights of Woman” under the pseudonym of “D’Anvers,” and anonymous “Letters from Cuba” appeared in the Boston Monthly Magazine. Her annotated botanical paintings vanished into American thin air for almost two centuries.
In 1828, a wintering Yankee “invalid” (a health tourist) the Reverend Abiel Abbot, visited adjacent cottages in Matanzas to see “two literary ladies”—“Mrs.W.” (Nancy Wollstonecraft), and “Mrs. B.” (Maria Gowen Brooks). Brooks was a struggling but already published poet who, like Wood, had married young to a much older man and was widowed with dependent children. She had also once, like (or maybe even with)Wood spent some complicated years in Portland. Intersections between these figures, and the spectacle of American expatriate culture in Cuba, are compelling topics without adding a volatile surname like Wollstonecraft. Brooks’s and Wood’s non-celebrity resonate with contemporary scholarly injunctions to recover obscure voices in literary studies or to write history “from the bottom up” in my own discipline.  But it was truly the Wollstonecraft brand that drew my attention to the subject. Some biographers of Mary Wollstonecraft have acknowledged an American branch of her family—a brother, Charles, sent over by Mary—who married the daughter of a “Judge Garrison” in New Orleans. Or an abducted niece, Jane, whose descendants, one scholar speculated (wrongly) in 1974, may “even now [be] making their contributions to Castro’s revolutionary society.” Such musings were fanciful sidebars to a lived life that very soon burst spectacularly into Revolutionary France. In 1848 Mary Shelley told a cousin in Australia that her “Uncle Charles” had “left no family” in America, and that she and her husband Percy were likely the “nearest relatives” still living. .
I “discovered” Charles Wollstonecraft in a footnote to a traditional volume of military history in the late 1980s while prospecting for a study of America’s post-revolutionary army as a device to measure changing civilian gender dynamics on the Ohio Valley frontier. Envisioning at most an article on him, I made a folder for it and set it aside, where it remained inert for years! It took the dawn of the internet age, and some different interpretive priorities on my part, to bring the “Wollstonecrafts in America” back into view. I am very grateful to Professor Bergès for the invitation to offer a few notes about these interesting figures here, and in another post or two.
Brooks has received scholarly analysis from Kirsten Silva Gruesz, and Wood has earned some attention from Karen A. Weyler, but neither of them as yet resonate on quite the scale of popular interest accorded to, for example, the Peabody Sisters—who “ignited American Romanticism.”
Wayne Bodle is a Senior Research Associate of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Before retiring two years ago, he taught at Penn, the University of Iowa, Rider University, and mostly, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is working on a book on the “Wollstonecrafts in America,” from 1792 until at least 1904.