“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich observed in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships shortly before we began commodifying the word friend by egregious misuse and overuse in the hands of so-called social media. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in contemplating how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship.
A century before Mitchell and two centuries before Rich, another trailblazing woman — the British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) — considered the complexities of friendship and companionship in her 1796 book Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (public library | free ebook), composed four years after she ignited the feminist consciousness with her landmark treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman and shortly after she attempted suicide in the wake of heartbreak.
Part travelogue and part memoir, exploring subjects spanning from beauty and the sublime to divorce laws and prison reform, this collection of twenty-five pieces drawn from Wollstonecraft’s diaries and letters to her lover inspired readers to travel to Scandinavia and influenced the titans of Romantic poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge. A year after its publication, Wollstonecraft would die of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world.
In the twelfth letter, having left Norway’s Tønsberg for the next stop on her journey, Wollstonecraft considers how it is possible to arrive at a place with “a sort of emancipation” and yet suffer a hollowing loneliness in the absence of loved ones:
I dreaded the solitariness of my apartment,…
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