History, books, and happy surprises
Have you ever unexpectedly run into a friend while far away from home?
You know that awesome rush you get from seeing someone you love somewhere totally new?
How the world seems both enormous and infinitesimal as you hug?
I got a rush a little like that while reading a few days ago.
I first heard of Mary Wollstonecraft in a biography of Aaron Burr.
Burr, having read Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, decided to educate his daughter, Theodosia, as most parents then educated only their sons. Over the years, their father-daughter relationship blossomed into something delightfully witnessed even from a distance.
Unfortunately, the Burr biography’s tone was so hostile toward anyone who ever opposed Burr that I couldn’t finish it. I requested another Burr biography from my library instead.
I happened to catch Wollstonecraft’s name on a biography during my last trip to a bookstore. I bought Romantic Outlaws on a whim but set it aside for later reading.
I picked it up on Thursday after a Washington biography failed to catch my attention. I was immediately enchanted by the story and its telling, which wove together the lives of Wollstonecraft and her famous daughter, Mary Shelley.
I cheered aloud when I read page 34, where I’d just found a few lovely, surprise notes from “the Symphony of Aaron Burr.”
A lifelong devotee of Mary Wollstonecraft, Burr believed in the equality of men and women and had encouraged his beloved daughter, Theodosia, to learn Latin, logic, and higher mathematics. But in 1811, tragedy struck: twenty-nine-year-old Theodosia was drowned in a shipwreck off the South Carolina coast. The heartbroken Burr comforted himself by taking a particular interest in the three Godwin girls, nicknaming them “les goddesses.” The girls in turn loved Burr. He did not stand on ceremony with them, allowing the girls to call him “Gamp.” Sometimes he could be induced to visit them upstairs in the nursery. On one such occasion, they persuaded him to listen to eight-year-old William deliver a speech that Mary had written, entitled “The Influence of Government on the Character of the People.” Fanny served tea while Burr admired a singing performance by Jane, who was, as usual, determined not to be outdone by Mary.
I’m still waiting for The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr.
While I wait, I’ll savor each page of Romantic Outlaws … whether or not I have any more chance encounters with a man who was much more than the outcome of one historic duel.