Mary Wollstonecraft was not known for her dedication to domesticity. She is said to have once entertained the Marquis de Talleyrand in her lodgings on George Street, and served him tea, then wine, in a breached teacup (Elizabeth Pennell, 1885. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. London: W.H. Allen &co, p.72). Wondering where Pennell had gotten the anecdote from, I asked the Twitter Wollstonecraft community, and got the following story:
First Emma Clery, specified the source of the Pennell reference: John Knowles, the 19th century biographer of the man who rejected Wollstonecraft in 1792, Henri Fuseli, described her as a 'sloven ', citing the breached teacup anecdote as evidence.
Fuseli found in her (what he most disliked in woman) a philosophical sloven: her usual dress being a habit of coarse cloth, such as is now worn by milk-women, black worsted stockings, and a beaver hat, with her hair hanging lank about her shoulders. These notions had their influence also in regard to the conveniences of life; for when the Prince Talleyrand was in this country, in a low condition with regard to his pecuniary affairs, and visited her, they drank their tea, and the little wine they took, indiscriminately from tea-cups.
But this, it turns out was not the first reference to the anecdote, but Eileen Hunt Botting pointed me to one published 4 years before that, in a Vermont journal:
Perhaps their idea of an "educated lady" is associated in their mind with nothing better than some starched nun, or round mouth pedant; or the famous authoress of England, M. Woolstonecroft [sic], who could appear before her guests in a ragged garment, and serve their drink in a broken tea-cup; because, forsooth, her literary occupations would not allow her otherwise.
Note that the Vermont piece, but not the Knowles or Pernell ones, mentions that the cup was breached!
Knowles's biography was published six years after Fuseli's death. Knowles claims that his evidence came from letters from Wollstonecraft to Fuseli, letters that Fuseli had refused to return when Wollstonecraft asked him to. Knowles was Fuseli's literary executor, so had access to the letters straightaway.
The Vermont piece appeared three years before the publication of Knowles's memoirs, and two years after Wollstonecrafts' death? Was there another source? Or could someone else have seen the letters and quoted from them? Certainly Sophia Fuseli, Henry's wife saw them – possibly before Fuseli's death. Godwin asked to see them after Wollstonecraft died, so he could use them for his biography, but was refused. Their grandson, Sir Percy Florence Shelley ('Percy Jr annoys me to death' twitted another Wollstonecraft expert), bought them and had them burnt. According to Emma Clery, C Kegan Paul, friend of Godwin and supporter of Wollstonecraft, did see the letters before they were destroyed and claims there was nothing in them that could bring shame on Wollstonecraft (not that a breached tea-cup is shameful!).
So possibly the reports of slovenliness are simply that – retellings of their contents, exaggerated for the sake of gossip. This could have been the work of Knowles himself, or perhaps Fuseli's widow, Sophia, who may have born a grudge from Wollstonecraft's attempts at forming a ménage à trois with Henry and Sophia.
Stirring away from malicious gossip, the tea-cup story has a much more plausible explanation Wollstonecraft was poor. And at the time she lived in George Street, where Talleyrand visited her, she was just starting out as a professional writer, had debts to pay and family to support, so she had very few furnishings. Although glass objects were already a consumer item, wine glasses were nonetheless expensive, and a luxury that the singly professional woman, who had to move frequently, could perhaps not afford. It was not until she moved from George St, after meeting with Talleyrand, that she started to buy furniture:
In September 1791, she removed from the house she occupied in George-street, to a large and commodious apartment in Store street, Bedford-square. She began to think that she had been too rigid, in the laws of frugality and self-denial with which she set out in her literary career; and now added to the neatness and cleanliness which she had always scrupulously observed a certain degree of elegance, and those temperate indulgences in furniture and accommodation, from which a sound and uncorrupted taste never fails to derive pleasure. Godwin. Memoirs. Chapter 6.
With thanks to Eileen Hunt Botting (@EileenHBotting) Emma Clery (@austeneconomics) and Bee Rowlatt (@BeeRowlatt) for sharing all these sources and making yesterday afternoon's work much more fun than it would have been otherwise!
What does philosophy have to contribute to the understanding of 'home'?
Analytic philosophy is in the business of conceptual analysis, finding the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be what it is. Plato started it with his questions about the forms: 'What is Justice?' 'What is Beauty?' etc. Descartes pursued it from his armchair by the fire, asking 'What am I?', and philosophers have been chasing concepts with definitions ever since.
A conceptual analysis attempts to capture a set of intuitions we have about a concept, so that once we come up with a definition, every instance of that concept and nothing else falls under it. So for instance, armchairs cannot be defined as 'comfy seats' because there are things that are comfortable to seat on which are not armchairs, such as sofas. So is an armchair a comfy seat for one person? Perhaps, but a good conceptual analysis would look for armchairs that don't fulfill the conditions of 'comfy' or 'seat', and for things that do that aren't armchairs before settling on that definition.
Can we use appeal to the tools of conceptual analysis to help define the home? Attempting to capture the home in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions is a task that, if not doomed to failure, turns out to be singularly unproductive. Although most of us agree on the basic intuition that we need homes, these homes tend to look different according to what needs they serve, and that varies a great deal according to places and times. A home may or may not be a dwelling, something physical or not, that ties a family together, or a community, it may or may not involve property and land. This leaves room for plural definitions, perhaps definitions that succeed in capturing a certain 'family resemblance' in uses of the word across time and space.
The idea that instances of a concept sometimes shared a 'family resemblance' rather than a set of necessary and sufficient conditions comes from Wittgenstein, who, when he attempted to say what a game was, found that some games had very little in common with others (say bouncing a ball against a wall, and D&D). He concluded that games, though definitely belonging to one concept, were not tied together by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions:
I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: "games" form a family.
Morris Weitz applied the Wittgensteinian idea of family resemblance to the concept of art, after noticing that it was impossible to bring all the things that we count as instances of that concept under a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. A definition of art would have to accommodate that have as little in common as a Greek tragedy and an 18thcentury piece of furniture. (Weitz, Morris (1956). "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics". Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 15: 27–35.) Weitz concluded that art was an open concept, that could expand in order to accommodate new forms of art.
It seems that had analytic philosophers bothered to define the home, they would have come to the same conclusion, for reasons stated above. The home covers too many disparate intuitions for it to be reasonable to expect it to fall under one set of necessary and sufficient conditions. But it does not follow that the home cannot be defined philosophically: it simply needs to be stated that the definitions capture only one version of the home, at one place or one time. And in order to do that, what better strategy than to study what women philosophers of the past have written about the home?
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir describes domesticity as akin to the fate of Sisyphus:
Legions of women have in common only endlessly recurrent fatigue in a battle that never leads to victory. Even in the most privileged cases, this victory is never final.
One could object that there is more to the life of domesticity than just housework: there is also the work of caring for children and other dependants. But Beauvoir also takes mothering into account:
Simone de Beauvoir not only thought that domestic work was a form of drudgery, but choosing housewifery, and sometimes motherhood, struck her as examples of bad faith. Women don't really enjoy doing the housework or changing diapers, or if they do, it is because they have forced themselves to stop looking for enjoyment in more rewarding places.
Bad faith for Beauvoir meant something different than what it meant for Sartre. Sartre saw bad faith as using one's situation as an excuse for one's life – 'I am a wife, I can only obey my husband' or 'I am a mother, my nature dictates that I should care for my children'. Sartre, rejecting essentialism, believed that one could always choose to react differently to one's situation, except for one odd essentialism of his own: human beings, he thought, were bound to fall into the category of dominator or dominated. Beauvoir rejected this essentialism too:
If Sartre thought human beings were by nature doomed to desire domination, then there really was no exit from living our own oppressors. Beauvoir's philosophy, by contrast, refused 'the consolations of lies and resignations' – it was an excuse to think that it's just human nature to dominate or submit. (see Kate Fitzpatrick, Becoming Beauvoir, loc 3475.)
This was an ethical disagreement: for Sartre, a woman's bad faith is measured according to her failure to participate in males' projects of seduction (see Toril Moi, 2008, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, 150-154). Beauvoir's ethical stance was, like Sartre's underlain by a metaphysical one. Sartre believed that we became free through a situation, that we could realize our freedom by transcending that situation. But Beauvoir objected that women's situations were not and could not be transcended, because they were part of the world that made them who they were, and in many cases, that world made it impossible for them to assert their freedom. Turning away from Sartre's analysis, she went back to Heidegger and the idea that human beings are at one with their world (Mitsein) and to Husserl's phenomenology in order to make it clear that it is the lived experience of women, rather than their situation we need to focus on in order to help them achieve freedom. (see Kate Fitzpatrick, Becoming Beauvoir, loc4298, and Manon Garcia, On ne Nait pas Soumise, on le Devient).
So how does this help us understand women's relationship to the home? Women, for Beauvoir cannot simply transcend their situation, nor should they accept them as inevitable: there is something that can be and should done. Resistance to any given aspect of women's lives, whether it is domesticity, motherhood, or subservience, is hard, but not futile, and it involves turning the world around, one meaning at a time.
But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s drama lies in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence? What circumstances limit women’s freedom and can she overcome them? The Second Sex, 37.
This is where I blog about my new book project (under contract with OUP): a history of the philosophy of the home and domesticity, from the perspective of women philosophers.