A Vindication of the Daughters of Albion – Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born in 1759, two years after William Blake, becoming one of the most important writers and thinkers of her day – although the full effects of her ideas were only to be felt a century after her death in 1797.

Wollstonecraft is, of course, most famous for her The Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 and a follow-up to her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. While there were plenty of other answers to Burke, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man being the most famous, her defence of women’s rights was almost unique in the late eighteenth century.

While the Vindication had an important influence on Blake in the early 1790s, it was not the only link between him and Wollstonecraft. He knew both her and her future husband, William Godwin, through the publisher Joseph Johnson, and when Johnson decided to issue a second edition of her Original Stories from Real Life in 1791, Blake was hired to illustrate the book. Wollstonecraft, like Blake in Songs of Innocence, sought to take advantage of the growing market in children’s literature that existed in the final decades of the eighteenth century; Wollstonecraft’s aim was to demonstrate that women would be rational if educated properly, and while it is hard to imagine Blake agreeing with her emphasis on reason, he nonetheless produced six charming illustrations for the edition.

It was the Vindication, however, that appeared to have a more profound effect, most notably on Visions of the Daughters of Albion which he produced a year after Wollstonecraft’s extremely important tract. Ever since R. M. James’s paper on the reception of the Vindication in 1798, it has been recognised that her book was greeted with favourable rather than horrified reviews – those didn’t follow until Godwin’s ill-advised memoirs were published in 1798. As such, Blake’s positive response to the book was not unique – but it was exceptional for a male writer to devote a substantial work to her ideas. (I welcome corrections and amendments on this point, by the way, from any readers.)

In Visions, Oothoon, travelling to her lover Theotormon, is taken and raped by a rival, Bromion. Theotormon, discovering the pair, binds them together in a fit of jealousy, holding them both responsible for the crime and, at the end of the book, Oothoon responds with a powerful soliloquy denouncing masculine laws:

How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?
How the industrious citizen the pains of the husbandman.
How different far the fat fed hireling with hollow drum;
Who buys whole corn fields into wastes, and sings upon the heath:
How different their eye and ear! how different the world to them!
With what sense does the parson claim the labour of the farmer?
What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him
With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude,
To build him castles and high spires. where kings & priests may dwell.
Till she who burns with youth. and knows no fixed lot; is bound
In spells of law to one she loaths: and must she drag the chain
Of life, in weary lust! (plate 5:12-23)

There are significant and important differences between Blake’s conception of proto-feminism and Wollstonecraft’s, an emphasis on sexuality rather than reason, for example – while subsequent lines in which Oothoon imagines procuring women for an orgy with Theotormon are troubling (Helen Bruder may be correct in seeing these as an example of just how far Oothoon is compromised by her slavery, rather than an expression of fantasies on Blake’s part). Nonetheless, what is most powerful about these lines and the poem as a whole is the way that Blake can move from the specifics of sexual oppression, for example within marriage, to an understanding of the wider extension of patriarchy and power.

Later Blake, for me, is much more disappointing with regard to his opinions on gender and sexuality: there is too much inveighing against “female will”, and while that brief dismissal does not cover anything like the complexity of his thought, this is one area that I am not willing to let him off the hook and race towards a positive interpretation. He was a great writer who sometimes rose above the conditions of his sex – but not always. One thing that is remarkable about his early work, however (and this is something that appears to have preceded his encounters with Wollstonecraft, or at least publication of the Vindication), is that he was a writer who, for a while at least, had a full and sincere appreciation of women’s conditions, not only their oppression but also what joys of motherhood, learning and general life were available to them in the late eighteenth century – joys that were often dismissed and denigrated by his more powerful contemporaries.

Scarlet Woman: Heather Corinna

Recently I noticed a fair amount of traffic coming to Zoamorphosis from people looking for a particular name, Heather Corinna. This was after a tweet of mine about an online interview with her that appeared on feministing.com was added to the site. I recognised the name from the old Albion mail list, but only recently realised that William Blake has been a continuing influence on the queer polymath and feminist activist who c0-founded The All Girl Army and whose work can be found on sites such as Scarlet Letters and Scarleteen. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend her blog and various musings at femmerotic.com, and her work has accolades from sources as diverse as Playboy to the Utne Reader.

Here I’ll concentrate on where Blake threads his way through some of her work. From the 1970s onwards, Blake took a beating from a number of feminist writings and – to be honest – deserved a great deal of it. While there is plenty that is vibrant, uplifting and sexually liberating about Blake’s works, he couldn’t resist absorbing all those emanations into his four zoas, and if he celebrates femininity, even feminism, the female vision of Beulah always seems to take second place to masculine Eden, at least in his later work.

In fact, that phrase – “later work” – sums up my own problems around Blake and gender. In his early works, such as The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, he has no problems whatsoever with recognising the importance of gender politics and a Wollstonecraft-inspired response to the oppression of women in his day (he had, after all, illustrated some of Wollstonecraft’s work during the 1790s). Unsurprisingly, it is Visions, and particularly the lead character of Oothoon, that is one of Corinna’s inspirations:

HC: It’s crazy tough to pick just one, but Oothoon in William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion would have to win it if it was just one. It’s a short piece, but in but a few pages, mostly composed of Oothoon speaking and telling her own tale, she does those most magnificent telling-off on everything from how crazy it is for anyone to suggest that a woman raped is somehow “tainted” or “impure,” to what’s really at the core of sexual jealousy to what sexual freedom and women’s sexuality could really be like in a better world. It also contains Blake’s concept of what innocence is, which is radically different from how we usually hear it defined. For Blake, innocence was simply where we are at without experience, less about purity and more about an open wonder, then we get life experience, and the ideal state — unlike the one we often see, which is this perpetual state of innocence or “purity” — is to return to innocence informed and deepened by experience. (From an interview on Feministing)

Corinna spent her early years alternating between Chicago and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before attending the Chicago Academy of Arts and Shimer College where, in her own words, “she discovered Blake and found that erotic literature and sexuality could parade as an actual major”. After throwing herself into online communities (All Girl Army being the most notable of many) as well as specialising in writing about sexuality and working as a sexuality educator and queer activist, she attracted considerable attention for sites such as scarleteen.com (she’s also a trained Montessori teacher). In short, she’s just the kind of person to get down and dirty with Blake or engage in an honest (mental) fight with him, for without contaries is no progression – though there would not necessarily be that many contraries between the two of them.

Blake crops up again and again in Corinna’s work, but I’m going to end with just one piece to demonstrate her way of using him to make humane and often extremely thoughtful observations – in this case on the subject of rape advice for teenagers:

Were our thoughts, as a whole people, more broad and wider in scope on sexuality, we would understand that an act of rape, legally defined as “a sexual act committed against a woman’s will,” is only a sexual act for the perpetrator, and even in that, has far more to do with other factors, such as power, dominance, control, anger and emotional imbalance, than it does with sex at all.

William Blake, in the late 1700’s, wrote a piece entitled Visions of the Daughters of Albion. At the time, the premise of this piece was revolutionary: Oothoon, a woman in love with Theotormon, is raped by another, Bromion, and despite Theotormon’s feelings she is “spoiled,” she boldly asserts otherwise. Oothoon — and Blake — states clearly that she is incapable of being spoiled, ruined or sullied by the action of others upon her, in which she had no part or engagement with. Thankfully, others have also finally begun to realize this is so. (From scarleteen.com)