Excerpt from Essay “Traveling to Mary”

In The Best Travel Writing, Vol 9, ed. Tim Cahill. San Francisco: Solas Press, 2012.

At the foot of Westminster Bridge in London rides a bronze woman bent on war. Drawn in a chariot behind two rearing horses, she sweeps her arms vengefully high, clutching a spear and beckoning some Fury from the air. She is Boudicca, Celtic warrior queen. In 60 AD, after Roman soldiers flogged her, then raped her two preteen daughters in front of her eyes, she did her damndest to kill them all. “Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune,” she shouted to her troops. “Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.” Boudicca nearly beat the Romans, but when her defeat became inevitable, she poisoned herself rather than accept it. Now she guards the entrance to a bridge, a place of crossing, of something new on the other side. In this city, pressed by a dying first love and the soft clamor of ancestral voices at my back, any bridge might be the bridge I’m looking for.

When I stare up at Boudicca, I’m a twenty-six-year-old graduate student in nineteenth-century British literature on my first trip to England, alone. It’s a landscape I’m already primed to read: a native of rural Alabama, raised on ancestor stories, I breathe the charged air of the not-quite-dead past as naturally as oxygen. At age seventeen, Dicey Langston – my great-great-great-great grandmother – swam across the frozen Tiger River near Travelers Rest, South Carolina to warn local rebels, including her brother, that a local band of British loyalists called the “Bloody Scouts” were about to attack their little settlement. She saved them all. When the same “Scouts” came to harass her father about his son’s whereabouts, she sprang – Pocahontas-like – in front of him and dared them to shoot. Later, she married Thomas Springfield, the leader of her brother’s rebel group, and had 22 children before her death at age 71 in 1837.

Dicey is, of course, short for Laodicea, the name of a Christian community cited in Revelations 3 as being “lukewarm,” destined to “spue” out of an angel’s mouth. Yet a teenage girl who could ford a frozen river to warn a whole settlement of disaster, flirt with the rebel leader (and marry him), and save her father is far from lukewarm – she’s a role model. As a child I never waded into a creek on our family’s farm without thinking of her; bookish and late-blooming, I loved the thought of her blood bracing up my own. As I got older, I feared lukewarmness more than anything. I smoked and drank and told riotous stories in bars. I wrote all night and went to rock shows and seized any chance for what I thought was love. I held on too tight to the first boy who said he loved me, because I feared there might never be another one. I looked so bold, so strong. Inside, I was so afraid.

Now, at twenty-six, I’m walking alone in one of the oldest cities of the Western world. It’s the year 2000, the milennium celebrated by the brand-new London Eye revolving just beyond Boudicca’s outstretched hand. This is a city built on the sites of women’s battles. Ravens stride the Tower yard where I gaze on the execution block that cradled Anne Boleyn’s neck. From a Thames-chugging tourist boat I study the dank stone of Traitors Gate, where young then-princess Elizabeth I craned up at the dripping archway as she passed underneath. In Westminster Abbey I shuffle in a line toward her marble deathbed effigy, its sharp profile softened like a cow-licked salt block by all those centuries of touch. I study the surprisingly small and ordinary Coronation Throne with its three hundred years of carved graffiti, a script date marked by some then-tourist: 1763. They filed past then just as I do now: even a cat can look at a king.

Having just read the work of the great English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft for the first time, I’m also looking for traces of her London – dark and rickety, racked by gin and crime and the decades-long clash with upstart colonists and French regicides one slim Channel’s-breadth away. Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, the same year as Dicey Langston. She approved of both these revolutions against what her future son-in-law Percy Shelley would call “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king.” But in 1795, age 36, weeping after a rakish American speculator named Gilbert Imlay deserted her, she was walking up and down on Putney Bridge to let the rain soak her skirts before she flung herself into the Thames. Dicey swam a swollen river to save lives; Wollstonecraft jumped in to kill herself. Peering down into the suck and gurgle of the brown water, I wonder: was this where they fished her out, or here?

In 1795, Dicey Langston, also age 36, was happy at home in South Carolina with her own rakish American, nursing the fifth of her soon-to-be twenty-two children. But Mary Wollstonecraft would bear only two children, both girls. The first, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide at an inn in Wales, her body buried anonymously by the parish. The second, Mary Godwin, ran away to the continent with a sexy married nobleman named Percy Shelley, grieved the deaths of three of her four children, and wrote, in the summer of 1816, a novel called Frankenstein. Mary’s birth caused an infection that killed Wollstonecraft at age 38, when Mary was ten days old. For her whole life, the younger Mary yearned toward the memory of her famous mother, tracing the invisible maps of grief: a creature bumbling and stumbling, looking for love, looking for a parent, blind to the rules and laws everyone else seems to know by instinct. This is non-lukewarm life: you always seem to want too much or try too hard or reach too high. You’re always crossing some line everyone else seems to see, always getting it wrong. Especially in love – which seems to me, as I study the lives of women, so frighteningly determinative for something so chancey. Wollstonecraft – like her daughters – would never be lukewarm.