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The ten thousand things and the one true only.

by Kip Manley

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Things to keep in mind:
The secret of reversals.

After twelve years of marriage, Wheeler had a f--ry-tale-like reversal of fortune and escaped in high style. She and her daughters snuck off to the coast and her brother sailed them to Guernsey. Her uncle, who was the island’s governor, lived in splendor in the gubernatorial mansion. He retained a French governess and teachers who taught his niece along with her daughters, and he introduced her to dukes, diplomats, and European émigrés. Charmed by her intelligence, they helped her cultivate the arts of repartee and debate. One duke, a cousin of the future king of France, courted her for twelve years, ignoring the fact that she was still married (until the death of Massey in 1820). It didn’t hurt Anna’s cause that she had matured into a beauty, with pale skin, gently curled chestnut hair, grey-blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and a mouth that was, according to her uncharacteristically complimentary daughter, “the most beautiful I ever saw, teeth dazzling as a row of oriental pearls; her smile most enchanting. Anna’s voice was low and sweet,” wrote Rosina, “the most excellent thing in women.”

After Anna’s uncle returned to England, she left the island, too. One of her son-in-law’s biographers—Rosina married the bestselling novelist and politician Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton—says that when she left, nearly everyone on Guernsey gathered on the beach to say goodbye. She moved to Caen, France, where she became, according to her grandson, “the bel esprit of a little group of socialists and freethinkers, to the support of whose doctrines she devoted both her purse and her pen.” These were the Saint-Simonistes, named after Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, a French aristocrat turned philosopher who proposed the formation of collectivist communities of industrial workers; his followers later developed a strain of eroticism (evident in Saint-Simon’s writings) that landed many of them in jail.

Trading Caen for London, Wheeler became a friend and correspondent of Robert Owen, the founder of Co-operativism, the leading British socialist movement at the time. Co-operators, also known as Owenites, were dismayed by the combined ravages of industrialization and increasing inequality, and envisioned a classless, communitarian world. This would be brought about, initially, by communities of mutual association, voluntary and democratically-governed settlements in which the fruits of all labor would be distributed to laborers (think: early kibbutzes). When industrial workers realized the advantages of self-sufficiency, Owenites reasoned, they’d abandon the factories and, with them, industrial capitalism. They’d also become happier and more benevolent, thus proving one of Owenism’s central tenets, that human character was formed by circumstance, not nature—a belief that made Owenism particularly appealing to women.

Judith Shulevitz

—posted 594 days ago

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