Mary Wollstonecraft, The Wrongs of Woman

We’ll just be talking about MW and the Wrongs of Woman today, and how Wollstonecraft’s fiction might affect this semester’s understanding of a number of topics we’ve been tracing.

Here are the main topics of conversation I’ll be bringing forward.

  • Marriage, courtship: what makes a good potential marriage partner, or marriage? how should a woman choose a partner?
  • Literature: how does fiction (e.g., the reading of fiction, the psychological involvement of women reading fiction, etc. etc.) affect women’s understanding of their circumstances? how does romance figure into her depiction of literary representation and reading?
  • Sensibility: how does sensibility’s lively awareness of others reinforce the most fundamental moral and social values? how does it relate to class? Can people of different classes feel for one another? how is it gendered?
  • Prejudice, injustice: what is standing in the way of fellow-feeling?
  • Form: How and where does the form of the Wrongs reinforce the values and arguments she advances here and elsewhere? What aspects of the previous novels can be found in some modified or reworked form? What aspects are entirely hers?

Those are mine. What are yours?

Biographies: ODNB (Wollstonecraft); Wikipedia


Chronology (Yadav); MW Chronology

1759: MW born; OE baptized in London, later becomes Methodist

1760: Geo III acc.

1788: MW pub. Mary, A Fiction

1789: French Revolution; OE pub. Interesting Narrative

1790: MW pub Vindication of Rights of Man, countering Burke’s Reflexions on the Revolution in France

1791: MW pub. Vindication of Rights of Women

1796: MW begins affair w/William Godwin, marries; starts Maria, or the Wrongs of Women

1797: MW pregnant, dies in childbirth

1798: MW’s biography posthumously published by Godwin, inadvertently wrecks her reputation


Mary Wollstonecraft represented a key turning point in British literary history, when many of the most conventional assumptions about a hierarchical society, social order, and the ordering of the sexes could be publicly questioned under the political and social pressures of the European Enlightenment and an expanding commercial society and global empire. Many of the most lasting institutions of European society were seen to rest upon nothing more than “prejudice” or “opinion.” The flimsiness of institutions like the Church, Courts, Nobility, or Kings, was revealed by the French Revolution (1789) and the so-called English “Jacobins” (named for the French revolutionaries) threatened these “prejudices” through their activism and pamphleteering throughout the 1790s and early 19th century. Edmund Burke’s Reflexions on the Revolution in France, one of the first “anti-jacobin,” conservative, and counter-revolutionary texts in English was hoped to prevent a similar revolution in England or Ireland. It was as a respondent to Burke that Wollstonecraft really made herself known as a radical writer, and the Vindications of the Rights of Women extended her fame, or notoriety as a female philosopher.

Literature, when it seemed the exclusive possession of leisured elites or at least the most literate professions (clergy, lawyers, doctors) has often justified subordination in various crude or refined ways.  As literacy and education became more widespread, however, more and more people of middling or humble origins were able to find education and access to print. This is why examples like Wollstonecraft are so important, but because she used her origins as an argument against a culture that would prefer her silence.

Some Critical Starting Points:

Claudia L. Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s–Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Cora Kaplan, “Mary Wollstonecraft’s Reception and Legacies,” in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 246–70,



society and Evelina

Q: which role does society play in Evelina that it doesn’t play in Clarissa? Why is social life important for Evelina’s growth?


This house seems to be the house of joy; every face wears a smile, and a laugh is at every body’s service. It is quite amusing to walk about and see the general confusion; a room leading to the garden is fitting up for Captain Mirvan’s study. Lady Howard does not sit a moment in a place; Miss Mirvan is making caps; every body so busy!—such flying from room to room!—so many orders given, and retracted, and given again!—nothing but hurry and perturbation.

Well but, my dear Sir, I am desired to make a request to you. I hope you will not think me an encroacher; Lady Howard insists upon my writing!—yet I hardly know how to go on; a petition implies a want and have you left me one? No, indeed.

I am half ashamed of myself for beginning this letter. But these dear ladies are so pressing-I cannot, for my life, resist wishing for the pleasures they offer me,—provided you do not disapprove them.

They are to make a very short stay in town. The Captain will meet them in a day or two. Mrs. Mirvan and her sweet daughter both go; what a happy party! Yet, I am not very eager to accompany them: at least I shall be contented to remain where I am, if you desire that I should.

Assured, my dearest Sir, of your goodness, your bounty, and your indulgent kindness, ought I to form a wish that has not your sanction? Decide for me, therefore, without the least apprehension that I shall be uneasy or discontented. While I am yet in suspense, perhaps I may hope; but I am most certain that when you have once determined I shall not repine.”

Jokes and Social Norms

In what way does “joking”–particularly the “joking relationship” between Madame Duval and captain Mirvan–reinforce and/or challenge social conventions?

The captain’s raptures, during supper, at the success of his plan, were boundless. I spoke, afterwards, to Mrs. Mirvan, with the openness which her kindness encourages, and begged her to remonstrate with him upon the cruelty of tormenting Madame Duval so causelessly. She promised to take the first opportunity of starting the subject, but said he was, at present, so much elated that he would not listen to her with any patience. However, should he make any new efforts to molest her, I can by no means consent to be passive. Had I imagined he would have been so vilent, I would have risked his anger in her defence much sooner.

Volume II, Letter 2, page 265

Clarissa’s Wit vs. Evelina’s Uncertainty

“As soon as the company dispersed, the ladies retired to dress. I then, unexpectedly, found myself alone with Lord Orville; who, the moment I rose to follow Mrs. Selwyn, advanced to me, and said, “Will Miss Anville pardon my impatience, if I remind her of the promise she was so good as to make me this morning?”

I stopped, and would have returned to my seat; but before I had time, the servants came to lay the cloth. He retreated, and went towards the window; and, while I was considering in what manner to begin, I could not help asking myself what right I had to communicate the affairs of Mr. Macartney: and I doubted whether, to clear myself from one act of imprudence, I had not committed another.

Distressed by this reflection, I thought it best to quit the room, and give myself some time for consideration before I spoke; and therefore, only saying I must hasten to dress, I ran up stairs, rather abruptly I own; and so, I fear, Lord Orville must think. Yet what could I do? Unused to the situations in which I find myself, and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act.” (Letter 67)

Here we see how different Evelina is from Clarissa. Clarissa was very sure of herself. Even though she falls prey to Lovelace’s scheme, she is incredibly witty, especially for a woman, and she conceives of plans to escape many of the pitfalls that line her destiny. Evelina, on the other hand, lacks confidence. She is very new to larger society and does not possess the knowledge of how to act and converse with anyone far beyond those familiars with which she was raised. Evelina never thinks she does anything write and always seems to lament her words and actions, while Clarissa believes that she has sometimes acted in the best way she could and other times laments her decisions.

Evelina/Clarissa as The Reformed Coquette

How might Clarissa and Evelina— and their respective situations— be characterized (similarly or differently) under Spencer’s definition of the reformed coquette, particularly in relation to the “lover-mentor” model she claims in Davy’s The Reformed Coquette?

Volume II, Letter VIII:

“With a reluctance which occasions me inexpressible uneasiness, I have been almost compelled to consent that my Evelina should quit the protection of the hospitable and respectable Lady Howard, and accompany Madame Duval to a city which I had hoped she would never again have entered. But alas, my dear child, we are the slaves of custom, the dupes of prejudice, and dare not stem thee torrent of an opposing world, even though our judgements condemn our compliance! However, since the die is cast, we must endeavor to make the best of it.

You will have occasion, in the course of the month you are to pass with Madame Duval, for all the circumspection and prudence you can call to your aid: she will not,  know, propose any thing to you which she thinks wrong herself; but you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: if any schemes are started, any engagements made, which your understanding represents to you as improper, exert yourself resolutely in avoiding them, and do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret (p. 156).”

Stakes in Evelina

How are the stakes constructed differently in Evelina than they are in Clarissa? Do we ever really believe that there’s the potential for an unhappy ending in Evelina’s tale? If not, what is the compelling factor keeping the reader engaged?

Volume III, Letter VI:

“Awake, then, my dear, my deluded child, awake to the sense of your danger, and exert yourself to avoid the evils with which it threatens you, – evils which, to a mind like yours, are most to be dreaded, secret repining, and concealed, yet consuming regret! Make a noble effort for the recovery of your peace, which now, with sorrow I see it, depends wholly upon the presence of Lord Orville. This effort, may, indeed, be painful, but trust to my experience, when I assure you it is requisite.

You must quit him! – his sight is baneful to your repose, his society is death to your future tranquillity! Believe me, my beloved child, my heart aches for your suffering, while it dictates its necessity.

Could I flatter myself that Lord Orville would, indeed, be sensible of your worth, and act with a nobleness of mind which should prove it congenial to his own, then would I leave my Evelina to the unmolested enjoyment of the chearful society and increasing regard of a man she so greatly admires: but this is not an age in which we may trust to appearances, and imprudence is much sooner regretted than repaired. ”

[I have a digital copy of the book that doesn’t have page numbers]

Rakes and Wrongs

In what ways is the character of Sir Clement Willoughby similar/different to Lovelace? How does he interact with Evelina and what strikes you as different about their relationship than the main characters in our previous novel? What are Evelina’s concerns in the coach on the way home from the Opera? And how do these concerns align with or detract from Clarissa’s similar concerns about her relationship with Lovelace? What precisely is at stake in this scene?

Volume 1, Letter XXI (Oxford World Classics, pp. 99–101)

“My dearest life,” cried he, “is it possible you can be so cruel? Can your nature and your countenance be so totally opposite? Can the sweet bloom upon those charming cheeks, which appears as much the result of good-humour as of beauty-”

“O, Sir,” cried I, interrupting him, “this is very fine; but I had hoped we had had enough of this sort of conversation at the ridotto, and I did not expect you would so soon resume it.”

“What I then said, my sweet reproacher, was the effect of a mistaken, a profane idea, that your understanding held no competition with your beauty; but now, now that I find you equally incomparable in both, all words, all powers of speech, are too feeble to express the admiration I feel of your excellencies.”

“Indeed,” cried I, “if your thoughts had any connection with your language, you would never suppose that I could give credit to praise so very much above my desert.”

This speech, which I made very gravely, occasioned still stronger protestations; which he continued to pour forth, and I continued to disclaim, till I began to wonder that we were not in Queen Ann Street, and begged he would desire the coachman to drive faster.

“And does this little moment,” cried he, “which is the first of happiness I have ever known, does it already appear so very long to you?”

“I am afraid the man has mistaken the way,” answered I, “or else we should ere now have been at our journey’s end. I must beg you will speak to him.”

“And can you think me so much my own enemy?-if my good genius has inspired the man with a desire of prolonging my happiness, can you expect that I should counteract its indulgence?”

I now began to apprehend that he had himself ordered the man to go a wrong way; and I was so much alarmed at the idea, that, the very instant it occurred to me, I let down the glass, and made a sudden effort to open the chariot-door myself, with a view of jumping into the street; but he caught hold of me, exclaiming, “For Heaven’s sake, what is the matter?”

“I-I don’t know,” cried I (quite out of breath), “but I am sure the man goes wrong; and if you will not speak to him, I am determined I will get out myself.”

“You amaze me,” answered he (still holding me), “I cannot imagine what you apprehend. Surely you can have no doubts of my honour?”

He drew me towards him as he spoke. I was frightened dreadfully, and could hardly say, “No, Sir, no,-none at all: only Mrs. Mirvan,-I think she will be uneasy.”

“Whence this alarm, my dearest angel?-What can you fear?-my life is at your devotion, and can you, then, doubt my protection?”

And so saying, he passionately kissed my hand.

Never, in my whole life, have I been so terrified. I broke forcibly from him, and, putting my head out of the window, called aloud to the man to stop. Where we then were, I know not; but I saw not a human being, or I should have called for help.

Sir Clement, with great earnestness, endeavoured to appease and compose me: “If you do not intend to murder me,” cried I, “for mercy’s, for pity’s sake, let me get out!”

“Compose your spirits, my dearest life,” cried he, “and I will do everything you would have me.” And then he called to the man himself, and bid him make haste to Queen Ann Street. “This stupid fellow,” continued he, “has certainly mistaken my orders; but I hope you are now fully satisfied.”

I made no answer, but kept my head at the window watching which way he drove, but without any comfort to myself, as I was quite unacquainted with either the right or the wrong.

Sir Clement now poured forth abundant protestations of honour, and assurances of respect, intreating my pardon for having offended me, and beseeching my good opinion: but I was quite silent, having too much apprehension to make reproaches, and too much anger to speak without.

In this manner we went through several streets, till at last, to my great terror, he suddenly ordered the man to stop, and said, “Miss Anville, we are now within twenty yards of your house; but I cannot bear to part with you, till you generously forgive me for the offence you have taken, and promise not to make it known to the Mirvan’s.”

I hesitated between fear and indignation.

“Your reluctance to speak redoubles my contrition for having displeased you, since it shews the reliance I might have on a promise which you will not give without consideration.”

“I am very, very much distressed,” cried I; “you ask a promise which you must be sensible I ought not to grant, and yet dare not refuse.”

“Drive on!” cried he to the coachman;-“Miss Anville, I will not compel you; I will exact no promise, but trust wholly to your generosity.”

This rather softened me; which advantage he no sooner received, than he determined to avail himself of; for he flung himself on his knees, and pleaded with so much submission, that I was really obliged to forgive him, because his humiliation made me quite ashamed: and, after that, he would not let me rest till I gave him my word that I would not complain of him to Mrs. Mirvan.

My own folly and pride, which had put me in his power, were pleas which I could not but attend to in his favour. However, I shall take very particular care never to be again alone with him.

When, at last, we arrived at our house, I was so overjoyed, that I should certainly have pardoned him then, if I had not before. As he handed me up stairs, he scolded his servant aloud, and very angrily, for having gone so much out of the way. Miss Mirvan ran out to meet me; -and who should I see behind her, but Lord Orville!

All my joy now vanished, and gave place to shame and confusion; for I could not endure that he should know how long a time Sir Clement and I had been together, since I was not at liberty to assign any reason for it.

Frances Burney, Evelina

Hope everyone had a good break.

This week for Evelina I’d like each of you to prepare for class a passage and a question that shows, in one way or another, the characteristic differences between Burney and Richardson, even though both write epistolary, sentimental fiction centered around a heroine’s plight. So in terms of characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, etc., how and why do they differ, and what do those differences reveal about their purposes as writers?

Each of you will be swapping and answering each others’ questions in class (not your own).

See you tomorrow,


Death and Authorship in Clarissa

In “Authorship and Generic Exploitation: Why Lovelace must Fear Clarissa,” Murray Brown discusses death as the “ultimate loss of power” for Lovelace. As a character bent on asserting control, death puts an end to Lovelace’s control over Clarissa and will likely send him into the underworld. But death is not entirely unpalatable to Lovelace. In letter 516, Lovelace sends out a half-hearted death wish to Bedford, blaming him for not saving Clarissa like a true “knight-errant.” (1440) By branding Belford as a moral failure, Lovelace distances himself from Clarissa’s death. Lovelace’s attitude toward death also seems ambivalent as he claims to use his death to “expiate” his crimes in his final death scene, but this is an unwanted result: he accepts the duel because he thinks he will win and will derive joy from it. This unexpectedness indicates Lovelace’s failure to write his own story: while he has been successful in destroying Clarissa physically, he could not destroy her spiritually. By dying in a “rather hackneyed” way, Lovelace also hands authorship back to Richardson, accepting his demise in a novel that serves to educate.

Clarissa’s pursuit of death, however, takes a different approach. While death is a likely outcome for her (especially as a raped heroine), Clarissa takes time to accept her own death. Her inaction for most of the story limits her ability to carve out an action plan for herself and reduces her to her bedroom, where she writes to defend her virtues. Death, however, gradually becomes the best outcome as she strengthens her position as a paragon of virtue. Her early dream about being blamed and buried by Lovelace for her family’s plots against him foreshadows her death. While she fears it back then, she welcomes death at the end of the novel as a way to write her own stories and educate others. Her references to death also imply her elevation to heaven: even in her early dream, she dies with “all her good deeds and prayers, and protestations of innocence.” I thought about Hamlet when I read this: Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius while he is praying; if he does so, Claudius will go straight to heaven. If we follow Hamlet’s theological view, then Clarissa seems to be implying her own elevation to heaven. While it is ungodly to seek death, Clarissa resolves the issue by becoming one with God. Her death is clearly portrayed as God’s will and triggers all the retribution and reward for the other characters. Here, Clarissa finally assumes authorship of the novel and goes on to heaven — a place where her virtues can find better appreciation.

Works Cited

Brown, Murray L. “Authorship and Generic Exploitation: Why Lovelace must Fear Clarissa.” Studies in the Novel 30.2 (1998): 246-59.

Castle, Terry. “Lovelace’s Dream.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Volume 13, 1984, pp. 29-42.,

Narratives in Clarissa’s last third

Babb’s argument for oscillations on the line level and back-and-forth narrative on the macro level operates a little differently in the last third of Clarissa. It seems to me that within this last third, the oscillations at the line level seem to decrease a bit, due to the progression of the plot. Clarissa’s rape is a pivotal turning point in the book, with an aftermath that can be identified with the distinct change in Clarissa’s decisiveness. Prior to it, Clarissa does suffer from extreme bouts of uncertainty about the decisions that she is making; in trying to maintain her honor and purity and in being put in a Catch-22 situation of having to choose between Solmes and Lovelace, Clarissa is constantly working out, through her correspondence, how to find a solution to please both her family and herself. Post-rape, we see a change in her countenance—of course, there are first the madness letters, in which we first see the inklings of her decisiveness towards death (“When honour’s lost, ‘tis a relief to die:/Death’s but a sure retreat from infamy…” (p.893)). And this only continues—no longer is Clarissa wavering as to what to do; instead, the further along we move in this last section, the surer of herself she becomes, and confides in Anna Howe her ultimate plan (“Let me repeat that I am quite sick of life (p. 1020)) as well as by the very end Mrs. Norton (“My wedding garments are bought— and though not fine or gaudy to the sight, though not adorned with jewels and set off with gold and silver…a security against all those anxieties, pains, and perturbations which sometimes succeed to the most promising outsettings” (p. 1339).) and John Belford (“let me hope that I may be an humble instrument in the hands of Providence to reform a man of your parts and abilities; and then I shall think that loss will be more abundantly repaired to the world…(p. 1368)”). On the macro level, we can see shifts in characterization and the density of letters that are provided to the reader, which really help ground them in the type of changes each character encounters. Perhaps most noticeable is the changes in density of letters from/to Clarissa and Lovelace, post-rape. Along with Clarissa’s self-assurance, the sheer number of letters addressed between her to Anna, etc. seems to be less than the number we encountered before the rape— indicating, perhaps, that Clarissa coming to terms with her death makes her regular correspondences to figure out her decisions less necessary. In contrast, letters between Lovelace and Belford increase in frequency/density, which seems to correspond with Lovelace’s growing guilt and uncertainty about what he’s done and how to move forward as Clarissa starts gaining her power from accepting the one thing he doesn’t want her to do. Hynes, on the other hand, describes the proleptic utterances throughout the novel as a key, but often times ambiguous technique, a particular example being the curse that Clarissa is subjected to, put on her by her father. Yet, I would argue that the ambiguity of the proleptic discourse is actually a strong argument for representing the book as a whole, and the differing levels of uncertainty about how likely a proleptic argument will actually come true ties to the back-and-forth oscillations on levels of both line and characterization, and enhances that more than ever before; the point of this technique is not necessarily on a plot level, but on the level of characters and how they gain or lose characterization rather than what specifically they move towards.

Works Cited

Babb, Howard S. “Richardson’s Narrative Mode in Clarissa.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 16, no. 3, [Rice University, Johns Hopkins University Press], 1976, pp. 451–60,

Hynes, Peter. “Curses, Oaths, and Narrative in Richardson’s Clarissa.” ELH, vol. 56, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 311–26,