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?
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:
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, http://universitypublishingonline.org.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/cambridge/companions/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9780511998812&cid=CBO9780511998812A017.