Mary Wollstonecraft: Reflections and Interpretations

Mihaela Mudure (ed.), Mary Wollstonecraft: Reflections and Interpretations, Editura Napoca Star, 2014, pages 256.

One of the most revisited thinkers today, Spinoza is quickly becoming this century’s most lauded philosopher. Let us be reminded, for example, that Gilles Deleuze called him the “prince of philosophers”. Without further dwelling on the socio-political reasons behind this enormously rich and fascinating revaluation, it is equally interesting to note that something similar could easily be said of Mary Wollstonecraft.

“She dared to live with the men she loved even without the blessing of matrimony, which was as radical as one could think in her age” (p. 7). Her life, nevertheless, received much more attention than her work (as this second line extracted from the Introduction of Mihaela Mudure’s editorial effort clearly shows). Although she wrote about the most important event of her age – The French Revolution – A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) remains her best-known work until this day.
Passionately written, the Introduction continues with a brief but convincing historical account of eighteenth-century feminist thought. Borrowing Gerda Lerner’s distinction (“women tend to work in isolation and resume history over and over again instead of relying on their predecessors work or collaborating with their contemporaries. Men tend to work shoulder to shoulder and build upon their elders’ contributions”) coupled with socio-economic facts (“add the century-old unequal distribution of family resources for the education of boys and girls”), Mihaela Mudure argues that, although Mary Wollstonecraft’s voice was quite daring at the time, it certainly wasn’t the first (female voice of the Enlightenment) to deserve this attribute.

Be that as it may, the following argument is rather feeble since it displaces some of the major elements of (good) reasoning: notwithstanding logicality, the case falls back into pure belief – “I think that this is why equality between genders has always been highly regarded in this part of Europe” (the Northern countries).
Turning a blind eye to the editor’s intentionally polemic data-mining passages (“Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht (1718-1763) published To the Defense of Women. It was one year before Rousseau published his famous Émile”, “This completeness defies, long before Freud, the supposed female inferiority”), one can find very interesting details about Olympe de Gouges (she was, for instance, in very close relations with the Girondists): although not explicitly turning back to Lerner’s view (that women tend to resume history over and over again in a revolutionary kind of way), Mihaela Mudure shows how the masculine bias of the French Revolution led to the somewhat absurd conclusion that it is necessary “to destroy any women’s societies which, apparently, are the instruments used by the aristocracy to destabilize the country” (p. 9). Ironically, Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer herself, is mostly remembered for Marat’s famous assassination.
Mary Wollstonecraft (wife of philosopher William Godwin and mother of Mary Shelley) wrote philosophical essays, novelistic fragments, children books, a travel memoir, reviews, and several letters – almost all of them to the same effect: to envisage a new kind of education for women, a modern order which would bring forth equal rights for both sexes. Her work was analyzed from various perspectives: affect theories, feminist readings, political studies. Pointing out some reception problems in Romanian culture (the few to non-existing translations), Mihaela Mudure turns her attention to post-revolutionary scholarly contributions while reminding us that “Wollstonecraft’s image was that of a spokeswoman spreading anarchical and promiscuous ideas” (p. 11).
Basically, “this very diverse and rich collection of essays” wishes to reconsider her image, thus being part of a fairly recent field of academic inquiry conveniently entitled Persona Studies (there is no mention of this in the book). However, it is redundantly emphasized that “the variety and the richness of these essays” are held to re-imagine this eighteenth-century female personality, a prestigious historical figure whose “ideas can still give responses to contemporary realities” (p. 12).
Gönül Bakay closes her essay with the following line: “She understood that all these changes were necessary for women to achieve the standard of living they deserved; but could not foresee that more than two hundred years later still, from many points of view and in many fields, women would still not reach the desired equality with men” (pp. 26-27). Unfortunately, she also begins by writing something similar: “It is interesting to note that many of the improvements she envisaged in woman’s social status could be achieved in some parts of the world only in the twentieth century, and even then only partly”. The point has been made. Twice. What’s more, the author stresses the fact that her approach is a Turkish one, although, by the same token, this could be said to be a Romanian review. There are, of course, some parallels and close commentaries but they aren’t thoroughly convincing.
Isabelle Bour shows that Godwin was not only responsible for her wife’s damaged reputation, but also for the ignorance surrounding Wollstonecraft’s works for a very long time. She concludes by stating that Mary’s public image hasn’t actually changed with time. However, the biographers changed and (with them) the types of biographies being written. Isabelle Bour indirectly suggests that her husband’s account is a traditional one, whereas the late female assessments (Tomalin, Todd) are visibly modern.
Ulrich Broich’s contributions is an informant and a well-informed account of Mary Wollstonecraft’s radical perspectives. His hypothesis is that the novel is a much more complex form of expression than the theoretical treatise. Consequently, she is not so much interested in the political structure of society, but more in the relationship between men and women with respect to marriage and education. Like Isabelle Bour, the researcher also suggests that Wollstonecraft’s writings are far more modern than her contemporaries: “It is therefore very different from the rigid structure of Godwin’s Political Justice” (p. 37). Withouth falling into simple biographical criticism, Broich argues that the tragedy, according to Wollstonecraft, is not “caused by an unjust, male-dominant society, but by the simple fact that a woman may fall in love with a man who either does not love her or ceases to love her after some time” (p. 40). The author shows the inner contradictions of the English radical discourse at the end of the eighteenth-century, finally turning to historical and philosophical explanations, while identifying Goethe’s Werther as a seminal text: “Thus, her novel can be read not only as a political critique of things as they are but also as critiques of the anthropology on which her own theories were founded” (p. 43).
Michelle Faubert draws attention to three Romantic-era theories of mind (physiognomical, nervous, and associationist) and the ways in which they influenced Wollstonecraft’s thinking and writing about education. As Broich before her, Michelle Faubert believes that her (Wollstonecraft’s) fiction considers (or critiques) the present state of womankind: “Wollstonecraft also confirms that feminine character is acquired and not innate, as nerve theory suggests it is” (p. 54). As Ian Robertson Scott suggests, she seems to be testing the practicality of her theories through the characters she creates: “Since Wollstoncraft evidently believed that fiction can build women’s characters through the association of ideas, we may surmise that she wrote her own fiction with this purpose in mind” (p. 57). Her belief in the influence of associationism is, according to Michelle Faubert, a natural extension of her life-long belief in the power to educate human characters – the “key to her feminism” (p. 59).
As Mihaela Mudure points out, “Marie-Luisa Frick deals with Wollstonecraft’s pedagogy and her pre-Marxian ideas on private property as the source of evil” (p. 12), while Rebecca Hussey discusses Wollestonecraft’s travel letters, dwelling on problems such as movement and imprisonment.

“The Regendering of History: Mary Wollstonecraft and the French Revolution” signed by Lisa Kasmer is a well written and well-thought essay about what Steven Blakemore called “the woman question” (p. 114).

Analyzing Wollestonecraft’s fiction, Maria Mățel-Boatcă (a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Letters; “Babeș-Bolyai University” in Cluj-Napoca, Romania) offers multiple close-readings focusing on thanatic issues (death and suicide are two themes which are constantly present in Wollestonecraft’s life and writings). Methodologically, she examines “the social and sentimental bonding of the heroine with the other characters, with a special concern for Wollstonecraft’s morbid images” (p. 131), concluding that her fiction stands at the complicated intersection between the Enlightenment and the Romantic era.
Discussing Sappho-like relationships between Mary’s female characters, Mihaela Mudure – unlike Ulrich Broich who argues that Wollestonecraft sketched five different endings – shows that Wollstonecraft’s notes suggest two possible evolutions for her unfinished novel. Without offering a compelling conclusion, Mihaela Mudure sighs in the face of contemporary gender inequality immediately after recalibrating the essay’s opening statement: “The intimation of lesbianism in Maria makes Wollstonecraft the predecessor of these radical views” (p. 158).
Stuart Peterfreund (his research interests are: British Romanticism, literature, and science, and, most importantly, Judaic studies) offers an engaging interpretation by applying Edward Said’s theories to Wollstonecraft’s work, drawing his essay towards an equally fascinating cessation: “not only do men exert patriarchal authority over women, but men also use that patriarchal authority to speak for God, and on occasion to play him” (p. 180).

Alina Preda puts forward an exquisitely written and a theoretically minded essay concerning Mary Wollstonecraft’s biographies. Cynthia Richards is an expert on the topic of eighteenth-century women writers. Her essay argues that the author of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Orginal Stories from Real Life is a “theorist and writer of girlhood” (p. 12).

“Finally, the fundamental quest of Wollstonecraft’s own life was for a just and affectionate place for herself and her daughter. According to her theory that family affection was a stepping stone to the progress of human society, it was only when she constructed, in her own life, a harmonious family in which wife and husband had equal rights and reciprocal duties that her desire for happiness began to be fulfilled. If everyone, including herself, could be well-educated, virtuous, rational, politically literate, and within a happily constructed family, then a just and liberal state was not far away. Her expectation of the world, therefore, was, by and large, the expectation she had for herself” (p. 258) – this is the closing paragraph of Tsai-Yeh Wang’s essay. Having a Ph.D. in history, she has written on British women travelers during the French Revolution, and, as Mihaela Mudure points out, her essay discusses Wollestonecraft’s idea of perfectibility.


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