Author prior to 1790 only of a conventional work in the conduct book genre and a semi-confessional novel, Wollstonecraft’s practice as a reviewer for the Analytical Review prepared her entry into the male arena of political debate with A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), one of the earliest replies to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This polemical essay, largely a personal attack on Burke despite its claim to offer a reasoned critique (and thus succumbing to the same emotionalism and rhetorical excess it condemns in his text), is of interest mainly in so far as it anticipates the sociopolitical analysis of the more famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that followed.
Addressing herself to middle-class women as those most susceptible to reformation, Wollstonecraft sets out in the Rights of Woman to inspire a “revolution in female manners” and to attack justifications of women’s subordinate status whether biblically derived or in the more insidious contemporary form of a Rousseauvian eroticized idealization of feminine submissiveness. Wollstonecraft bases her defense of women’s rights on the claim that women like men were created free moral agents endowed with reason. Their inferiority and subordinate status are neither natural nor divinely ordained but a product of social conditioning. While conceding that women in their present state are inferior to men—indeed, reduced to “a state of degradation”—Wollstonecraft blames it on a misconceived education that prepares girls to become the objects of male desire rather than independent rational beings fit for their vital moral and social role as mothers.
Rational education is therefore the primary and most urgently needed right she claims for women. (Her more radical claims—the rights to political representation and economic independence through work outside the home—are buried in the final chapters.) In condemning the infantilization of middle-class and aristocratic women and in adumbrating the vices produced by dependence, miseducation, and the overdevelopment of sensibility at the expense of reason, Wollstonecraft does not herself entirely avoid the misogyny she is attempting to combat. Her anger is directed as much at women (whom she condemns for colluding in their own oppression) as at their oppressors. Her stress on maternal duty combined with her attack on romantic love (informed by an awareness of its role in disguising women’s subordinate status) lead her, as modern critics have noted, to deny women’s sexual needs. While attempting to free women from the influence of writers like Rousseau who have made them “objects of pity,” Wollstonecraft offers as sternly puritanical a message as any conduct book.
Digressive, repetitive, and rambling in organization, the Rights of Woman is not always easy reading. At its best it has an urgent energy and incisiveness, but it often declines into sermon or harangue. However, despite its undeniable flaws and limitations, it remains a work of major significance as the first feminist manifesto, far ahead of its time in its political and psychological insights and its call for the moral, intellectual, and economic autonomy of women.
While her two-year stay in France led to An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), a defense of the Revolution despite the excesses of the Terror, it was a Scandinavian journey that inspired the work which, after the Rights of Woman, is Wollstonecraft’s best claim to interest the modern reader: Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Often characterized as an odd mix of genres, combining elements of the tour, the epistolary novel, and the confession, it is precisely through its elision of generic boundaries that A Short Residence has survived. Presented in the guise of letters to an unnamed but clearly faithless lover (Gilbert Imlay, whose legal interests Wollstonecraft was representing in a Norwegian court case), the book is a series of essays in miniature, linked by the journey narrative and moving easily from the experiences of the day to the larger concerns that preoccupy the writer. Permitting the combination of social analysis and subjective response, moral reflection and personal revelation, inviting the associative and the spontaneous as principles of composition, the travel genre and epistolary form gave free play to Wollstonecraft’s talents and interests, liberating her from the constraints of the masculine political discourse she had sought with only partial success to emulate in her polemical writings. The situation of deserted mother and infant daughter caught the sympathy of contemporary readers while coloring both Wollstonecraft’s observation of Scandinavian society and her descriptions of the Northern landscape. It was this latter aspect, as well as the novelty of an account of a region hitherto unexplored in the travel literature of the period, that captivated William Godwin, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey and influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (wr. 1797, pub. 1816). While often couched in the conventional language of the sublime, at its best
Wollstonecraft’s attempt to convey the “romantic” character of the landscape blends observation and introspection in a manner that anticipates the Romantic exploration of self and nature.
A Short Residence was in some sense her personal vindication, not only in its selfjustifying declarations of virtuous love and maternal duty as she tries to come to terms with her situation as cast-off mistress and single mother, but in its selfportrait of a woman who can ask “men’s questions” while revealing a mother’s tenderness, who has eschewed the conditioned frailty of her sex (so vigorously denounced in the Rights of Woman) and its concomitant need for protection, while retaining a feminine sensibility and refinement.
That this independence has not freed her from emotional need becomes increasingly evident in the final letters and the abrupt and desperate ending.
Despite the recognition she achieved with these two works, Wollstonecraft’s untimely death in childbirth and the subsequent publication of Godwin’s ill-judged revelations of her life effectively curtailed any influence she might have had upon her contemporaries as writer or analyst. But the re-examination of her work in recent decades has not only established her as a significant figure in her time, it has also contributed importantly to new ways of viewing that era.
Born 27 April 1759 in London. Lived in Beverley, Yorkshire, 1768–73, London, 1774– 75 and 1777, and Laugharne, Wales, 1776. Paid companion, Bath, 1778–80; ran, with her sisters and a friend, a school in Islington, then Newington Green, London, 1784–86; governess in Mitchelstown, County Cork, 1786–87. Translator and reader for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, and reviewer and editorial assistant for his journal the Analytical Review, London, 1787–92 and 1797. Lived in France, reporting on the French Revolution, 1792–95. Liaison with Gilbert Imlay, 1793–95: one daughter. Traveled in Scandinavia, 1795, then returned to England. Married William Godwin, 1797: one daughter (the writer Mary Shelley). Died (of septicemia after childbirth) in London, 10 September 1797.
Essays and Related Prose
A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790; revised edition, 1790; facsimile reprint, 1960;
edited by Sylvana Tomaselli, with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1995
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792; revised edition, 1792; edited by Charles W.Hagelman, Jr., 1967, Gina Luria, 1974, Miriam Brody Kramnick, 1975, Carol H.Poston, 1975, Ulrich H. Hardt, 1982, Mary Warnock, with The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, 1986, Ashley Tauchert, 1995, and Sylvana Tomaselli, with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1995
Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, 1796;
edited by Carol H.Poston, 1976; as A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, edited by Richard Holmes, 1987
Other writings: two novels, the polemical work Thoughts on the Education of Dattghters (1787), a book about the French Revolution (1794), and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Works, edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, 7 vols., 1989.
Todd, Janet, Mary Wollstonecraft: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1976
Alexander, Meena, Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley, Basingstoke: Macmillan, and Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1989
Conger, Syndy McMillen, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Language of Sensibility, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994
Cox, Stephen, “Sensibility as Argument,” in Sensibility in Transformation: Creative Resistance to Sentiment from the Augustans to the Romantics, edited by Syndy McMillen Conger, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990
Finke, Laurie A., “A Philosophic Wanton: Language and Authority in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in The Philosopher as Writer: The Eighteenth
Century, edited by Robert Ginsberg, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1987
Ellison, Julie, “Redoubled Feeling: Politics, Sentiment, and the Sublime in Williams and Wollstonecraft,” Studies in Eighteenth– Century Culture 20 (1990):197–215
Ferguson, Moira, and Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft, Boston: Twayne, 1984
Guralnick, E.S., “Rhetorical Strategy in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” Humanities Association Review 30, no. 3 (1989):174–85
Jones, Vivien, “Women Writing Revolution: Narratives of History and Sexuality in Wollstonecraft and Williams,” in Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts 1780–1832, edited by Stephen Copley and John Whale, London and New York: Routledge, 1992
Kaplan, Cora, “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism,” in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gayle Green and Coppelia Kahn, London and New York: Methuen, 1985
Kelly, Gary, Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992
Moore, Jane, “Plagiarism with a Difference: Subjectivity in ‘Kubla Khan’ and Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark,” in Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts 1780–1832, edited by Stephen Copley and John Whale, London and New York: Routledge, 1992
Myers, Mitzi, “Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written…in Sweden: Toward Romantic Autobiography,” Studies in Eighteenth-century Culture 8 (1979):165–85
Parks, George B., “The Turn to the Romantic in the Travel Literature of the Eighteenth Century,” Modern Language Quarterly 25 (1964):22–33
Poovey, Mary, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984
Wilson, Anna, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Search for the Radical Woman,” Genders 6 (1989):88–101
Yaeger, Patricia, Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women’s Writing, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988
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