Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but in this guest blog, Shoshannah Jones Square, a DPhil student in English at the University of Oxford, suggests why we should read her fiction.
“It is the province of true genius to develop events, to discover their capabilities, to ascertain the different passions and sentiments with which they are fraught, and to diversify them with incidents, that give reality to the picture, and take a hold upon the mind of a reader,” writes William Godwin (1756-1836), anarchist, novelist, and husband of the feminist philosopher of feeling, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) (Maria 178). In thus concluding Wollstonecraft’s final, unfinished fiction, The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798), Godwin, editor of the work, cogently captures Wollstonecraft’s overarching authorial purpose: to engage her readers through emotion, and so to engender real-world ethics through the artistry of affective aesthetics. Maria is indeed “fraught” with feeling, and it is through this infusion of emotion that Wollstonecraft enlists and enlivens her reader’s empathy, forming an “affective bridge” between reader and text (Csengei 46). As Wollstonecraft declares in her “Preface” to Maria, “[i]n writing this novel, I have rather endeavoured to pourtray [sic] passions than manners”; it is the “sentiments,” Wollstonecraft asserts, that “I have embodied” (67). To “embody” is to “give concrete form to (what is abstract or ideal)”; in creating Maria, then, Wollstonecraft has “give[n] concrete form to” feeling (“Embody,” def.3a). This novelistic figuring forth of feeling serves Wollstonecraft’s “great moral purpose,” her ambitious political design, for it activates her readers’ empathy through affect, encouraging them to care about, in Wollstonecraft’s words, “the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society” (Godwin, Maria 178, Wollstonecraft, Maria 67). Through Wollstonecraft’s invitation to imagination, her readers are transported into the fictional world of Maria, “[feeling] their hearts awakened”—as Godwin writes in his “Appendix” to the novel—and thus their empathy stirred by the evocation of emotion (163). This is what one could term Wollstonecraft’s politics of feeling, whereby she employs the feeling-oriented art of fiction to rouse her readers’ empathy and so enjoin them to partake in her political purpose. Wollstonecraft uses “fictional worldmaking” to prompt her readers to re-make their own world, inspiring them to step outside the fictional frame and address gender inequity in their own society (Keen, “Temperaments” 298).
Thus, why read Wollstonecraft? Because her emotionally-wrought fiction will affect you; because the greatness of her writing, its empathic force, will move you, stirring contemplative and investigative thought, which itself is fertile ground for dialogue. As Wollstonecraft asserts in her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796)—a work praised by her contemporaries for the sympathy it summons in the reader through its acuteness and vibrancy of feeling—“[t]he most essential service . . . that authors could render to society, would be to promote inquiry and discussion” (33).1 This is precisely the achievement of Maria: not only does it contain the emotional effusiveness of Wollstonecraft’s Letters—“the natural and energetic expression of feelings” of which, according to a reviewer in the Monthly Mirror, “do credit to the writer’s heart,” and do “not fail to touch that of the reader”—Maria also possesses a political potency that demands critical attention and readerly reflection (qtd. in Brekke and Mee 164).2 In Maria, Wollstonecraft utilizes affective aesthetics to enkindle her readers’ empathy, persuading them to become “concerned participant[s]” in the life and experience of her oppressed and wrongly imprisoned female protagonist (Nussbaum, Knowledge 390). Indeed, in Maria, Wollstonecraft gives voice to several women silenced by a repressively patriarchal society, using stories within stories to highlight “the peculiar Wrongs of Woman” (Wollstonecraft, Maria 68).3 Through story, Wollstonecraft demands that her readers “attend to [the] histories, lives, and experiences” of women from a variety of backgrounds and social classes (Schaffer and Smith 1). And in teaching her readers to feel for and with her persecuted characters, in encouraging them to undergo an “imaginative process” of “experience-taking,” Wollstonecraft predisposes her readers to respond empathetically to similar human beings in their own lives (Kaufman and Libby 1).
Therefore, although known best for her groundbreaking feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft—an adept architect of narrative affect—should also be recognized for her literary deftness, for her masterful manipulation of the social medium of language as a means to imparting her political message. In Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft proves her polemical prowess; in Maria, she displays her artistry, illuminating the moral possibilities of feeling through emotionally evocative language. Consider, for example, the semantic charge and emotive power in Maria’s proclamation to her fellow inmate and soon-to-be-lover, the unreliable and effeminate Darnford: “‘I must open my whole heart to you; you must be told who I am, why I am here’” (Wollstonecraft, Maria 91). Although Maria—unjustly confined in a madhouse by her tyrannical husband, her only child having been callously stolen from her arms—is speaking to Darnford, she addresses the indefinite “you,” a practice she continues throughout her narrative. Maria’s habit of addressing that indeterminate “you,” in which the subject “you” is suspended in referential ambiguity, encourages an empathetic link, an affective alliance, between reader and fictive character. In this way, the reader becomes a participant in the story, functioning as Maria’s silent companion. This “sharing of affect” by means of the participatory imagination lies at the heart of fiction’s ethical power (Keen, “Empathy” 208). In Maria, Wollstonecraft harnesses the moral potential indwelling in fiction, cultivating care and compassion through emotionally persuasive storytelling and thereby motivating her readers towards ethical action.
Shoshannah Jones Square