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L'engagement dans les romans féminins de la Grande-Bretagne des xviiie et xixe siècles

 | 
Thierry Goater
, 
Élise Ouvrard

Première partie. De la revendication politique à l'écriture fictionnelle : Mary Wollstonecraft

Committing to female politics: Mary Wollstonecraft or the voice of romantic emancipation

Caroline Bertonèche

Résumé

Cet article rend hommage aux talents romanesques de l’écrivain féministe, Mary Wollstonecraft, auteure de deux œuvres majeures de fiction, pourtant moins connues que son essai sur les droits de la femme. Figure reine de l’engagement politique au siècle romantique, Wollstonecraft, femme (émancipée) de Godwin, théoricienne de l’éducation et mère de Mary Shelley, est ici mise à l’honneur pour avoir su donner au roman, par-delà la cruauté « gothique » du genre, ses (en) jeux sexuels et sa mauvaise réputation, une nouvelle identité sociale ainsi qu’une toute autre dimension de lecture.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Macdonald D. L. & Scherf K. (ed.), A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Hon (...)

Let us eat, drink, and love, for to-morrow we die [Isaiah, 22:13], would be, in fact the language of reason, the morality of life; and who but a fool would part with a reality for a fleeting shadow? But, if awed by observing the improbable powers of the mind, we disdain to confine our wishes or thoughts to such a comparatively mean field of action.
(Mary Wollstonecraft,
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792)1

The powers of a woman’s mind: Mary’s commitment to fiction

  • 2 Johnson C. L., “Mary Wollstonecraft’s novels”, Johnson C. L. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary (...)
  • 3 Wollstonecraft M., “The Advertisement”, Mary; A Fiction, London, Hard Press, 1788, p. 6.

1If Mary Wollstonecraft is generally remembered and celebrated for her essay and response to Edmund Burke’s political pamphlet, the universally acknowledged Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), written as the antidote to the Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) or, on a more personal level, portrayed as the wife of William Godwin and the mother of Mary Shelley, she is more seldom known for her novelistic skills which yet seemed to have framed, from both ends, her career as a writer. She wrote two novels only, one completed in the early days of her literary life, the other produced at the height of her achievements, but left suspended and, like the Vindication, symptomatically unfinished. Mary, A Fiction was published in 1788 and her ultimate piece of work, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, was edited posthumously as a fragment in 1798 by Godwin. As so many variations of her autobiographical self—Mary (here identical), Maria (there partially, although inconclusively masked)—Wollstonecraft’s heroines were meant to have a mind and a voice of their own. As revolutionary as it was then and as natural as it seems to us today, Wollstonecraft had to start with a reasonable enough claim which was “stunning both in its simplicity and its ambition2”: a woman’s right to thought (“In an artless tale, without episodes, the mind of a woman, who has thinking powers is displayed3”) coupled with that same woman’s right to express such a thought had she “wished to speak for [herself], and not be an echo” or the “shadow of a sound”. In the more tragic case of Eliza, Mary’s mother, married to a bore/boar of a husband and numbed to the point of nothingness, reeducating her to the power of speech meant going as far as bringing her back to existence:

  • 4 Wollstonecraft M., Mary; A Fiction, ibid., p. 8.

He [Edward] hunted in the morning, and after eating an immoderate dinner, generally fell asleep: this seasonable rest enabled him to digest the cumbrous load; he would then visit some of his pretty tenants; and when he compared their ruddy glow of health with his wife’s countenance, which even rouge could not enliven, it is not necessary to say which a gourmand would give the preference to. Their vulgar dance of spirits were infinitely more agreeable to his fancy than her sickly, die-away languor. Her voice was but the shadow of a sound, and she had, to complete her delicacy, so relaxed her nerves, that she became a mere nothing4.

2However, Wollstonecraft, the “moralist”, speaks and writes for independence. Yet she chooses to embrace that issue in the name of a specific category of women, although she says otherwise in the opening lines of the Vindication:

  • 5 Wollstonecraft M., A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Macdonald D. L. & Scherf K. (ed.), (...)

Having read with great pleasure a pamphlet which you have lately published, I dedicate this volume to you; to induce you to consider the subject, and maturely weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national education: and I call with the firm tone of humanity; for my arguments, Sir, are dictated by a disinterested spirit—I plead for my sex—not for myself. Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue—and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath5.

  • 6 Shelley P. B., “A Defence of Poetry or Remarks Suggested by an Essay Entitled “The Four Ages of Poe (...)
  • 7 Quoted by Johnson C. L., art. cit., p. 191.
  • 8 Letter from John Keats to James Augustus Hessey dated 8 October 1818, Rollins H. E. (ed.), The Lett (...)

3I plead for my sex and not for myself, says Wollstonecraft. We know from Mary’s narrative affliction that what is here proclaimed is not entirely true and that Wollstonecraft would actually be pleading for the better part of her sex. Such women of genius, like her, whose gift for creativity and self-education would surpass others and distinguish them as unrivalled members of the “chosen few”: heir to Wordsworth’s poet elects, “the chosen ones”, or even Shelley’s poetlegislators, “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration6”. In this spirit of Romantic elitism, the principle of sexual selection, preaching for the survival of the Greatest, genius, whether male or female, therefore feeds on to itself. This was what Wollstonecraft, the erudite, wrote in her Letters, dated 1787: “Mary is a tale to illustrate an opinion of mine, that a genius will educate itself”. And, ever so humbly, she adds: “I have drawn from Nature7”, to be read and understood as such: “from my own feminine Nature” as a woman of words, thought and exception. This is not without an interesting affiliation between Keats’s famous aphorism—“that which is creative must create itself”—written in a letter to James Augustus Hessey on the origins of the “Genius of Poetry8”. This ode to selfcreation which inspired no other than the later (feminist) substance of Virginia Woolf’s most acclaimed novel: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to the tree it had better not come at all”, she once declared in her introduction to the 1928 American edition of Mrs. Dalloway, as a direct tribute to the Romantic poet’s conception of a self-generated genius. In Wollstonecraft’s case and in anticipation of her daughter’s own experimental re-creations, it is as though the female Brain, the “Organ of Organs”, was to be entirely fashioned by the novelist’s own hands:

  • 9 Wollstonecraft M., “The Advertisement”, Mary; A Fiction, op. cit., p. 6.

The female organs have been thought too weak for this arduous employment; and experience seems to justify the assertion. Without arguing physically about possibilities—in a fiction, such a being may be allowed to exist; whose grandeur is derived from the operations of his own faculties, not subjugated to opinion; but drawn by the individual from the original source9.

4The head, later established by the more enlightened Romantic minds like Charles Bell’s, author of the seminal New Anatomy of the Brain (1811), is dissected and conceived as the prime “organ of thought”. Unifying body and soul, it opens, once again for women, the gates to organic pleasure and, in Wollstonecraft’s world of fiction, a realm of infinite “possibilities”. Here outlined is a sort of quasineurological/surgical enterprise whereby the author is meant to build cerebral matter ex nihilo, to give woman some nerves as well as a strong(er) organ. She is to be reborn with better intellectual capacities. By an act of plastic artistry and fictional reconstruction, she shall heal every former weakness of her female body, every single one of those feeble traits Wollstonecraft was to despise as the essential cause of her sex’s fallen virtues. If Woolf appealed to Keats for wisdom, an enlightened woman to a visionary man, Wollstonecraft’s commitment is strengthened by Rousseau’s commandments. Beyond the sexual divide, Mary; A Fiction, a somewhat feminised adaptation of L’Émile, therefore honours its male source by way of epigraphic compression: “L’exercice des plus sublimes vertus élève et nourrit le génie” [“The exercise of her various virtues gave vigour to her genius”]. With “vigour”, Wollstonecraft chooses here a masculine metaphor to inject strength into her newly restored feminine sublimity, thereby extending some of Rousseau’s basic principles of education to the most honourable portions of her women circles. What Wollstonecraft is hoping for is a muscular endeavour. In the Vindication, she invokes, quite freely, the other missing “limbs” of her amputated community of peers, and allows the female sisterhood to take a larger bite at the marrow of life, thus swallowed fully by the hungry mouths of the under-sex. But, in her novels, the bones and bodies of contention are unfortunately more difficult to digest and come with their share of paradoxes. The first one that comes to mind and that caught our attention has to do with Wollstonecraft’s repeated assaults to the genre as a dangerous “pathology”. From Mary’s sub-text to the warnings against intellectual impropriety and praises of proper morals in her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Wollstonecraft will never cease to warn women against the regressive and contaminating effects of such a perverted means of un-educating or “mis-educating” women, both intellectually and sexually:

  • 10 Wollstonecraft M., Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Breen J. (ed.), Women Romantics. (...)

Those productions which give a wrong account of the human passions, and the various accidents of life, ought not to be read before the judgment is formed, or at least exercised. Such accounts are one great cause of the affectation of young women. Sensibility is described and praised, and the effects of it represented in a way so different from nature, that those who imitate it must make themselves very ridiculous. A false taste is acquired, and sensible books appear dull and insipid after those superficial performances, which obtain their full end if they can keep the mind in a continual ferment10.

5How then does one reconcile the higher nobilities of fictional commitment with what Mary identifies as those “delightful substitutes for bodily dissipation”?

The perversions of a genre: voicing the unspeakable

  • 11 Letter from Mary Wollstonecraft to her sister Everina dated 1797, Todd J. (ed.), The Collected Lett (...)

6In such a context of prejudices against women, Wollstonecraft’s first act of emancipation was to transform the core of the sentimental novel and its soft pornographic undertones into the more inspiring vein of a political “fiction”: one eponymous word, “fiction”, which was going to make all the difference and free her of the shortcomings of a tainted genre. Like her successor, Jane Austen, another female landmark in committed Romanticism, Wollstonecraft was very critical of fictional work, whether it be experimental or filled with social expectations. She never spared of its disappointments, even regarding her own attempts at an improved version of it: “As for my Mary, I consider it as a crude production, and do not very willingly put it in the way of people whose good opinion, as a writer, I wish for; but you may have it to make up the sum of laughter11”. This fit of self-doubt might have been, by way of “laughter” or irony, just a partial denigration of her youthful efforts. But it also seems to result, despite Godwin’s faith in the “eminence of her [early] genius”, from the low opinion Wollstonecraft had of female prose in general. She did not trust women writing in the same way she was reluctant to many forms of women reading as well. Austen and later on Flaubert would teach us that very same lesson: from Catherine Moreland’s entrancements to Emma Bovary’s tragic death, both victims of uncontrolled cravings of the genre. Yet Austen, conscious of its perversions, turned out to be, after Wollstonecraft, a most fervent advocate of what she herself calls the novel’s “injured body”—another corporeal metaphor which, in the fifth chapter of Northanger Abbey, comes after a humorous depiction of its blunders together with some of its wittier or even tastier performances:

  • 12 Austen J., Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Pinching D. (ed.), London, Collector’s Library, 2004, p (...)

Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them12.

  • 13 Wollstonecraft M., Mary; A Fiction, op. cit., p. 23.
  • 14 Girard, R., «Le désir triangulaire», in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, Paris, Grasset, 1 (...)
  • 15 Wollstonecraft M., Mary; A Fiction, op. cit., p. 23.

7The problem of the so-called disrespected female romance was that it dealt with sex as much as it dealt with the other sex. It was feared for a reason because, at the crossroads of sense and sexuality, it indulged in so many alternative forms of gendered displacements, all the more shocking for the time since it grew past the potentialities of language: repressed acts of passion, emotional entanglements or even same sex relationships. Altogether ignored or unformulated, wrapped in fear and ambiguity, they were otherwise known as “Romantic friendships13” and affections. Such sexual politics, whereby the hardly identifiable Sapphic attachment would upset the rules of society in that it grew outside the bonds of marriage, were clearly a great step forward. And, for Wollstonecraft, that would be commitment enough to play around with the definitions of gender all the while trying to re-think the genesis of the novel. Naturally, the male representative of the story was the first one to be affected by this unspeakable act of transgression. Wollstonecraft, in Mary, attempted to break the silence around the question of man’s sensitivity: his “musical” voice, his “elegant” expression, his “gentle” disposition, bearing the scars of his “disappointed” sentiments, like a female heroine would. The feminine portrait of the husband, Henry, was then meant to counterbalance the masculinisation of his wife in her somewhat adulterous love for her girl-friend, Ann. This “triangulation of desire14”, writes René Girard, would eventually lead to a rather successful dissolution of the sexual and narrative boundaries of her fiction. At the beginning of chapter VIII, she writes: “Her friendship for Ann occupied her heart, and resembled a passion15”. Later on, as Ann is about to die, the force of their vital commitment to each other is even more confusing as Mary displays a mix of maternal instincts, male protection and a feeling of shame for the female substitute she has found to fill the void of an empty marriage:

  • 16 Idem.

The ladies… began to administer some common-place comfort, as, that it was our duty to submit to the will of Heaven, and the like trite consolations, which Mary did not answer; but waving her hand, with an air of impatience, she exclaimed, “I cannot live without her!—I have no other friend; if I lose her, what a desert will the world be to me.” “No other friend,” re-echoed they, “have you not a husband?” Mary shrunk back, and was alternatively pale and red. A delicate sense of propriety prevented her from replying; and recalled her bewildered response16.

8The turmoil of those mixed impulses is very revealing of Wollstonecraft’s young, creative mind here torn between grand leaps of sexual progress and moments where she retracts in the safer corners of her hyper-femininity. The drama of Ann’s death is meant to, first of all, underline Mary’s—the author and the character—aversion to marriage and this love for her sex which cannot be truly unveiled, let alone identified by both female readers and writers. Once again, Austen comes to mind when addressing the question of the novel’s reliance on the marriage plot or conspiracy: a trap for women and the symptom of so many sexual and literary misrepresentations. It gives female protagonists a real chance to rebel, to voice their opinions—à la Elisabeth Bennet—to say “no” to arranged marriages and loveless unions. And yet, in the great Shakespearean tradition, always will a final wedding redeem the wildly headstrong mistress of Romanticism of her emancipations. Fortunately, this is where Wollstonecraft differs and stands out in her early feminism, later confirmed by a more solid second novel, in which the structure—now all-inclusive—is built around a larger female macrocosm. The objectives are thus widened and her braveries consolidated as the writing still addresses the case of the better woman of genius in the same way that it does not completely exclude the pangs of other “fellow creatures” (prostitutes included) from an altogether consistent sexual narrative.

Two Wrongs of Woman make a right: the laws of romantic feminism

  • 17 Wollstonecraft M., Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Preface by William S. Godwin, New York, Dover Pub (...)
  • 18 Ibid., p. 16.
  • 19 Johnson C. L., “Mary Wollstonecraft’s novels”, art. cit., p. 199.

9More than just another ritualistic novel, this story of male “domestic tyranny17”, insensitive to the pangs of motherhood, is a powerful statement on what a modern woman is and, by empathy, on what a better man for that woman should be: “She [Maria] found however that she could think of nothing else; of, if she thought of her daughter, it was to wish that she had a father whom her mother could respect and love18”. Writing in a context of historical and personal failure, post-French Revolution and in the aftermath of Gilbert Imlay’s “crushing derelictions19”, Wollstonecraft’s new-found purpose is indeed to strike hard on the (female) reader’s consciousness as she articulates the link between a society, its politics and its sexual identity:

  • 20 Wollstonecraft M., Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Preface by William S. Godwin, op. cit., p. 118.

I am ready to allow, that education and circumstances lead men to think and act with less delicacy than the preservation of order in society demands from women […]. Various are the cases, in which a woman ought to separate herself from her husband; and mine, I may be allowed empathically to insist, comes under the description of the most aggravated20.

10With this clear purpose in mind, she is then able to impose her feminist manifesto without yet depriving her readership of an uncanny world and its share of sensational thrills. Behind the veil of a confined narrative, this philosophical tale built around the misfortunes of an eighteenth-century woman, too insightful for her age barely dissimulates the richness of its Gothic inheritance:

  • 21 Ibid., p. 1.

Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with specters and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wondering mind. But formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavouring to recall her scattered thoughts21.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 5-6.

11Wollstonecraft’s talent, like Ann Radcliffe’s, is such that the extravagance of her “Romantic fancy” does not in any way limit the extent of her social commitment: “She had felt the crushing hand of power, hardened by the exercise of injustice, and ceased to wonder at the perversions of the understanding, which systematize oppression22”. Even more daring for the time, Wollstonecraft provides us with the largest possible definition for gender equality and, against frustration or enslavement, takes a proto-radical stand in favour of a woman’s right to physical delight. Dissatisfied and alienated, such is the condition of a wife or a daughter who has been reduced to silence and taught to ignore the source of her sexual enjoyments. In a candid speech, the novelist does not shy away from the depiction of this crude reality which she puts forward with a very honest choice of words:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 76.

When novelists and moralists praise as a virtue a woman’s coldness of constitution and want of passion, I am disgusted. Truth is the only basis of virtue; and we cannot, without depraving our minds, endeavour to please a lover or husband, but in proportion as he pleases us. Men, more effectually to enslave us, may inculcate this partial morality, but let us not blush for nature without a cause23!

12Wollstonecraft does not want to over-fictionalize the truth when it comes to the future well-being of an entire generation of repressed women. She writes, of course, about her own experience (Wollstonecraft herself had lost a child, and had also been abandoned by a husband) but also gives a voice to so many others of her educated contemporaries. In the novel, Maria admits to her constant need for intellectual substance and is as comfortable reading Dryden and Milton as she is translating Rousseau from the French:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 15.

Maria was again true to the hour, yet had finished Rousseau, and begun to transcribe some selected passages; unable to quit either the author or the window, before she had a glimpse of the countenance she daily longed to see; and, when seen, it conveyed no distinct idea to her mind where she had seen it before24.

  • 25 Tomalin C., The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, London, Penguin Books, 1974, p. 255.
  • 26 Wollstonecraft M., Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Preface by William S. Godwin, op. cit., p. 125.

13This is how extended a literary culture she has, according to Wollstonecraft, and how menacing she would be to a narrow-minded husband. Here targeted is the false madness that too many women, for all their hysterical genius, are accused of. Striving for the protection, beyond the combined injustices of birth, family or money, of this “wild animal fallen into the hunter’s nets”, to quote Mary Hays in The Victim of Prejudice (1799), Wollstonecraft joins her fellow women writers, such as Hays or even Elizabeth Inchbald in A Simple Story (1791) or Nature and Art (1794) to denounce publically all the excesses of female subordination. Against male influences and tastes, a new “fictional school of women writing25”, as Claire Tomalin calls it in her prize-winning 1974 biography The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, is therefore born out of the depths of forced silences. Gathered around a “great moral purpose” and in reference to the hardships of her brave characters—Maria, Mary, of course, but also Ann or Jemima—Wollstonecraft relies on the mixed powers of intellect and sensibility to “exhibit the misery and oppression, peculiar to women that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society26”.

Notes

1 Macdonald D. L. & Scherf K. (ed.), A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects by Mary Wollstonecraft, Peterborough, Canada, Broadview Literary Texts, 1997, p. 141.

2 Johnson C. L., “Mary Wollstonecraft’s novels”, Johnson C. L. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 190.

3 Wollstonecraft M., “The Advertisement”, Mary; A Fiction, London, Hard Press, 1788, p. 6.

4 Wollstonecraft M., Mary; A Fiction, ibid., p. 8.

5 Wollstonecraft M., A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Macdonald D. L. & Scherf K. (ed.), op. cit., p. 101.

6 Shelley P. B., “A Defence of Poetry or Remarks Suggested by an Essay Entitled “The Four Ages of Poetry”, Reiman D. H. & Powers, S. B. (ed.), Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, London, W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 508.

7 Quoted by Johnson C. L., art. cit., p. 191.

8 Letter from John Keats to James Augustus Hessey dated 8 October 1818, Rollins H. E. (ed.), The Letters of John Keats, 2 vols, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1958, I, p. 374.

9 Wollstonecraft M., “The Advertisement”, Mary; A Fiction, op. cit., p. 6.

10 Wollstonecraft M., Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Breen J. (ed.), Women Romantics. 1785-1832: Writing in Prose, London, Everyman, 1996, p. 5.

11 Letter from Mary Wollstonecraft to her sister Everina dated 1797, Todd J. (ed.), The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (New York: Penguin Books, 2033), p. 385. Also quoted in Johnson C. Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790’s. Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1995, p. 48.

12 Austen J., Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Pinching D. (ed.), London, Collector’s Library, 2004, p. 40.

13 Wollstonecraft M., Mary; A Fiction, op. cit., p. 23.

14 Girard, R., «Le désir triangulaire», in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, Paris, Grasset, 1961, p. 16-17.

15 Wollstonecraft M., Mary; A Fiction, op. cit., p. 23.

16 Idem.

17 Wollstonecraft M., Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Preface by William S. Godwin, New York, Dover Publications, 2005, p. 53.

18 Ibid., p. 16.

19 Johnson C. L., “Mary Wollstonecraft’s novels”, art. cit., p. 199.

20 Wollstonecraft M., Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Preface by William S. Godwin, op. cit., p. 118.

21 Ibid., p. 1.

22 Ibid., p. 5-6.

23 Ibid., p. 76.

24 Ibid., p. 15.

25 Tomalin C., The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, London, Penguin Books, 1974, p. 255.

26 Wollstonecraft M., Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Preface by William S. Godwin, op. cit., p. 125.

Auteur

Diplômée de l’Université d’Oxford en études romantiques, Caroline Bertonèche est maître de conférences en littérature anglaise à l’Université Stendhal à Grenoble. Elle est l’auteure de plusieurs articles sur le romantisme anglais, sur la littérature et la science, sur les questions d’héritage en poésie et la réécriture des mythes. Elle a publié deux ouvrages sur Keats : Keats et l’Italie. L’incitation au voyage (Paris : Michel Houdiard, 2011) et John Keats. Le poète et le mythe (Lyon : Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 2011). Elle travaille désormais sur une traduction française inédite du Carnet d’anatomie et de physiologie de John Keats et dirige un ouvrage collectif sur les métaphores de la pathologie dont la publication est prévue en octobre 2012.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2012

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