Quiet Mountain Essays

Imprisoned by the Patriarchal Texts:
Mary Wollstonecraft as a Jacobin Woman Novelist

by Rashmi Sahni

Copyright 2007

In the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, a few ambitious women writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft,
Mary Hays and Charlotte Smith, used the form of the novel as an ideological tool to address the
wrongs of women. Their revolutionary interventions compelled conservatives such as Polwhele to
malign them as ‘the unsex’d females’. Furthermore their radicalism was attacked by the Anti- Jacobin
Review (1798-1821) as ‘Jacobinism’ and these authors were blamed for the unrest that the conservatives
feared was spreading in England . Ironically even the Jacobins failed to wholeheartedly embrace these
women novelists' art and ideology. A case in point is William Godwin’s framing and editing of Mary
Wollstonecraft’s and Mary Hays’ life and works. Rather than acknowledging Mary Wollstonecraft as a
fellow Jacobin intellectual, philosopher and novelist; Godwin placed her within the double bind of
‘sensibility’ and ‘usefulness’ for posterity. Clearly Mary Wollstonecraft emerges as a ‘lovely
woman…feminine in her manners’ (18) from Godwin’s Memoirs (1798). It seems then that for William
Godwin and his contemporaries ‘Jacobinism’ was a male prerogative[1].

However, if one of the hallmarks of the Jacobin novelists was that they were champions of ‘the
individual man against a corrupt society’ ( Butler 32), then the presence and the contributions of the
Jacobin women novelists can no longer be ignored by critical scholarship. In fact their radicalism often
superseded the radical potential of the Jacobin male novelists because they championed their own sex
even as they created a new empowering subjectivity. Undeniably this radical potential verged on being
revolutionary potential in the oeuvre of Mary Wollstonecraft.

It cannot be emphasized enough that not only Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a canonical feminist tract --
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’(1792) -- but also novels like Mary: A Fiction (1788) and Maria
or The Wrongs of Woman (1798 ). The Jacobin concern with the reform of institutions such as property,
law and marriage shapes these novels. More importantly these novels brought about a paradigmatic
shift in the way Jacobinism was adopted and circulated by radical women writers. Along with socio-
economic concerns, the Jacobin women novelists (unlike the male Jacobin writers) articulated and
emphasized gender oppression. Interestingly Wollstonecraft’s novels, as my paper shall show, do not
simply investigate social, cultural and sexual politics. Rather these novels insert women's bodies,
hitherto confined to the private domain, into the discourse of rights that was limited to the masculine
public sphere.

Yet this very engagement with the body and sexuality, I shall argue, placed Mary Wollstonecraft in
particular and the Jacobin women novelists in general in a double bind. Wollstonecraft and her
heroines emerge as sites of conflict between reason and passion for they struggle to express their own
desires. In the absence of literary mother figures or an empowering female tradition of expression and
articulation, Wollstonecraft like the other Jacobin women novelist, was forced to contend with the
literary forefathers. Primary among these literary forefathers was Jean Jacques Rousseau. This literary
and ideological alliance with Rousseau proved to be unproductive at the least, if not downright
disabling, for the Jacobin women novelists. To use Wollstonecraft’s words, it became the principle
reason for these authors being “bastilled… for life”( Maria 87).

Before one examines the subtle negotiation with Rousseau’s texts in Mary Wollstonecraft’s novels, it is
important that one deals with her political tract -- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Unarguably,
in this radical political tract, Wollstonecraft enters into a meaningful dialogue with Rousseau. She
contends with varied patriarchal texts in her attempt to locate a space and an identity for women in the
eighteenth century masculine public sphere. The model that she confronts is that of ‘Sophie’ in
Rousseau’s Emile (1762), the ‘perfect’ woman who is weak, passive and ‘formed to please’ rather than
to think. Wollstonecraft’s hope for equality, her tract reveals, rests upon a libratory education of
women. Since the available literary and political texts only seem to enslave women, Wollstonecraft in
her text voices her discontentment with the available education : ‘But Rousseau, and most of the male
writers who have followed his steps have warmly indicated that the whole tendency of female
education ought to be directed to one point – to render them pleasing’ (110).

Nevertheless Wollstonecraft like the other Jacobin writers was deeply influenced by Rousseau’s works
and thoughts. Wollstonecraft acknowledges his genius and visionary power in the very act of warning
against them: ‘So warmly has he painted, what he forcibly felt, that, interesting the heart and
inflaming the imagination of his readers in proportion to the strength of their fancy, they imagine that
their understanding is convinced when they only sympathize with a poetic writer… And thus making
us feel whilst dreaming that we reason, erroneous conclusions are left behind’ (192).

Wollstonecraft even in this early work suggests that Rousseau’s seductive thinking, his association with
sensibility and his construction of his own persona in his texts as an effeminate yet a powerful man
could cause a self- delusion in his female disciples: ‘all Rousseau’s errors in reasoning arose from
sensibility, and sensibility to their charms women are very ready to forgive!’(192).

The pertinent question that should be raised is why Wollstonecraft felt the need to negotiate with
available patriarchal texts when women writes had been writing for more than two hundred years.
Catherine Gallagher points out that Wollstonecraft could certainly not have plead ignorance to the
extent of pertinent writing by female authors, since she reviewed Frances and Sarah Burney, Elizabeth
Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, etc.(317).

It needs to be clarified at this stage that Wollstonecraft was not simply looking for any literary model.
Wollstonecraft and the other Jacobin women writers required a literary and political model that would
help them express their social, economic and sexual oppression along with their other Jacobin concerns.
Wollstonecraft makes her focus clear when she states in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: ‘I plead
for my sex, not for myself’ (85). As a Jacobin woman writer she wanted a reckoning of the rights of all
classes of women. Further she desired a space for women in the public sphere where she argued
‘women have never yet been placed’ (174). Rousseau’s charisma lay in his non-traditionalist
revolutionary arguments and his appeal to ‘nature’ and ‘natural rights’ that could help even the Jacobin
women writers to confront a moribund society.

Interestingly the form that proved to be the most suitable for a complex examination of an individual in
a corrupt society in this period was not the political disquisition but the new major literary genre -- the
novel. The dialogic form of the novel that Mary Wollstonecraft first experimented with in 1788 when
she wrote Mary helped her to portray a new individual self that struggled towards growth and
fulfillment, sometimes even in opposition to society. Mary refuses to be subsumed by the dominant
literary, social, cultural and patriarchal texts: ‘I will work, she cried, do anything rather than be a slave’
(33). The advertisement that precedes the novel makes her resistance to the patriarchal canon evident:
‘This woman is neither like a Clarissa, a Lady G-, nor a Sophie’ (15). Even the sentimental novels that
her mother reads are ‘substitutes for bodily dissipation’ (4). The patriarchal sentimental novels
transform Mary’s mother into a passive creature. Thus, Mary’s mother cannot undertake the education
of her own daughter.

Nonetheless, the concern for Mary’s education is ubiquitous in the novel. In deed in this ‘autonarration’
[2] that weaves together Wollstonecraft’s life, ideology and fiction; Wollstonecraft self-consciously
chooses to deal with the ‘mind of a woman’ and her ‘thinking powers’ (3). Mary feels the need to find
appropriate role models as the available literary models seem insufficient: ‘she pursued with avidity
every book that came her way’ (6). She thus turns to Ann for a transformative education. She is
attracted not by Ann’s physical beauty but ‘her refinement, her taste’ (7). She further hopes that Ann
would help to shape her own ‘unsettled mind’ (8). But Ann, like Fanny Blood [3], proves to be
submissive and passive and hence slowly passes into the oblivion of death. Precisely because Ann
proves to be an inept model, Mary turns her attention to the ‘man of learning’-- Henry. The charm and
charisma of emasculated, ill Henry --which results in the inauguration of a ‘strong delusion’ (28) --lies
not in his libertine past but in the fact that he looks like a ‘thinker’ and a literary genius. Henry could
be regarded as a Rousseauesque figure for his taste is modeled upon ‘Nature’ (20). She imagines not
what it would be like to have him as a lover but as a father, a teacher: ‘My child! His child, what an
association of ideas! If I had had a father, such a father!’(24). It seems then that Mary’s education
makes her vulnerable to the charms of Rousseau.

At the same time there is recognition of the fact that ‘nature’ and ‘natural rights’ are also patriarchal
texts and constructs that help to preserve the patriarchal status quo. ‘Nature’ does not provide any
solace to Mary. Even as Mary is projected as a ‘thinking woman’ (3), Wollstonecraft refuses to adhere
to any simplistic binaries of nature/ culture, masculine/ feminine and reason/ sensibility. In fact, Mary’s
ability to reason is emphasized as much as her imagination. Mary as a woman with a mind of our own
disrupts the existing stereotype of women as ‘the pretty playthings that render life tolerable’ (36).
Nevertheless, this very mind turns out to be the prison that she learns to fear: ‘it was not the contending
elements, but ‘herself’ she feared’ (26).

It seems then that rather than being a Subject defined solely by her ‘thinking powers’; Mary is a
subject-in-process or a site of conflict between reason and passion in Wollstonecraft’s early Jacobin
novel. The Jacobin feminine Subject struggled against patriarchal demons both within and without.
The primary antagonists of the new feminine Subject included not only literary figures-- such as
Rousseau and Richardson-- whose works circulated stereotypes of women and initiated the creation of
separate spheres, but also the patriarchal institutions that resulted in socio-economic oppression of
women. Marriage is one such institution that involves a negation of woman’s identity. Mary’s mother is
a shadow of her ‘despotic’ father and Mary herself becomes a commodity or property of her husband
at the end of the novel. Even on her death bed Mary thinks about a world ‘where there is neither
marrying, nor giving in marriage’ (45). Nevertheless, married Mary remains virtually virginal till the
end of the novel when she awaits not her lover but death. Her resistance to marital oppression
transforms an otherwise sentimental plot revolving around love and marriage into a Jacobin story.

However, if the characteristic features of the autobiographical fiction penned down by the Jacobin
women novelists were ‘a changed awareness of their sexuality’, ‘an inclusion of sexual politics’( Sharma
12) and a recognition of women being the subjects of their own desire, then Mary seems to be a
preliminary Jacobin novel . The novel attempts to locate an alternative female space apart from the
claustrophobic heterosexual relationships by investing energy in Mary’s and Ann’s ‘romantic
friendship’ but this space comes to an end with Ann’s death. Mary’s sexual desires are overshadowed
by her sexual disgust: ‘when her husband would take up her hand, or mention anything like love, she
would instantly feel a sickness, a faintness of heart, and wish involuntarily, that the earth would open
and swallow her’ (44).

The sexually inexperienced Wollstonecraft-- who had been a witness to her own parents’ loveless
marriage, the forlorn condition of her pregnant sister Eliza and the death of her friend Fanny Blood--
perhaps was unable to account for all the desires of women. Still Mary Wollstonecraft like Mary was a
subject-in-process. Wollstonecraft’s protean self returned to similar Jacobin concerns ten years later
when she wrote her unfinished novel Maria or The Wrongs of Woman. The title of the novel, a variant
of ‘Mary’, suggests a continuity as well as contrast between Wollstonecraft’s novels. Maria is an apt
coda to Wollstonecraft’s long drawn battle with the bourgeois patriarchal institutions like marriage,
which according to Mary Poovey defined and controlled female sexuality in the eighteenth century.
Furthermore it is an appropriate coda to the revolutionary literature of the 1790s for it draws attention
to the failure of the Revolution. In addition to being an apt coda, Wollstonecraft’s radical novel
contends with the patriarchal texts and further problematizes the public and the private binary.

Significantly then Maria opens in the ‘mansion of despair’[4] (7) or the private madhouse, a liminal
space that disrupts the public and the private dichotomy. The reasons behind Maria’s ‘madness’ can be
located both within and outside her. Elizabeth Foyster points out that historically confinement either
inside the home or private madhouse had become a common form of marital abuse in the eighteenth
century and the genteel wife was particularly vulnerable to the accusation of madness and wrongful
confinement as they owned property. Maria qualifies for such a confinement as she owns property; she
is in her own words like Venable’s ‘horse’ or his ‘ass’. She is ‘mad’ Maria not only because she refuses to
accept her status as an exchanged object, but also because of her own ‘romantic’ disposition that makes
her perceive only her own subjective rendition of Venables and later even of Henry Darnford.
Still it cannot be denied that the liminal space of the private madhouse also performs a metonymic
function. It is a metonym for Maria’s partial knowledge of the bourgeois patriarchal world.
Nevertheless, she is self aware. In deed it is Maria’s self-awareness which makes her an alter-ego of the
Jacobin woman novelist: ‘She was ashamed at feeling disappointed; and began to reflect, as an excuse
to herself, on the little objects which attract attention when there is nothing to divert the mind; and how
difficult it was for women to grow romantic, who have no active duties or pursuits.’(20).

Maria makes an effort to establish herself as a desiring subject by resisting any personal intimacy that
does not involve affection. Wollstonecraft, however, draws attention to the consistent denial of
knowledge and power to women: ‘Was not the world a prison and women born slaves?’(11). Deprived
of an appropriate education they are sensual objects and any claim to power only results in an
invitation to madness.

Paradoxically if any kind of feminist knowledge had to be reconstituted in the period it could only have
been as Patricia Yeager suggests through a dialogue with a male tradition whose hegemony it sought
to dislodge. Notably then Maria picks up the same text that Emma Courtney picked up in Mary Hays’
The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) i.e. Rousseau’s Julie. Rousseau’s Julie (1761) provided the
literary model that the Jacobin women novelists in general and Wollstonecraft in particular looked
towards to express their sexual desires and passions, even as they dealt with ‘the wrongs of different
classes of women, equally oppressive, though, from the difference of education, necessarily various’(6
Maria). In a novel that deals with loveless marriages whether Maria’s parents or her own, Rousseau
reconfigures as ‘the true Prometheus of sentiment’ (22) and provides refuge to Maria from a marriage
that had ‘bastilled her for life’(87). Since Bastille had not fallen for women and legal, social and political
rights for women still remained a distant dream, Maria seeks refuge in the sensual world opened by
Julie. Maria begins to imagine Henry as a St. Preux and an ideal lover figure. There is a remarkable
awareness in the novel that this is a delusional act, an act of ‘madness’ and in one of the possible
endings of the novel it results in Maria’s tragic end: ‘Divorced by her husband – Her lover unfaithful-
Pregnancy- Miscarriage- Suicide’ (136).

Rousseau had suggested in his texts that sexual passion could counter a moribund society but a
delineation of sexual passions and desires only bastilled women writers for life. Wollstonecraft it seems
could identify the ideological trap and the dangers that the women writers confronted if they followed
the patriarchal literary models but her choice was severely restricted by her Jacobin concerns. There is
realization that there was a gap between the demand for rights by Jacobin writers and women’s
overwhelming sense of wrongs.

In deed, both Maria and Mary Wollstonecraft seemed to have realized that a utopic, Rousseauesque
world did not exist for the eighteenth century English women. A case in point is Jemima’s narrative
which fragments and punctures the novel’s Rousseausque themes. Her narrative serves as a counter-
point to Maria’s fantasy of being in love with Darnford. This ex-prostitute's story involves sexual and
physical abuse, multiple rapes, an unwanted pregnancy and forced abortion. Sensual pleasure is a
chimera and for lower class women like Jemima atrocious sexual abuse emerges as the norm. While
Maria’s class might safeguard her from brutal economic and sexual exploitation, her delusional
patriarchal romance ensures a fate far from the ideal. The fragments at the end of the novel reveal her
bleak future- eternal solitude, dishonour, even death.

It is important to note that the overwhelming sense of wrongs that give the novel its bleakness and
results in anguish, rage and indignation arises partially from the fact that the Revolution had failed.
Even when Maria finds courage to make a public protest- about her own particular sufferings and the
oppressed situation of all women including Jemima and Peggy, fulfilling Wollstonecraft’s goal to right
the wrongs of all classes of women, she does not get justice, the judge reprimands her and asks her to
obey her husband. The claim for liberty is thwarted in most endings barring one in which Maria
claims: ‘The conflict is over! - I will live for my child!’(137) It is the maternal body that survives .
Motherhood retains its subversive potential for despite its symbolic patriarchal value, motherhood
occupied an ambivalent status in the period (Keane).The woman survives as a sexual agent in the form
of a mother. Even though Maria’s daughter is largely physically absent from the novel, Maria is able to
experience motherhood by writing to her daughter. The letters and the memoirs that Maria addresses
to her daughter are another form of what Favrett calls ‘the open letter’ of political controversy (97). Her
memoirs like Wollstonecraft’s own Letters (1796) function as a public critique of the bourgeois
repressive institutions. The confessional long letter is associated with educational powers and education
was virtually the only way out of the prison of the patriarchal texts and institutions. Maria’s memoirs
are meant to instruct and educate her daughter and are intended to prepare her body and mind for
future ills. The memoirs can be conceived of as the literary texts that the mother would pass on to her
daughter forever negating the need of literary forefathers such as Rousseau and Richardson. The open
letter to the daughter becomes a possible instrument of social change for it circulates the private life of a
woman in the public sphere. Moreover, it constitutes Maria and Wollstonecraft as agents, addresses the
wrongs of woman and finally liberates the enslaved Jacobin woman writer from the patriarchal prisons.

[1]In fact ‘Jacobinism’ like ‘Romanticism’ largely remains a male prerogative till date. As late as 1976
Gary Kelly was able to dismiss the Jacobin women novelists from his work The English Jacobin Novel,

[2] The term is used by Tilottama Rajan for Mary Hays The Memoirs of Emma Courtney but also is
useful to understand the form of the novel as used by Wollstonecraft.

[3] Ann's character is based upon Mary Wollstonecraft’s real-life friend—Fanny Blood. The comparison
reiterates the fact that it is extremely difficult to separate life and fiction in Wollstonecraft’s novels.

[4] The ‘mansion of despair’ is not simply a characteristic feature of the Gothic genre. Marilyn Butler
points out that the Jacobin writers never clearly aligned themselves either with the sentimental novel or
the Gothic genre.
Contributor's Notes...

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Ms. Rashmi Sahni has completed her Bachelors and Masters in English Literature and is currently pursuing her MPhil from the University of Delhi. She also teaches undergraduate students at the same university. Her areas of interest include Romantic Literature; feminist and gender theory; cultural studies.