Kelly on Wollstonecraft

When considering how anti-sentimentality Maria is while also being a bit sentimental itself, I cannot help but picture Wollstonecraft’s argument at cyclical. What I mean is that she participates within this tradition, because this is the medium with which she not only can address her targeted audience but also because she must operate within the system she wishes to reform. For Wollstonecraft, sentimentality infiltrates literature as much as it does those who read and write it. This leads me to a quote from Johnson:
“Given the aversion to sentimental femininity evinced in Mary, it is not hard to see what Wollstonecraft considered so promising in the feminist-inflected version of Commonwealth ideology articulated in Rights of Woman. Having reclaimed men from customs of hereditary wealth and privilege that debase them, Wollstonecraft’s politics would improve women as well: de-essentializing republican masculinity by opening it out to women, it would emancipate women from the etiolated, amoral, and unfree body to which they had been assigned; it would de-eroticize their incapacity, and urge them on to the physical and intellectual strength recommended for men […]” (59).

The betterment of the female position being dependent on the reestablishment of the male counterpart sheds an interesting perspective on the patriarchal hierarchy Wollstonecraft is addressing both in literature and in the domestic sphere. Instead of the roles of superior and inferior being fixed, they are instead fluid, but only so much in the sense that the female position moves according to the male:
“It is bad enough that women […] have been brought up to be weak, idle, spoiled, dependent, and self-indulgent. But when men typify women’s worst faults, we cannot wonder to find mankind enthralled by tyrants” (Johnson 30).

As sentimentality encourages, for Wollstonecraft, men to occupy what are considered female positions or faults, women are forced down to the level of children or even animals (I believe Johnson somewhere mentions Maria as creature-like, while she is abused, sold, hunted, and captured). As seen from the order of the quotes below, Wollstonecraft brings forth this issue of infantilizing women and a shifting hierarchy from the domestic and personal sphere into the public and political:
“Grief and care had mellowed, without obscuring, the bright tints of youth, and the thoughtfulness which resided on her brow did not take from the feminine softness of her features; nay, such was the sensibility which often mantled over it, that she frequently appeared, like a large proportion of her sex, only born to feel; and the activity of her well-proportioned, and even almost voluptuous figure, inspired the idea of strength of mind, rather than of body. There was a simplicity sometimes indeed in her manner, which bordered on infantine ingenuousness, that led people of common discernment to underrate her talents, and smile at the flights of her imagination” (32).

“By allowing women but one way of rising in the world, the fostering of libertinism of men, society makes monsters of them, and then their ignoble vices are brought forward as a proof of inferiority of intellect” (72).

“Men who are inferior to their fellow men, are always most anxious to establish their superiority over women” (79).

Aside from the domestic space, I am wondering how much emphasis Maria puts on the rejection of sentimentality in literature and how this coexists with realism that we’ve read so far.


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