Upon the first read and with limited knowledge of the political and social context, I sensed, like most, that the story was much bigger than a single character or situation, and the preface also attempts to communicate this idea. However, having never read much on the socio-political works of the eighteenth-century considering women and their societal position, these three sources all help to frame Maria in the same circumstances as Wollstonecraft and other female contemporaries. Maria certainly is unique from other novels of the same time, as it is much more direct in its confrontation with social injustices, and even goes as far as mentioning Rousseau by name as the work Maria reads while in the asylum, which is what truly caught my attention. To what extent does the concept of motherhood in Maria leave the domestic sphere to occupy the political, and what is the significance of this overlap?
Field’s article, focused primarily on The Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a reaction to Enlightenment ideas on women and Rousseau’s justifications for their inferiority, speaks to the novel as a socio-political text under influence of the French Revolution. This brings into question Wollstonecraft’s argument for female equality and independence, as it appears counter to feminism, at least to modern feminism. However, whether Vindication is or is not a solid argument is not the point of my search. Rather, I thought to translate the ideas of Vindication over to Maria and assess if and how Maria serves as a literary vehicle for the same beliefs.
Literature also seems, based on the articles, a means in which maternity entered a larger cultural sphere outside the home. “The Maternal Ailment” touches on the developing literary discourse relating to such things as pregnancy and breastfeeding, along with highly influential and popular handbooks circulating the public with instructions on what constitutes a good pregnancy and a good mother. Obviously, this is helpful in the examination of changes in cultural approaches to maternity, but, I thought, the infiltration of motherhood and the injustices done to female subjects into fiction by Wollstonecraft and others, seems like a counter move to the cultural turn.
In examining Maria as both resistance and reformation literature with hefty and serious interests in political and cultural emphases, I began to wonder why other text we had read this semester (besides maybe Clarissa’s center on spiritual growth) seems to match this novel in weight. The early amatory fiction, for example, although claiming moral guidance as a main purpose, is nowhere near matching Maria’s treatment of the female condition. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of (or just less) realism, whereas Maria at least has psychological realism? Either way, issues of maternity, while a cultural commodity in the popular cultural literature, takes on a new socio-political gravity in Maria and is now in discourse with texts outside a purely domestic concern. Of course, much more research is still necessary for this inquiry.