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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)/Chapter 5

< Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)




As has been stated, Mary Wollstonecraft began her literary career by writing a small pamphlet on the subject of education. Its title, in full, is Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct in the more Important Duties of Life. It is interesting as her first work, but otherwise it is of no great value.

The pamphlet consists of a number of short treatises, indicating certain laws and principles which Mary thought needed to be more generally understood and more firmly established. Many passages show that as early as 1787 she had seriously considered the problems which, in 1791, she attempted to solve. She was even then perplexed by the unfortunate situation of women of the upper classes who, having received but the pretence of an education, eventually become dependent on their own exertions. Her sad experience probably led her to these thoughts. Reflection upon them made her the champion of her sex. Already in this little pamphlet she declares her belief that, by a rational training of their intellectual powers, women can be prepared at one and the same time to meet any emergencies of fortune and to fulfil the duties of wife and mother, and demonstrates that good mental discipline, instead of interfering with feminine occupations, increases a woman's fitness for them.

The next work Mary published was a volume called Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations calculated to regulate the Affections and form the Mind to Truth and Goodness. This was written while her experience as school-mistress and governess was still fresh in her memory. As she explained in the preface, her object was to make up, in some measure, for the defective education or moral training which, as a rule, children in those days received from their parents.

In addressing a youthful audience, Mary was as deeply inspired by her love of goodness, per se, and her detestation of conventional conceptions of virtue, as she was afterwards in appealing to older readers. She represents, in her book, two little girls, aged respectively twelve and fourteen, who have been sadly neglected during their early years, but fall, fortunately, at this period of their life, under the care of a Mrs. Mason, who at once undertakes to form their character and train their intellect. This good lady, in whose name Mary sermonizes, seizes upon every event of the day to teach her charges a moral lesson. The defects she attacks are those most common to childhood. Cruelty to animals, peevishness, lying, greediness, indolence, procrastination, are in turn censured, and their opposite virtues praised. Mary is careful to explain in the preface that she writes to assist teachers. She wishes to give them hints which they must apply to the children under their care as they think best. The religious tone of the Stories is even more pronounced than that of the Education of Daughters.

The book is, on the whole, well written, and was popular enough in its day, and, to make it still more attractive, Mr. Johnson engaged Blake, whom he was then befriending, to illustrate it.

Of the several translations Mary made at this period, but the briefest mention is necesssary. It often happens that the book translated is in a great degree indicative of the mental calibre of its translator; but Mary's case was entirely different. The choice of foreign works rendered into English was not hers, but Mr. Johnson's. By adhering to it she was simply fulfilling the contract she had entered into with him, and there were times when she had but a poor opinion of the books he put into her hands. There was at least one book the translation of which must have been a pleasure to her. This was the Rev. C. G. Salzmann's Elements of Morality, for the use of Children. Its object, like that of the Original Stories, was to teach the young, by practical illustration, why virtue is good, why vice is evil.

Mary never pretended to produce perfectly literal translations. Her version of Lavater's Physiognomy, now unknown, was but an abridgment. She purposely "naturalized" the Elements of Morality, she explains, in order not to "puzzle children by pointing out modifications of manners, when the grand principles of morality were to be fixed on a broad basis." She made free with the originals that they might better suit English readers, and this she frankly confesses in her prefaces. Her translations are, in consequence, proofs of her industry and varied talents, and not demonstrations of her own mental character.

Her novel, Mary, has disappeared. There are a few men and women of the present generation who remember having seen it, but it is now not to be found either in public libraries or in book-stores. It was the record of a happy friendship, and to write it had been a labour of love. As Mary always wrote most eloquently on subjects which were of heartfelt interest, its disappearance is to be regretted.

However, after she had been in London about two years, constant writing and translating having by that time made her readier with her pen, she undertook another task, in which her feelings were as strongly interested. This was her answer to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. Love of humanity was an emotion which moved her quite as deeply as affection for individual friends. Burke, by his disregard for the sufferings of that portion of the human race which especially appealed to her, excited her wrath. Carried away by the intensity of her indignation, she at once set about proving to him and the world that the reasoning which led to such insensibility, plausible as it might seem, was wholly unsound. She never paused for reflection, but her chief arguments, the result of previous thought, being already prepared, she wrote before her excitement had time to cool. As she explains in the Advertisement to her Letter to Burke, the Reflections had first engaged her attention as the transient topic of the day. Commenting upon it as she read, her remarks increased to such an extent that she decided to publish them as a short Vindication of the Rights of Man.

A sermon preached by Dr. Richard Price was the immediate reason which moved Burke to write the Reflections. The Revolutionists were in the habit of meeting every 4th of November, the anniversary of the arrival of the Prince of Orange in England, to commemorate the Revolution of 1688. Dr. Price was, in 1789, the orator of the day. He, on this occasion, expressed his warm approbation of the actions of the French Republicans, in which sentiment he was warmly seconded by all the other members of the society. Burke seized upon these demonstrations as a pretext for expounding his own views upon the proceedings in France.

In her detestation of his insensibility to the natural equality of mankind, Mary was too impatient to consider the minor points of his reasoning. She announced in her Advertisement that she intended to confine her strictures, in a great measure, to the grand principles at which he levels his ingenious arguments. Her object, therefore, as well as Burke's, is to demonstrate what are the rights of men; but she reasons from a very different stand-point. Burke defends the claims of those who inherit rights from long generations of ancestors; Mary cries aloud in defence of men whose one inheritance is the deprivation of all rights. Burke is moved by the misery of a Marie Antoinette, shorn of her greatness; Mary, by the wretchedness of the poor peasant woman who has never possessed even its shadow. The former knows no birthright for individuals save that which results from the prescription of centuries; the latter contends that every man has a right, as a human being, to "such a degree of liberty, civil and religious, as is compatible with the liberty of the other individuals with whom he is united in social compact." Burke asserts that the present rights of man cannot be decided by reason alone, since they are founded on laws and customs long established. But Mary asks, How far back are we to go to discover their first foundation?

Burke's contempt for the poor, which Mary thought the most conspicuous feature of his treatise, was the chief cause of her indignation. She could not endure silently his admonitions to the labouring class to respect the property which they could not possess, and his exhortations to them to find their consolation for ill-rewarded labour in the "final proportions of eternal justice." "It is, Sir, possible," she tells him with some dignity, "to render the poor happier in this world, without depriving them of the consolation which you gratuitously grant them in the next." To her mind, the oppression which the lower classes had endured for ages, until they had become in the end beings scarcely above the brutes, made the losses of the French nobility and clergy seem by comparison very insignificant evils. The horrors of the 6th of October, the discomforts and degradation of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette, and the destitution to which many French refugees had been reduced, blinded Burke to the long suffering of the multitude which now rendered the distress of the few imperative.

The chief fault of her Letter is undue haste in its composition. It was written on the spur of the moment, and is without the method indispensable to such a work. There is no order in the arguments advanced, and too often reasoning gives place to exhortation and meditation. Another serious error is the personal abuse with which her Letter abounds. She treats Burke in the very same manner with which she reproves him for treating Dr. Price.

Vituperation is not argument, and abuse proves nothing. This is a fault, however, into which youth readily falls. Mary was young when she wrote the Vindication of the Rights of Man, and feeling was still too strong to be forgotten in calm discussion. It was a mistake, too, to dwell, as she did, on the inconsistency between Burke's earlier and present policy. This was a powerful weapon against him at the time, but posterity has recognized the consistency which, in reality, underlays his seemingly diverse political creeds.