The Construction of the Female Gothic Posture: Wollstonecraft's Mary and Gothic Feminism

Article excerpt

To tell a woman that she thinks like a man is the highest praise that can be given to a woman in a patriarchal society. But where and when exactly did such an attitude originate among women? It is my contention that the valorization of the masculine woman first assumed widespread circulation in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. To read Wollstonecraft's quasi-sentimental Mary, A Fiction (1788), is to realise that the Female Gothic ideology originated in the hyperbolic gestures, the frenzied poses of victimization that tips the novel over the edge from sentimentality into Gothicism. In writing this novella Wollstonecraft exposed and at the same time reified the tyranny of sentimental literary formulae for women. She revealed that for women of all classes, life really was the way it was depicted in sentimental fiction - a series of insults, humiliations, deprivations, beating fantasies, and fatal or near-fatal disasters. At times when reading Mary we cannot be faulted for wondering, are we peeking voyeuristically into a virtual diary, a cathartic purging of Wollstonecraft's own disappointing sexual experiences, or are we reading instead a work of propaganda, a systematic creation of an ideology that was to shape female consciousness for the next two centuries? I have to conclude that the novel is and is intended to be both personal and at the same time historically significant for what it originated: the ideology that I have labelled 'Gothic feminism'.1

Historians and critics have long recognized that Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) stands as one of the earliest and most important documents in the history of the feminist movement.2 And when Wollstonecraft is discussed as one of the founding mothers of feminism much is made of her adherence to Enlightenment principles, the writings of John Locke and Montesquieu, and the French Revolutionary tradition of fraternity, liberty, and equality. Virtually everyone who has written on Wollstonecraft's feminism, in other words, sees her working within a male-originated and male-dominated tradition of writers.3 And there is no denying the fact that Wollstonecraft consciously identified herself primarily with male writers. Her strange shadow-boxing with Rousseau throughout the Vindication indicates that her identification with him was stronger and more compelling than any she had with the various female writers of her time.

Rousseau, however, is not the issue, nor is Catherine Macaulay nor any of the other intellectual mentor-figures to whom Wollstonecraft owed allegiance at some time in her life. What is at stake in Wollstonecraft's career is her attempt to merge a deeply felt personal experience of pain with a more just social, legal, and political agenda for women. She wrote the Vindication out of the same impetus that she wrote the novels. We might say that the Vindication exists as the buried content of Mary, or rather that the novella is buried as the subtext of the Vindication. The ideology that I recognise operating in these texts I have called 'Gothic feminism', and I believe it emerged from the heady brew that was eighteenth-century Sentimentality, Gothicism, melodrama, and the widespread and popular educational treatises advocating equal opportunities and training for women. Gothic feminism is not about being equal to men; it is about being morally superior to men. It is about being a victim.

My contention is that a dangerous species of thought for women developed at this time and in concert with the Sentimentality of Richardson and the hyperbolic Gothic and melodramatic stage productions of the era. This ideology taught its audience the lessons of victimisation well.4 According to this powerful and socially coded formula, victims earn their special status and rights through no act of their own but through their sufferings and persecutions at the hands of a patriarchal oppressor and tyrant. One would be rewarded not for anything one actively did, but for what one passively suffered. …