Wollstonecraft and World Improvement

By Canuel, Mark | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Wollstonecraft and World Improvement


Canuel, Mark, Wordsworth Circle


Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written During a Short Resilience in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark makes one of the most important, contributions during the Romantic period to the understanding of history as progressive. In one sense Letters engages in an Enlightenment discourse that privileges city refinement over the barbarism of country life, and views progress insofar as it corresponds with economic development. Thus Wollstonecraft's work might seem to participate, as critics and historians like Gary Kelly and Virginia Sapiro argue, in and discourse of enlightened bourgeois liberalism. But there is also much in the text to complicate that view, although I don't see the complication residing solely within the realm of the domestic cultivation of sensation and sensibility--as it has appeared in recent critics such as Anne Mellor, Cynthia Richards, and Elizabeth Wingrove. Instead, I believe that the role of the imagination in Letters removes notions of improvement from the additive or accretive logic of refinement and posits new possibilities in which observed human agents are released from their present burdens and resituated within new configurations of political obligation. And this politico-aesthetic perspective, I'll also suggest, connects with, and extends, a logic at work in Wollstonecraft's writing on the French Revolution.

When Wollstonecraft undertook the writing of the Letters, the publication of AVindication of the Rights of Woman had made her famous, but she was also enduring a period of life marked by personal and political misfortune. She embarked on the voyage to Scandinavia in 1795, on which the letters are based, with a maid and her daughter, in the wake of two attempted suicides following the disintegration of her relationship with Gilbert Imlay. Imlay, even in this crumbling state of affairs, suggested the voyage as a way for her to recover money and property owed to him. She openly acknowledges in the letters (addressed to Imlay, although written for publication), furthermore, that the work constitutes a struggle to come to terms with another kind of disappointment--the disappointment following the "horrors" of the French Revolution, a matter about which I'll have more to say toward the end of the essay (247).

These personal and political occasions of distress prompt the frequently articulated melancholy and weariness throughout Wollstonecraft's work; but those occasions are also closely connected with the work's sustained, and quite contrary, preoccupation with the nature of social improvement. Any reader of Wollstonecraft's Letters would have to be struck by the way that the author in a sense engages in a popular 18th century' mode of evaluating the real and illusory advancements in her country and in others. According a distinct privilege to what Caroline Franklin identifies as a "Utopian belief in individual perfectibility and social enlightenment," Wollstonecraft continually comments on degrees of cultivation and barbarism of various kinds (148); in this sense she joins a long tradition of writers like Montesquieu, Mary Wortley Montagu, and Ann Radcliffe.

In this vein, Wollstonecraft wants to credit England and France with superior cultivation, being "much further advanced in knowledge" (289) compared to the "remnants of barbarism" that she observes in the countries she visits (253). A crucial part of that argument has to do with the advancements represented by the greater size and influence of urban spaces in some countries versus others; country towns lack the cultivation of cities, and their predominance tends to curb at least one kind of progressive impulse. "No place is so disagreeable and unimproving as a country town," she remarks; cities, in contrast, "rub off the rust of thought" and "polish" one's "taste" (296).

At the same time, despite this celebration of advancing knowledge and improved taste, Wollstonecraft just as--or perhaps more--often moves in a different direction, taking an equal if not greater interest and pleasure in the "wild beauties" of landscape apart from the existence of either towns or cities or any kind of obvious cultivation (263).

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