Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Suffering, Sentiment, and Civilization: Pain and Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's Short Residence

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Suffering, Sentiment, and Civilization: Pain and Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's Short Residence

Article excerpt

We reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.

--Letters Written During, a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark

THE MELANCHOLY TONE OF MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT'S LETTERS WRITTEN During a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark attracted many admirers when it was published in 1796. (1) Among these was the rationalist philosopher William Godwin, her future husband, whose response to the travel narrative--he claimed in retrospect--was enthusiastic to the point of rapture. For him, the emotionality of Short Residence indicated a significant change of character for Wollstonecraft, whose analytic and anti-sentimental Vindication of the Rights of Woman had earned her a reputation as a "masculine" writer. In his Memoirs of the Author of the 'Vindication of the Rights of Woman,' Godwin implies that Wollstonecraft's Short Residence represented the transformation of an unattractive and masculine authorial persona into an appealingly feminine one.

   The occasional harshness and ruggedness of character, that diversify
   her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, here totally disappear. If
   ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its
   author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her
   sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in
   tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which
   commands all our admiration. (249) (2)

This response to the Short Residence, which was the last work Wollstonecraft published in her lifetime, exemplifies the dilemma Godwin faced after her death. Concerned about her legacy, he felt he had to make Wollstonecraft intelligible and acceptable to an increasingly conservative British audience both by softening what contemporaries saw as the masculinity of her intellect and by effacing her disdain for the protocols that governed female behavior. His solution was to attempt to write Wollstonecraft's life into the familiar script of the sentimental narrative, to reconstruct her according to a model of sentimental femininity that was based on extreme emotionality and an intense experience of pain. (3) According to Godwin's sentimental retelling of the story, his relationship with Wollstonecraft was not born of a meeting of philosophic minds; rather it originated in the familiar sentimental moment in which the man of feeling pities the suffering victim of sexual abandonment.

The sentimental narrative Godwin draws upon to explain and excuse his wife's unorthodox life had for decades relied upon female suffering for both the movement of the plot and for the demonstration of the male protagonist's sensitivity. As Claudia Johnson, Adela Pinch, and others have demonstrated, in the sentimental literature that dominated the period, female suffering was a condition necessary to draw forth the pity of the male protagonist, that ubiquitous man of feeling who populated English fiction during the last third of the eighteenth century. (4) At the same time, fictional female suffering played a larger role in the culture as a whole. Its fundamental function was to demonstrate not just the superior humanity of the observing male protagonist, but also to allow the readers to share in his emotional responses. In this way, by pitying female suffering en masse, the national audience was able to participate in a process that ultimately served to reinforce a sense of English cultural advancement. (5) In contrast to citizens of other nations who did not look at female suffering and drop humane tears, Britain's men of feeling could be seen by the reading public as the very incarnation of English civility. The female suffering at the foundation of sentimental culture was, then, essential to the British understanding of what made a nation and its people civilized.

Wollstonecraft, as Godwin implies in his Memoirs, was known for her opposition to the melting femininity so fundamental to sentimental culture. …

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