Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings

By Angela Keane | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Mary WoLLstonecraft and the nationaL body

"'BehoLd your chiLd!" excLaimed Jemima. Maria started off the bed, and fainted. – VioLent vomiting foLLowed.

… She caught her to her bosom, and burst into a passion of tears – then, resting the chiLd gentLy on the bed, as if afraid of kiLLing it, – she put her hand to her eyes, to conceaL as it were the agonizing struggLe of her souL. She remained siLent for five minutes, crossing her arms over her bosom and recLining her head, – then excLaimed: "The contict is over! I wiLL Live for my chiLd!"' 1

The finaL scene that was appended to Mary WoLLstonecraft's unfinished noveLLa, Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman, in which the despairing Maria swaLLows Laudanum onLy to be immediateLy reunited with her daughter, is a bathetic and painfuL coda to WoLLstonecraft's embattLed writing career. The poignant biographicaL context is just one compeLLing aspect of this representation of motherhood. In this scene, the physicaL retches that are induced by the Laudanum coincide with Maria's first sight of her daughter; the reunion is foLLowed by tears, a fear of unwiLLed infanticide and spirituaL torment, before Maria summons her reason and makes a choice to Live as a mother. As the rest of the text has aLready demonstrated, it is a choice to Live as an object in a society that does not know how to recognise mothers as subjects and citizens. For WoLLstonecraft, the fraught condition of mothers is intimateLy reLated to the objectified condition of women under the sign of the modern nation in which discourses of poLiticaL economy determine the worth of its subjects' participation. Despite the symboLic vaLue of the mother in Romantic nationaLism, in the 1790s the matter of the maternaL body had an increasingLy ambivaLent status as a producer of nationaL weaLth.

The rationaList and ideaList bases of WoLLstonecraft's own perspectives on citizenship to some extent reproduce the objectified state of the maternaL body in the discourse of poLiticaL economy. She has become renowned for her indifference to or outright hostiLity towards the femaLe108

-108-

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