English Women Writers
and the French Revolution
ANNE K. MELLOR
Following the fall of the Bastille, at the height of the Terror and afterward, during the Napoleonic campaigns and the reign of Bonaparte, a few intrepid Englishwomen crossed the Channel and experienced at first hand the events and the consequences of the French Revolution. Recording their impressions in letters, memoirs, and published prose, they developed out of the initiating ideology of the revolution—the battle cry of liberté, egalité, fraternité—a new vision both of the ideal government and of the nature and role of women. For these English women writers—and here I propose to discuss only three who visited France between the years 1790 and 1815, a formidable trio composed of Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and Mary Shelley—the French Revolution became a contradictory symbol, representing both the possibility of freedom for women and at the same time the potential liberation of monstrous evil.
The Enlightenment ideals of the French philosophes, of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, opened up a discourse of equality—between the classes, between the sexes—in which women could participate. Inspired by Condorcet and Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and Mary Shelley all came to advocate what we would now call liberal feminism, an argument for the equality and even the potential sameness of men and women. All three located this demand for equality within the structure and practices of the bourgeois family, arguing that men and women should assume equal responsibility for governing the family, nurturing the young, and promoting moral virtue, benevolence, and justice within the household. Their belief in the value of the domestic affections for both sexes produced their extreme revulsion from the blood-thirsty executions of the Montagnards during the Terror. They saw these assassinations not only as the breaking up of individual families but as the destruction, through sibling rivalry, of the family-politic itself. But only Mary Shelley recognized that the demand for equality and hence sameness could finally produce oppression, that the Terror followed directly from the insistence that all citizens must think and act alike.
In December 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft published an impassioned defense of the ideals of the French Revolution, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, in