Mocking the Mothers of the Novel: Mary Wollstonecraft, Maternal Metaphor, and the Reproduction of Sympathy

By Tegan, Mary Beth | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Mocking the Mothers of the Novel: Mary Wollstonecraft, Maternal Metaphor, and the Reproduction of Sympathy


Tegan, Mary Beth, Studies in the Novel


When Mary Wollstonecraft began her work as a critic for the Analytical Review in 1788, literary reviewers were still "groping towards the criteria of novel-writing" (Tompkins 18). Their difficulties, argues J. M. S. Tompkins in The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800, stemmed from "the vagueness of the object for which they were to legislate, and by the uncertainty ... as to how fiction could be reviewed" (18). Explicitly noting the critic's challenge in her first published review, Wollstonecraft observes of The Happy Recovery: a Sentimental Novel by a Lady that "an analysis of novels will seldom be expected, nor can the cant of sensibility be tried by any criterion of reason" (Works 7: 19). Her demurral suggests another perceived obstacle for reviewers--the overwrought, sentimental language of the majority of novels they encountered, and its association with women writers and readers. She summarily dismisses The Happy Recovery as "an heterogeneous mass of folly, affectation, and improbability," (7: 19) alluding in the review's first line to the novel's formlessness.

While the typical epistolary structure could conceivably undermine the formal unity Wollstonecraft desires, the "heterogeneous mass" she identifies has more to do with the unrestrained expression and fabulation reviewers expected of most women's fiction. Her only other specific comments about The Happy Recovery read as follows: "Metaphors and vulgarisms abound. The countess, 'wrapt up in the sable and all-encircling mantle of despair, is seized with a violent puking of blood'" (7: 19). Like many of her peers, Wollstonecraft relies here, and elsewhere in her reviews, on direct quotation to give her readership a sense of the prose style; she then moves quickly to a series of suggestive generalizations about the emergent genre and its probable effects on uninformed, unformed female readers. "Young women may be termed romantic," she writes, "when they boast of being tremblingly alive all o'er, and faint and sigh as the novelist informs them they should" (7: 19). More a quivering sensate mass than a rational being, the female reader constructed by Wollstonecraft is said to "act under the direction of artificial feelings" (7: 19) transmitted through the sentimental novel. The imagination of the affected reader "hunt[s] after shadows" and is "suffered to stray ... where no vestige of nature appears" because it has been trained to respond only to "false sentiment" and "vague fabricated feelings [that] supply the place of principles" (7: 19). It seeks no "moderate enjoyments" or "duties" and avoids "rational books" offering a semblance of reality and order, as they "do not throw the mind into an exquisite tumult" (7: 19). The developing mind is thus a mirror of what it reads: the romantic imagination "strays" and errs like the plots of traditional romance; the shapeless sentimental novel begets a similarly disordered consciousness.

As a former governess, proprietor of a girls' school, and a writer of conduct books, Wollstonecraft clearly has ideas about the impact of novel-writing, and if she cannot try The Happy Recovery by "any criterion of reason," she is nonetheless anxious to defend its potentially corruptible, would-be readers. She argues:

   [R]idicule should direct its shafts against this fair game, and, if
   possible, deter the thoughtless from imbibing the wildest notions,
   the most pernicious prejudices; prejudices which influence the
   conduct, and spread insipidity over social converse. (7: 19)

Strong action is needed to protect "thoughtless" readers absorbed by the "cant of sensibility" because they lack the independence of mind supported by clear principles and a well-developed reasoning capacity. Unpracticed in self-control or containment, they cannot help but infect others with the "insipid" discourse they have unconsciously "imbibed." This impulse toward imitation is manifested variably and uncontrollably: through the use of lofty, artificial language in everyday conversation; through narcissistic identification with hyper-sensitive heroines; and through the adoption of "false sentiments" that threaten their sexual purity. …

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