Liberty, Fraternity and Equality in Heaven

The Construction of a Christian Heroine in Mary : A Fiction (1788)

Irene M. CALPE
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona – UAB


Cet article montre comment, dans Mary : A Fiction, Wollstonecraft défie les modèles de la subjectivité féminine en décrivant une héroïne chrétienne capable d’une nouvelle sensibilité. Contrairement aux critiques qui affirment que Mary est une tentative ratée d’une héroïne rationnelle esquissée dans A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), je mettrai l’accent sur la redéfinition wollstonecraftienne de la sensibilité féminine dans le but de démentir l’idée selon laquelle les femmes ont naturellement une tendance pour le sentimentalisme. Pour y arriver, Wollstonecraft adopte les théories de l’éducation de Rousseau contenues dans L’Émile (1762) en intégrant les idées plus égalitaires des non-conformistes Rational Dissenters dont elle partageait les principes éducationnels et politiques.


This paper describes how in Mary : A Fiction Wollstonecraft challenges contemporary models of female subjectivity by describing a Christian heroine capable of a new sensibility. Unlike critics who believe Mary to be a failed attempt to construct the rational heroine drawn out in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), I will focus on Wollstonecraft’s redefinition of female sensibility as a means to tackle the idea that women are born with a natural tendency towards the sentimental. In order to do this, Wollstonecraft adopted as well as contested Rousseau’s educational theories in L’Émile (1762) by embracing the more egalitarian educational theories of the non-conformist Rational Dissenters of North London, with whom she shared educational as well as political views before and after the French Revolution.


Unlike A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which has been substantially reviewed Another contributory factor to the neglect of Mary : A Fiction might have been the rather disturbing religious connotations of both the heroine’s and the narrator’s discourse. Why use the word “disturbing” ? Because Mary Wollstonecraft has been studied and vindicated as a proto-feminist, whose religious reveries have been accounted for as the “ideological baggage foisted on her by her times, with no positive implications for her views on women” (Taylor 2002 : 99). In fact, critics such as Gary Kelly in his work on Wollstonecraft’s literary career consider it as her first attempt of writing a “philosophical” novel, that is, a bridge between former bluestocking feminism and issues of the movement of sensibility, thus anticipating Revolutionary feminism (Kelly 1994 : 54). Consequently the religious attitude of the fictional Mary turns into a “philosophical attitude” by which the author means to intrude into a “discourse dominated by men” (ibid : 53). On the other hand, authors such as Cora Kaplan or Poovey herself have emphasized the “question of class bias in Wollstonecraft’s sexual thinking” and in doing so, they have evaluated her “erotic ideals in isolation from her wider philosophical commitments, particularly her religious convictions”, which “obscures their psycho-ethical content and reduces their revisionary force” (Taylor 2002 : 113). Indeed Poovey believes that she turned to religion as a way to relieve herself from earthly passions and feelings, as she later turned to reason with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Poovey 1984 : 52), concluding that Wollstonecraft aimed at achieving “a new position of dependence within a paternal order of her own choosing” in which paternal authority would be exercised by God (ibid : 67).

In contrast, Barbara Taylor analyses Wollstonecraft’s religious convictions as a common feature in early Western feminism, the very own foundations and first vindications of which are rooted in Christian beliefs. Thus, for Taylor, Poovey’s interpretation is not altogether accurate, for, despite a shift in sensibility, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman “contains at least fifty discussions of religious themes, ranging from brief statements on one or other doctrinal point to extended analyses of women’s place within a divinely-ordered moral universe” (Taylor 2002 : 99). Moreover, far from considering them disturbing, Janet Todd’s recent biography (2000) asserts the religious convictions of Wollstonecraft as part of her proto-feminist ideology. Following this critical framework this paper will focus on the strategies used by Wollstonecraft to challenge contemporary stereotypes of femininity before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In Mary : A Fiction Wollstonecraft describes a christian heroine as a means to advocate for women’s thinking powers. Moreover, her religious Mary becomes her first attempt to construct an alternative female subjectivity capable of a new asexual, and thus egalitarian model of sensibility that would apply to both man and woman.



In the Advertisement to Mary : A Fiction Wollstonecraft states that she “attempts to develop a character different from those generally portrayed”, that is she will be neither “a Clarissa, a Lady G__, nor a Sophie” (Wollstonecraft, 1991 : 3). She objected that these heroines represented a false model of feminity since their authors widely “wonder from nature” when describing them. Rousseau’s LÉmile (1762) which centred on the education of a young man and his growing into adulthood and society became a landmark for progressive educationalists in the eighteenth century. Wollstonecraft had read it while working as a governess in Ireland, a year before writing Mary : A Fiction and despite her initial enthusiasm for Rousseau’s thinking, Wollstonecraft felt disappointed in his depiction of Sophie in Book V of LÉmile, where a whole chapter was devoted to the discussion of the education of women (Todd 2000 : 102). However, in spite of her disagreement, she adopted Rousseau’s views on the education of Émile for her fictional Mary, applying the Rousseauvian model for man to a young woman.

Rousseau imagined an individual who would become the future democratic citizen : the “natural man.” He would possess an “innate virtue” that would ultimately enable him to become the new republican subject (Watson 1994 : 24). As Rosa Cobo argues, Émile “está educándose para ser el futuro ciudadano del Contrato Social” (Cobo 1995 : 215) ; in other words “la educación de Emilio arranca de una situación paradójica, puesto que debe ser educado en el aislamiento para, posteriormente, vivir en sociedad como un hombre natural” (ibid : 213). However, Rousseau also imagined a companion for his revolutionary subject : Sophie, who unlike Émile will be educated to remain “a peculiarly disempowered individual, trapped within his own bodily sensations and unable to imagine or effect any social change whatsoever” (Watson 1994 : 24). Émile and Sophie are educated to perform different roles in society according to their sex, that is, while Émile is taught to search for understanding, Sophie’s upbringing consists of “a smattering of les arts dagrement [sic] (music, dance, drawing, and embroidery) bolstered by a heavy dose of moral instruction to ensure her obedience and chastity” (Seidman 1997 : 38). Rousseau argues that men and women are born with different capabilities as well as different sexual organs for, while women “have more sagacity, men more genius ; women observe ; men reason ; the combination produces the clearest and most complete idea that a human mind can form of itself ; […]” (ibid : 229). Following Rousseau’s arguments, if men’s sensibility is exercised and cultivated by understanding, by his mind as creator of his perception of the world, women’s will depend upon their physical “sensations”, that is, upon their body. In other words, Sophie’s education will be different from Émile’s because of her being sexually different from men, for in LÉmile “women are at once sentimentalized and viewed, anxiously, as deformed or monstrous in comparison with an explicitly male norm” (Richardson 1994 : 206). In short, for Rousseau man was defined according to his humanity, but woman according to her sexuality (Cobo 1995 : 232). Ironically though with Mary : A Fiction Wollstonecraft proposes a new model of female subjectivity based on Rousseau’s theories of the “natural man” she soon realizes that in order to do so, first she will have to come to terms with the irrationality and erotics of the female body.

Curiously enough, such criticism is also extended to novels or “those compositions” which only “have power to delight” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 3). By this she referred not only to “trashy novels”, but to those productions, including “the most respectable fiction” such as Richardson’s Clarissa, which paid little attention to their heroines’ intellect (Todd 2000 : 112). In fact, early in the novel Wollstonecraft defines novels as “those most delightful substitutes for bodily dissipation”, adding that “the glare of lights, the studied inelegancies of dress, and the compliments offered up at the shrine of false beauty, are all equally addressed to the senses” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 6). In short, Wollstonecraft attempts to show the connection between female manners and novels, both only concerned with the development of women’s “animal soul” (ibid : 6). Therefore her depiction of a different sort of heroine will necessarily imply a new literary discourse where her intellect will not be discounted and the senses will be neutralized. With Mary : A Fiction Wollstonecraft attempts to put into practice what she had already theorized in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) concerning the moral and social character of young women. Although Thoughts is a conduct-book dealing with the education of girls from “ʻThe Nursery’ (the first section) to their entry into social life in ‘Public Places’ (the last section)” (Kelly 1992 : 32), it contains several instances of Wollstonecraft’s opinions on novels, writing and reading habits, as part of her educational programme for young women. In fact, some of Wollstonecraft’s harshest arguments against “affectation” and “artificial manners” and “the fashionable” in dress and on the use of cosmetics are analogous with her criticism of sentimental novels :

The body hides the mind, and it is, in its turn, obscured by the drapery. […] Dress ought to adorn the person, and not rival it. It may be simple, elegant, and becoming, […] Simplicity of dress, and unaffected manners, should go together. They demand respect, and will be admired by people of taste, even when love is out of the question (Wollstonecraft, 1994 : 35, 36, 41).

Similarly the language she uses to describe what she calls unnatural effects of cosmetics resemble her criticism of the unnatural style of the novelists : while pompous diction may hide true sensibility, make-up hides natural emotions : “White is certainly very prejudicial to the health, and never can be made to resemble nature. The red, too, takes off from the expression of the countenance, and the beautiful glow which modesty, affection, or any other emotion of the mind, gives, can never be seen” (ibid : 38-9). Whereas she observes that when writing “young people are very apt to substitute words for sentiments, and clothe mean thoughts in pompous diction” (ibid : 45, my italics). Moreover, as Gary Kelly notes, while praising writing and reading as means to “make the ‘mind’ independent of the ‘senses,’” she criticises novels because they cause

“affectation,” or emulative conduct ; encourage “sensibility,” or a pretended nobility of soul ; produce “a false taste” that makes solid reading seem “dull and insipid” ; unfit the mind for domestic life and duties ; and teach courtly love which makes women “insignificant” or mere sexual prey, enslaving them subjectively (Kelly 1992 : 30).

As Kelly emphasises, she criticised novels on moral and political grounds as they were associated with an aristocratic culture of courtly love rather than with domestic affections. “Pompous diction” in novels was analogous not only with artificiality clothing the female body, thus providing a false sensibility, prone not only to the sentimental but also to the “nobility”. In fact, Kelly argues how as late as the 1770s Vicesimus Knox believed that “ʻmodern novels’ were descended from court romances and novellas imported during the Restoration” (Kelly 1993 : 13). Therefore her criticism of novels becomes part of a class as well as of a gender struggle.

In one of the few direct references to reading habits in Thoughts, Wollstonecraft argues that novels provide a false sensibility since it is “described and praised, and the effects of it represented in a way so different from nature, that those who imitate it must make themselves very ridiculous” and she adds “gallantry is made the only interesting subject with the novelist” (Wollstonecraft 1994 : 50-1). Her insistence on simplicity in writing as opposed to the sentimentalized language used in novels is the reason why some critics such as Gary Kelly refrain from defining Mary : A Fiction as a “novel” : a “fiction” in Johnson’s Dictionary differs from “novel”, defined as a “small tale, generally of love”, whereas a “fiction” is “something ‘feigned or invented’” (Kelly 1993 : 42). Thus, subtitling it “a fiction” Wollstonecraft was implicitly criticising those novels she described as “those most delightful substitutes for bodily dissipation” which female readers such as the fictional Mary’s mother devour “while she was dressing her hair” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 6). As Nicola Watson observes, women writers of the professional classes such as Wollstonecraft struggled to find a new narrative form that will “authenticize” the concept of “revolutionary female subjectivity” as Rousseau had done in LÉmile with his depiction of a male revolutionary subject (Watson 1994 : 24). While novels were rejected for their rather “erotic” nature, and associated with aristocratic culture, Mary : A Fiction was supposed to be an “artless tale, without episodes” in which “the mind of a woman, who has thinking powers is displayed” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 3). Following the Rousseauvian model, Wollstonecraft tried to explore new forms of literary representation for middle class women to legitimate her views on the existence of their moral and intellectual consciousness. However, the fact that her ideal human being is a woman will paradoxically determine her uniqueness and will necessarily imply a different intellectual basis from Rousseau’s, one that offers no distinction between the new man and the new woman’s sensibility.



The year before writing Mary : A Fiction (1788) Wollstonecraft had already published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters based on her experience as a teacher in her own school in Newington Green, where she had met the Dissenting community of North London. Godwin recalls in his Posthumous Memoirs (1798) that Mary Wollstonecraft, while living in Newington Green, attended the sermons delivered by Richard Price, with whom she eventually developed a friendship (Godwin 1993 : 33). Janet Todd argues that Wollstonecraft felt very close to his doctrines which “confirmed her in her view that life was a probationary state in which moral character was developed for eternity” as well as emphasizing “the individual’s inner relationship with God” (Todd 2000 : 60). According to Taylor, one of the factors that might have persuaded Wollstonecraft to approach the Dissenters in the first place was the fact that she met them when their “struggle to repeal the Acts” [1] that excluded them from public life was at its height, making their situation of oppression and exclusion analogous with that of women. The Dissenting community of Newington Green was mostly formed by Unitarians [2], a branch of Nonconformism, which contributed to the spread of “liberal principles” and whose famous figures such as Dr. Price and Dr. Priestley “took an active part in the reform agitation of the 1790s” (Thomson 1986 : 29). The Unitarians were also known as Rational dissenters, “the most cerebral of the Nonconformist sects”, for their solid scientific and intellectual basis, and their belief in the inherent goodness of mankind and its capacity for improvement (ibid : 108). However, Wollstonecraft did not adopt their scientific views but their doctrines on education and their emphasis on the individual’s own private relationship with God to claim an enlightened female subjectivity.

Unlike Rousseau, Rational Dissenters believed in “the right of women to a liberal education”, refuting the idea “that women’s duties in the domestic sphere should render them unfit for general intellectual and cultural activity” (Hirsch 1996 : 44). According to Hirsch, Dissenting ideology provided thinkers such as Wollstonecraft with the intellectual and moral strategies to resist the sentimental version of femininity she deplored in leading liberal thinkers such as Rousseau, thus contributing to “the development of feminist thinking in Britain” (ibid : 44). As Taylor notes, notwithstanding the “secular developments” in the eighteenth century such as “the rise of liberal political ideas, the reformist intellectual programme inaugurated by Enlightenment, the expansive opportunities opened to women by the eighteenth-century expansion of culture”, critics cannot ignore the fact that feminism has “for most of its history been embedded in religious belief” (Taylor 2002 : 103). In fact the fictional Mary illustrates a revision of the culture of sensibility, for Wollstonecraft does not seem to reject the novel of sentiment per se, but she rejects “false sentiment”, that is, “fashionable life and fashionable novels” (Kelly 1992 : 44). On an aesthetic and gendered level, Kelly believes Mary develops a “taste” for the Burkean sublime, for its being “conventionally associated with male qualities” rather than for beauty, generally associated with the female (ibid : 50). In short, he argues that Mary yearns for a masculine sensibility of an intellectual turn, rather than for a feminine sensibility.

Indeed Wollstonecraft depicts a heroine who runs away from her mother’s “fashionable life” and seeks comfort in the sublime landscape, and when “her mother frowned” she takes “refuge in a hunted castle, and, like a solitary rambler she would gaze on the sea, observe the grey clouds, or listen to the wind which struggled to free itself from the only thing that impeded its course” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 11). If Kelly is right, we might as well end the discussion here, since Mary’s taste for the sublime seems to indicate that she develops a masculine sensibility as opposed to a feminine sensibility. However, young Mary’s taste for the sublime goes beyond the purely aesthetic, redefining the sublime and the beautiful with religious connotations so as to create an ungendered sensibility. Wollstonecraft illustrates the evolution in Mary’s taste for the sublime with a shift in her reading habits. We are told that when Mary is still a girl, due to her mother’s indifference and partiality for her brother, she sinks into “a kind of habitual melancholy” which leads her into “a fondness for reading tales of woe” (ibid : 8). However, as she grows up, she starts reading poetry on her own in “the cavity of a rock covered with a thin layer of earth, just sufficient to afford nourishment to a few stunted shrubs and wild plants, which grew on its sides, and nodded over the summit” which she calls the “Temple of Solitude” (ibid : 11). Indeed, she distances herself both physically and psychologically even more from the fashionable world of false sentiment represented by her mother and her reading habits, for now, she does not read Gothic novels amidst the ruins of an ancient castle, but poetry in a natural landscape. However, the image of a heroine reading poetry was by no means new : as Pearson points out, it became a convention which underwent significant changes from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. If in the 1750s and 1760s heroines could read and write poetry as a means to “display their sensitivity”, from the 1770s “poetry-reading is as likely to be identified with self-indulgence and undisciplined sensibility” (Pearson 1999 : 58). Yet, it was more a matter of the kind of poetry they could read rather than reading poetry itself for, while “religious and descriptive” poetry was accepted for a female readership, poems displaying an excess in imagination were not. Thus poets such as Milton, Pope, Young and Thomson’s Seasons were recommended in detriment to other “more imaginative” poets (ibid : 58) to the point that in some novels women who were “ignorant or unappreciative of” authors such as Milton were satirized for “folly and vulgarity” (ibid : 59).

Wollstonecraft seems to follow such a convention for part of her heroine’s education will consist of reading Thomson’s The Seasons, Young’s Night Thoughts and Milton’s Paradise Lost. A close look at Wollstonecraft’s choice of books for her heroines’s education foreshadows the “rational religious sentiments” (Wollstonecraft 1994 : 28) that will forge her revolutionary sensibility, for all three poems share a common disdain for the physical, irrational passion and sensuality. Mary’s taste for the aesthetic sublime undergoes a significant shift towards the transcendental, towards the religious sublime. Thomson’s Seasons was conventionally used by educationalists “as a metonym for an acute but morally disciplined sensibility”, for he was “viewed as an antidote to passion” (Pearson 1999 : 59). Such an “antidote to passion” mirrors the fictional Mary’s rejection of the sensuous world of her parents’, where her father is so “tyrannical and passionate” that when her mother’s illness “interfered with his pleasures, he expostulated in the most cruel manner, and visibly harassed the invalid” (Wollstonecraft 1994 : 8-9) ; whereas her mother, as previously mentioned, “read all the sentimental novels”, and “dwelt on the love-scenes” (ibid : 6). Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1749-51) is an example of Graveyard poetry, which became very popular in the first half of the eighteenth century, and whose “principal poetic objects, other than graves and churchyards, were night, ruins, death and ghosts, everything, indeed, that was excluded by rational culture” (Botting 1997 : 32). However, as Botting explains, the purpose of these poems surpasses aesthetics. On moral grounds they emphasise the idea of Death as a Leveller, and the need for religious faith to go beyond so as to find meaning and order amidst ambition and corruption. Botting illustrates such an argument with some instances of Night Thoughts were “the contemplation of death and decay serves to encourage speculations on the life to come” (ibid : 33). Graveyard poetry uses “tombs, ruins, decay and ghosts as a mode of moral instruction rather than excitement” (ibid : 34) :

Darkness has more Divinity for me,
It strikes Thought inward, it drives back the Soul
To settle on Herself, our Point supreme ! [3]

As Botting argues “sublimity offered intimations of a great, if not divine power” (ibid : 39), which is exactly what Mary looks for when, on her journey to Portugal by ship, she “surveyed the boundless expanse before her with delight”, while her friend Ann “remained in the cabin” (Wollstonecraft 1994 : 19). Moreover, amidst a storm in the sea, far from being terrified by Death or a near death experience, Mary can only think of “some of Handel’s sublime compositions” for “the Lord God Omnipotent reigned, and would reign for ever, and ever !” (ibid : 37) [4]. The fictional Mary has indeed lived through a “probationary state”, stoically bearing the death of her mother, her best friend, her Platonic lover, an unwanted marriage, and ingratitude in a very short period of her young adult life. Despite such circumstances, Wollstonecraft tells us that Mary could endure it all thanks to “benevolence” which “rendered life supportable” and “religion”, which “taught her to struggle for resignation” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 53). Moreover, Wollstonecraft’s highlights Mary’s almost mystical relationship with her God, to whom she confides her impressions left by His Creation :

I have not words to express the sublime images which the bare contemplation of this awful day raises in my mind. Then, indeed, the Lord Omnipotent will reign, and He will wipe the tearful eye and support the trembling heart-yet a little while He hideth his face, and the dun shades of sorrow, and the thick clouds of folly separate us from our God ; but when the glad dawn of an eternal day breaks, we shall know even as we are known (ibid : 37).

The fact that Mary is capable of an “inner relationship” with her Christian God with no need for men to stand in-between is indeed analogous with “the protestant imperative for direct dealings with one’s Maker” for “if no priest may stand between creature and Creator, why should a mere man stand between a woman and her God ?” (Taylor 2002 : 109). Mary is not afraid of death because she wishes to die, in fact we are told in the very last lines of the novel that “though her delicate state of health did not promise long life […] a gleam of joy would dart across her mind-she thought she was hastening to that world where there is neither marrying [5], nor giving in marriage” (ibid : 53). Mary’s longing for death betrays Wollstonecraft’s egalitarian views regarding gender, since, more than a wish to escape from earthly misery, she sees death as a means to reach a state where sex does not matter, for she would lack her female body. What she implies is that but for their sex, both men and women are equal, for sex determines a social order in which women are subjected by a sexual contract, that is, marriage.

Marriage and Platonic love will lead us to the third book of poetry which will contribute to the fictional Mary’s education : Paradise Lost. As Taylor notes for Wollstonecraft “eros was the core of the religious experience”, that is, although she shared the Unitarian idea that “our access to God is through reason rather than mindless faith or overheated enthusiasm”, her idea of “reason” in this sense was a “much more libidinised, imaginative drive toward the True and the Good derived from Rousseau and the Christian Platonist tradition” (Taylor 2003 : 108). However, she rejected whatever form of religion, such as Catholicism, which tried to reach God through “body worships” :

religion does not consist in ceremonies ; and that many prayers may fall from the lips without purifying the heart.

They who imagine they can be religious without governing their tempers, or exercising benevolence in its most extensive sense, must certainly allow, that their religious duties are only practised from selfish principles ; how then can they be called good ? The pattern of all goodness went about doing good […] Religion, or love, has never humanized their hearts ; they want the vital part ; the mere body worships (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 25, 26).

Indeed, Mary constantly expresses her almost mystical devotion for her Maker, first as an adolescent when “many nights she sat up, if I may be allowed the expression, conversing with the Author of Nature, making verses, and singing verses of her own composing” (ibid : 12) ; later, as a young woman, sharing her love for God with her Platonic lover Henry, to whom she confesses “the same turn of mind which leads me to adore the Author of all Perfection-which leads me to conclude that he only can fill my soul ; forces me to admire the faint image-the shadows of his attributes here below” (ibid : 33). The argument is clearly Platonic, emulating Plato’s metaphor of the men who, living in the cave can only grasp the meaning of Ideas by their shadows projected on its walls. Similarly the Platonic love they share can only be a shadow of a greater if not divine, love. Henry becomes a suitable hero for the new sensible heroine to fall in love with, for Mary finds “in a face rather ugly, strong lines of genius” with an “awkwardness” in manners “which is often found in literary men : he seemed a thinker” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 20). Wollstonecraft uses the Platonic relationship between Henry and Mary to criticise novels which “teach courtly love which makes women ‘insignificant’ or mere sexual prey” (Kelly 1992 : 30). As she viewed courtly love as part of aristocratic culture in which women are taught to be desirable by acquiring a feminine sensibility, she described the Henry-Mary relationship in terms of Platonic love. As Taylor indicates “the main impetus behind the propagation of the platonic eros in the eighteenth century came from poetry and fiction, and above all from Milton’s classic celebration of sacred love in Paradise Lost” (Taylor 2003 : 110). The fictional Mary quotes Milton to Henry arguing “that earthly love is the scale by which to heavenly we may ascend” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 33), which belongs to the archangel Raphael’s discourse to Adam in Paradise Lost [6] where “Adam, confronted with Eve, finds himself yearning for more than intimations of the divine” (Taylor 2003 : 110). As Mary and Henry “frequently discussed very important subjects, while the rest were singing or playing cards”, she realizes “he was also a pious man” whose “rational religious sentiments received warmth from his sensibility” (Wollstonecraft 1991 : 24). They soon recognize in each other “a fellow creature” (ibid : 28). Indeed Henry’s story mirrors Mary’s because of his mother’s fondness for his eldest brother, and we suppose neglect of his education, he “rambled about the world ; saw mankind in every rank of life ; and, in order to be independent, exerted those talents Nature has given” him, which not only improved his understanding, but also “gave a keener edge” to his sensibility (ibid : 29). He concludes that until he met her he had not been able to find “a creature that I could love, that could convey to my soul sensations which the gross part of mankind have not any conception of” (ibid : 29). However, although Mary and Henry cannot get married, for Mary is bound with “a fatal tie” to a husband she has been forced to marry, she believes that if she receives “the sacrament with him” before he dies, they will share “a bond of union which was to extend beyond the grave” (ibid : 51). Such an argument expresses her rejection for the erotics of the body, or, in plain words, sex, thus their love is necessarily Platonic not only for propriety but also out of conviction, since one of Wollstonecraft’s strategies for dealing with the difference between the sexes was to overlook the body in all aspects. Their Platonic relationship therefore bears some clear gender connotations, for Wollstonecraft imagines a heterosexual relationship in which a woman is not sexually subordinated to a man, due to her supposedly “sentimental nature”, but on equal spiritual terms.



By foregrounding the religious element, I have tried to show how Wollstonecraft’s analysis of female education, crucial for her subsequent Rights of Woman, can already be traced in previous works such as Mary : A Fiction. Her radical political discourse evolves from the egalitarian positions held in her previous literary production rather than as a result of the intellectual upheaval following the Fall of the Bastille. Her egalitarian proto-feminism, born out of her educational theories, is based upon a criticism of Rousseau and her approach to the Dissenting school, rather than from irreligious political radicalism, that is to say, Wollstonecraft’s egalitarian proto-feminism was of Christian origin. Thus, the “religious reveries” found in A Vindication, which have been generally ignored by critics, far from being part of her contradictory character, continue her previous discourse of education towards more radical positions. In her educational discourse the construction of the female subject becomes a crucial factor in understanding and following the progress of her discourse towards the more radical positions held in A Vindication.


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  • WOLLSTONECRAFT, Mary, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, Oxford & New York, Woodstock Books, 1994 [1787].

[1] The 1662 Act of Uniformity and the 1665 Five Mile Act, which were part of the Clarendon Code, prevented religious dissenters from teaching in schools and universities, forcing them to create their own schools (Altick 1967 : 42-44).

[2] As Thomson argues “dissent is a misleading term” for “it covers so many sects, so many conflicting intellectual and theological tendencies” (Thomson 1986 : 28) that it is necessary to specify the branch which Wollstonecraft had a connection with in order to understand the nature of their influence upon her thinking.

[3] As quoted in Botting 1997 from Night Thoughts, V, 128-30, in Night Thoughts (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] The fictional Mary is here quoting “The Messiah” by Handel, with words by Charles Jennens (1762), (Todd 1991 : 212n).

[5] Wollstonecraft quotes in italics Matthew 22:30 (Todd 1991 : 212n).

[6] As quoted in Taylor 2003 from Paradise Lost., Bk 8:586-94, in Poetical Works (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 368.