Mary Wollstonecraft's Social and Aesthetic Philosophy: 'An Eve to Please Me'.
At the beginning of this study Saba Bahar notes that some critics might wonder 'Why another book length study of Mary Wollstonecraft?' However, this work swiftly dispels such doubts, shedding valuable light on the intellectual and discursive contexts of Wollstonecraft's writings. Admittedly, some of this ground has already been covered, in terms of historiography by Gary Kelly (Women, Writing and Revolution: 1790-1827 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992)), and in relation to rhetorical tropes by Mary Poovey (The Proper Lady and The Woman Writer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)). Occasionally, then, Bahar's material, particularly on the Vindications, seems familiar, and her choice of texts within Wollstonecraft's oeuvre is largely unadventurous. None the less, she brings enough that is new to the project, showing Wollstonecraft's engagement with British approaches to civic humanism, and setting her thought in relation not only to Edmund Burke and Jean Jaques Rousseau, but, more searchingly to Adam Smith and Catherine Macaulay.
Taking Wollstonecraft's reaction to Fuseli's illustrations for John Milton's works as its starting point, the first chapter argues that she rewrites both Fuseli's and Milton's depiction of Eve, establishing a model in which Eve is sublimely virtuous rather than beautifully weak. Bahar rightly categorizes this as Wollstonecraft's attempt to create an aesthetic representation of a public-spirited woman. As such, her promotion of female public virtue parallels numerous attempts by women writers in the period to create a feminist historiography, an interesting area for further research (briefly discussed by Kelly elsewhere) but, regrettably, outside the remit of the study under consideration. Considering the notion of heroism and its relation to the changing discourse of civic humanism, however, Bahar makes an often overlooked point: this was a period in which private virtue was seen as increasingly important to public spirit. Wollstonecraft's attempt to rewrite the aesthetic representation of the publicly motivated woman, which Bahar examines here, is part of a much larger (and little examined) trend.
In the terms of civic humanism, those capable of assuming a public role were qualified by their ability to bear arms, by ownership of property, and by their relation to knowledge. Bahar's second chapter examines Wollstonecraft's exploration of women's relationship to knowledge, suggesting that Wollstonecraft sees this as vitally important politically. The aesthetic representation of the public-spirited woman had to allow her to have a different relationship to knowledge from that depicted by Milton in Paradise Lost or Rousseau in La Nouvelle Heloise; in Maria the eroticized model in which a woman learns in private from a man is challenged by one in which women learn from women and daughters from mothers. In relation to Wollstonecraft's unfinished novel much of this territory has already been covered; however, it is suggestive to consider it in this context of the representation of the public-spirited woman, while Bahar's wider discussion of Wollstonecraft's place in the educational debate is thorough and insightful. The next chapter contains more innovative material, continuing the examination of women's relation to knowledge by exploring Wollstonecraft's reflections on emerging literary genres. Often-neglected material written by Wollstonecraft for The Analytical Review is considered and Bahar assesses some of her attitudes as reactions to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment. Wollstonecraft's negotiation with Smith's assumption of philosophical detachment versus the 'unmediated engagement' of women leads Bahar to the aesthetic alternatives presented in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. In this account Wollstonecraft transforms the morality of sensibility to create what this study refers to as an 'aesthetics of solidarity'.
Continuing this solidarity, Bahar is, for today, unusually willing to draw forceful, even passionate comparisons between Wollstonecraft's project and the dilemmas of twenty-first-century feminist politics. Although this may generate some unease in those with opposing scholarly and ideological agendas (particularly in anyone working on William Godwin, whose subtleties Bahar occasionally overlooks), Mary Wollstonecraft's Social and Aesthetic Philosophy is an engaged and welcome work.
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CHICHESTER
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
|Previous Article:||Private Interests: Women, Portraiture, and the Visual Culture of the English Novel, 1709-1791.|
|Next Article:||Mary Wollstonecraft and the Accent of the Feminine.|