Sunday, March 3, 2013
Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin really did belong together. Her Wrongs of Woman is cut from the same cloth as Godwin's Caleb Williams. Both focus on members of unrepresented groups--for him, a servant, for her a woman. Both of them depict their protagonists as being unfairly imprisoned, both to expose the injustice of the English legal system, and to serve as a symbol for social repression ("Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?"). Both pepper their accounts with stories culled from real life accounts of injustice so that we might see that they are more than novels--they are what really happens on a daily basis.
Both are boring as hell. Wollstonecraft is a better nuts-and-bolt writer than her husband, but her heroine, Maria, has a shadow of Caleb Williams' already paper-thin personality. Perhaps some of that isn't her fault; she died before Wrongs of Woman could be finished and so it remains fragmentary. But I often get the impression that she felt that giving her heroine any kind of weakness or flaw that might make her seem realistic would only play into the hands of her detractors as exemplary of women overall.
Maria is generous, intelligent, and compassionate, but when the story opens, she finds herself committed involuntarily to a mental institution at the behest of her cruel husband, George. She finds a sympathetic soul in the equally unjustly imprisoned Henry Darnford, to whom she spills out her sad, sad tale: George only married her for access to her uncle's wealth, and when she spoke out against him, he used his superior legal and social clout to have her committed, separating her from her newborn child.
In the late 18th Century, this might have been a moving piece of literature. Scenes like the one in which a judge, though faced with the cruelty of Maria's husband, admonishes her impertinence in speaking out against him, might have inspired rage. Or the one where Maria's husband, mired in financial difficulties by his own licentiousness, tries to pimp her out to a friend for cash. But Wollstonecraft doesn't need to persuade me, and though we have our own breeds of sexism to combat in the 21st Century, The Wrongs of Woman seems like an answer to an already resolved question. It's so much of its time that it doesn't seem interesting except as a historical artifact. Maybe that's a good thing.