Thoughts on daughters

Wollstonecraft's Daughters
February 14, 1997

Many historians of the 19th century have commented on the lack of inheritors of the legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft. This volume of essays on 19th-century women avoids this argument by speaking of "daughters" rather than heirs. Daughters do not necessarily inherit their mothers' gifts and it is clear that, although the essays contain a few fresh insights and additions to the ever-increasing catalogue of hitherto unremembered feminist writers, it is only when we come to George Eliot that we meet a woman intellectual of comparable distinction.

In spite of its general tone of optimism and expansion, the 19th century was in many ways an age of narrowness and meanness compared with the last decade of the 18th. The long introduction by the editor and the first chapter by Pam Hirst are perhaps the book's best pieces and perform the valuable service of putting Wollstonecraft into the wider context of European thought and activity. She has far too often been claimed by an exclusionist feminism which she herself would have rejected completely.

To the Chartists, by whom she was read and honoured, she was the woman contributor to the Painite agenda on which their politics were largely based. Most 19th-century women writers did not accept that agenda, as several of these essays show. Mrs Ellis's books sold in enormous numbers and as the study of her work by Henrietta Twycross-Martin demonstrates, reveal a manipulative and faux-naif agenda for women which can be illustrated from a host of popular fiction by male and female writers during the century. Flora Tristan, a fascinating if genuinely eccentric figure, really had very little in common with Wollstonecraft except, to a degree, the "pariah" status which Maire Fidelma Cross attributes to both. K. D. Reynolds's study of the political hostesses of the Victorian age shows the extent of the political influence exercised through the network of "private" institutions by women of property and social standing among the rich and powerful, women to whom the feminist agenda of the vote and access to the professions had little appeal.

It seems a great pity that Wollstonecraft continues to be confined largely to an area of purely feminist study. Her legacy to the 19th century was not one to women alone and she is far too important a figure to be confined to courses on women's studies. Some at least of the essays in this volume should be on the reading list of any course on the society, culture or politics of early 19th-century Europe.

Dorothy Thompson is at the institute for advanced research in the humanities, University of Birmingham.

Wollstonecraft's Daughters: Womanhood in England and France 1780-1920

Editor - Clarissa Campbell Orr
ISBN - 0 7190 4241 0
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 206

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