Princeton University Press, 2021, 248pp., £25.00 hb, £17.99 pb
Reviewed by Steph Marston
Mary Wollstonecraft has the perfect biography for an enduring feminist heroine: an independent woman earning her living through combative political writings, whose work was alternately praised or denigrated, depending on whether her gender was evident; a passionate woman disregarding social conventions in her relationships with men and steadfast in her friendships with other women; an adventurous woman who went to live in France during the revolution and who travelled in Scandinavia, subsequently publishing a collection of letters so eloquent that they inspired the Romantic poets. Her professional activities and personal choices may appear to cast her as a woman ahead of her times, as familiar to twenty-first century readers as our contemporaries.
It is tribute to Sylvana Tomaselli’s luminous account of Wollstonecraft’s life and work that it avoids such anachronistic familiarisation. Rather, we encounter Wollstonecraft as a woman enformed by and embedded in her own times. This contextualisation does not lessen the brilliance of Wollstonecraft’s intellectual legacy: on the contrary, it demonstrates just how significant that achievement was, given the conditions in which she lived and worked. But it cautions us as much against regarding her as heroically transcending her circumstances as against viewing her through a lens of presumed exceptionalism.
The book is structured so as to attune the reader to Wollstonecraft’s intellectual passions and preoccupations, moving from a sketch of her formative interests through her engagement with contemporary philosophical and political debates to analyses of her motivations and her ambitions for humanity. Tomaselli draws attention to the fact that much of Wollstonecraft’s work was produced in circumstances which do not lend themselves to canonical status, such as letter-writing or producing reviews and articles in her unusual occupation as a jobbing writer. The purpose of this book might be seen as refusing the sterile task of analysing and synthesising different claims or strands in Wollstonecraft’s writings in favour of drawing attention to the content and sources of her ideas.
Chapter One, ‘What She Liked and Loved’, shows how Wollstonecraft formed her beliefs about will and the importance of moral character in the context of aesthetic enjoyments and personal relationships. Tomaselli cautions against taking Wollstonecraft’s own simple tastes in lifestyle as an indication of either prudery or philosophical asceticism, arguing rather that she demonstrated an abiding interest in the relation between the natural world and what human beings make of it through the application of imagination. This focus on imagination resounds through Wollstonecraft’s writings on education as a means of cultivating creativity and originality. It also underpins what Tomaselli diagnoses as a tension in Wollstonecraft’s thought, between a clear valuing of individuality on the one hand and an impetus to perfectionism on the other.
Having situated her subject’s psychological motivations, Tomaselli moves on in Chapter Two to consider the universal humanism motivating Wollstonecraft’s social and political thought. Alive to the inequities and injustices of the society she moved through, Wollstonecraft used writing as a weapon to lambast the inferior status and treatment of women, to demolish defences of the British class structure and to condemn the slave trade. Practical criticisms and prescriptions were grounded in a passionate conviction of the fundamental unity of humanity.
As Tomaselli points out, this necessarily raises the question of what Wollstonecraft believed to be the defining character of human nature. While her writings clearly evoke theism, Wollstonecraft did not regard humanity as fallen and thus inherently evil; rather, she understood humanity as possessing an intrinsic dignity and human nature as a ‘God-given power to “ennoble” through the cultivation of the mind and the enlargement of the heart’ (73). Ethical wrongdoing was attributable to human beings mistaking where their true interests and happiness lie, and Wollstonecraft argued that philosophy provided both the impetus and the means to correcting these mistakes through increasing understanding.
This implicit ideology of perfectibility chimes uneasily with a modern reader’s appreciation of Wollstonecraft’s trenchant criticisms of the prevailing economic, social and political order of her times but, as Tomaselli shows, the two are inseparable in Wollstonecraft’s work. Wollstonecraft’s humanism is dynamic, not static: it entails a striving for improvement as the natural orientation of human nature. This belief animated her continued defence of the revolution in France, even as the Terror took hold. Tomaselli highlights Wollstonecraft’s belief in the power of universal benevolence to drive such improvement, and her critique of moralities positing a binary division between good and evil as detrimental to both individual character and society.
In a further refusal of binary thinking, Wollstonecraft insisted on the importance of imagination and, by extension, emotion in the human mind. Tomaselli shows that Wollstonecraft did not see reason as driving out imaginative thinking, but rather advocated the cultivation of a balanced mind in which each faculty aided the others and were variably deployed in response to prevailing personal, social and historical circumstances. While acknowledging that this model was difficult to achieve, Wollstonecraft saw its greatest potential for realisation in the development of good moral personality and will, in which imagination itself played a decisive role in early life. Thus her thinking on education gave a primary importance to the cultivation of imagination in order to develop an appreciation of the power and significance of reason. However, imagination’s role was not confined to immature or inferior minds: Tomaselli reminds us that Wollstonecraft, like Hume and many other early modern thinkers, was sceptical about the power of reason to motivate the improvement she saw as the essence of humanity. Reflecting on the Terror, Wollstonecraft affirmed that reason alone, in the absence of imagination and passion, would ‘be content with negative goodness’ rather than seeking out or creating new sources of human happiness (85).
Nonetheless, Wollstonecraft was critical of imagination deployed poorly or in a false spirit. In critiquing Burke’s hostility to the revolution in France, she drew an unflattering contrast between what she cast as his inflammable imagination and her own self-asserted rational reflection and impartial assessment. Similarly, in assessing Rousseau’s delineation of the sexes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft characterised him as possessed by inflammable imagination and senses, while she herself deployed reason, the faculty possessed by human beings alone. Here Wollstonecraft apparently failed to observe her own injunctions against binary thinking; but it is clear that some of this was primarily a rhetorical move, or as Tomaselli points out, ‘she used “reason” as a battle-axe against her opponents…used the positive connotation of “reason” as ammunition’ (96). Here we are well-reminded that Wollstonecraft was an engaged thinker, one who wrote in order to contest ideas and deeds which she deplored and to further the very improvement in humanity which motivated her philosophy.
In Chapters Three and Four, ‘What Went Wrong? The World As It Was’ and ‘What She Wished And Wanted’, Tomaselli deploys this analysis of Wollstonecraft’s epistemology to offer new insights to her works in their historical and intellectual context. Her clash with Burke is shown to be dialectically productive in honing and deepening her own analysis of power relations and social ills. Wollstonecraft’s writings over time reveal a reflective approach to her own work, including the emergence of an embryonic materialism in the Letters written in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where she recasts her quasi-perfectionist understanding of humanity’s development as one in which human agency and creativity play a critical role.
Yet these chapters, perhaps even more than the earlier parts of the book, reveal that Wollstonecraft is most definitely a woman of her own times, and not ours. While she opposed inequality as inimical to sociability, she did not translate her idea of the unity of humanity into one of equality among people, whether as principle or as policy. Rather, she looked to mitigating obstacles to individual improvement as the means to eradicate unjustified differences of condition. Similarly, and possibly related to her distress at the Revolution transmuting into Terror, Wollstonecraft did not see this individual and social progression as being brought about by governments but by the actions and interactions of individuals.
Tomaselli concludes by resisting the thought that readers in our own time should attempt to pigeonhole Wollstonecraft or to appropriate her in the service of any one ideology or world-view. This seems quite right – and a necessary injunction in the context of early twenty-first century culture wars. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Wollstonecraft was a radical (albeit not an easily-categorised one) – in the uncompromising and courageous conduct of her own life as much as in the combative tone and uncompromisingly challenging content of her writing. It is a mistake only to cast her as some pre-processed kind of radical, to assimilate her to a category in such a way as to elide the unique aspects of her thought. As Tomaselli points out, Wollstonecraft’s originality and energy have been recognised by a wide range of diverse thinkers; however, it is notable that all those she cites are in some way or another of the left. As reactions to Maggie Hamblin’s Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft suggested, Wollstonecraft’s underpinning belief in human perfectibility does not always chime easily with us; but that in no way undermines her claim to the originality and creativity she considered the pinnacle of humanity.
22 August 2022
This review is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Steph Marston is Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.