Maria: Or, The Wrongs of Woman - Reception and Legacy

Reception and Legacy

The Posthumous Works, of which The Wrongs of Woman was the largest part, had a "reasonably wide audience" when it was published in 1798, but it "was received by critics with almost universal disfavor". This was in large part because the simultaneous release of Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman revealed Wollstonecraft's illegitimate child and her love affairs. Most reviewers and readers transferred the unconventional and unorthodox life Wollstonecraft herself had lived onto Maria and much that Maria had said and done onto Wollstonecraft, thereby realizing Wollstonecraft's fears that her books would be read only as a mirror of her life. The eighteenth-century moralist Hannah More, for example, called The Wrongs of Woman a "vindication of adultery".

Many critics and even personal acquaintances failed to grasp Wollstonecraft's fundamental point, that Maria's "wrongs" are political, not personal. She wrote to one friend who had criticized it:

I am vexed and surprised at your not thinking the situation of Maria sufficiently important, and can only account for this want of – shall I say it? delicacy of feeling, by recollecting that you are a man – For my part I cannot suppose any situation more distressing than for a woman of sensibility with an improving mind to be bound, to such a man as I have described, for life – obliged to renounce all the humanizing affections, and to avoid cultivating her taste lest her perception of grace, and refinement of sentiment should sharpen to agony the pangs of disappointment.

Even Godwin, her husband, complained, "I do not want a common-place story of a brutal, insensible husband." Both the Anti-Jacobin Review and the Monthly Review reviewed the novel harshly. The Anti-Jacobin Review, attacking both Wollstonecraft and her book as well as Godwin's Political Justice and Memoirs, wrote:

The restrictions upon adultery constitute, in Maria's opinion, A MOST FLAGRANT WRONG TO WOMEN. Such is the moral tendency of this work, such are the lessons which may be learned from the writings of Mrs. Wollstonecraft; such the advantages which the public may derive from this performance given to the world by Godwin, celebrated by him, and perfectly consonant to the principles of his Political Justice.—But as there have been writers, who have in theory promulgated opinions subversive of morality, yet in their conduct have not been immoral, Godwin has laboured to inform the world, that the theory of Mrs. Wollstonecraft was reduced to practice; that she lived and acted, as she wrote and taught. (emphasis in original)

Under the heading "Prostitution" in the index to the magazine, the editors listed only one entry: Mary Wollstonecraft. Partially because of these reactions, female sexuality would not be celebrated so overtly in Britain for another century.

While Wollstonecraft's arguments in The Wrongs of Woman may appear commonplace in light of modern feminism, they were "breathtakingly audacious" during the late eighteenth century: "Wollstonecraft's final novel made explosively plain what the Rights of Woman had only partially intimated: that women's entitlements — as citizens, mothers, and sexual beings — are incompatible with a patriarchal marriage system." However, while The Wrongs of Woman is now read as the progenitor of many feminist texts and the inspiration for many feminist arguments and rhetorical styles (e.g., the personal confession), Wollstonecraft herself was not part of a feminist movement nor did she ever argue for one. Although The Wrongs of Woman presents "woman" as "wronged", neither Wollstonecraft nor any other British woman who highlighted the inequalities suffered by women at the time (such as Mary Hays or Mary Robinson) ever put forth a collective solution. As part of the Enlightenment, they were dedicated to individualistic solutions.

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