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Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination
Barbara Taylor
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
£16.95, xvi +331 pages, ISBN 0-521-00417-9 (paperback).
£45.00, xvi +331 pages, ISBN 0-521-66144-7 (hardback).

Alain Lauzanne
Université de Rouen

Barbara Taylor's Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination is not a conventional biography of Wollstonecraft, but a reflection on her life, her behaviour as well as her political commitments, and an analysis of her fictional and philosophical works. However, the reader finds a short but clear presentation of Wollstonecraft's life in the first chapter. In a few pages, Taylor presents the author's childhood, her first professional activities, the beginnings of her literary career, her success as a writer and her personal affairs, in particular her relationships with Fuseli, Imlay and Godwin.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I 'Imagining women,' whose first chapter is entitled 'the female philosopher,' deals mostly with Wollstonecraft as a literary professional and philosopher. In this part, Taylor studies at length Wollstonecraft's religious beliefs and their influence on her sexual attitudes. The second part, 'Feminism and Revolution,' is mainly about her feminism in the context of her utopian radicalism and of British Jacobinism.

The first chapter is about Wollstonecraft as a philosopher but deals also with the place of women writers at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, as Taylor points out, there was a fairly large number of women writers, a phenomenon that alarmed many men of letters who were under the impression that their dominant position was threatened. Writing, they warned, had baneful effects on women, an assertion a number of women endorsed. Wollstonecraft was also critical, but for other reasons—she found most of those female writers second rate.

She started writing for the publisher Joseph Johnson as early as 1786, an activity which was lucrative for both of them, since, on her side, she was able to support herself. At the beginning of her writing career, she was very much like other minor women writers, but this changed with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which was an immediate success. Within a year, a second edition was published and a French translation came out. The book, which was perceived as a philosophical text, was by and large read with approbation at first, but towards the end of the century, partly because of some consequences of the French Revolution and the violence and horrors of the Terror, readers became critical and The European Magazine even called her a 'philosophical wanton' (28).

In the second chapter, Taylor studies the place of imagination and reason in Wollstonecraft's thought. Taylor's presentation of what imagination was in the eighteenth century is particularly interesting. In a nutshell, it was 'a psychic pathway between humanity and the divine,' to use her own words (60). This leads her to analyse the relations between Wollstonecraft and Burke, whom she attacked in her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), and then to the complex relations between Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, whose views on women are to be found in most of her writings.

The chapter on religion is one of the most successful in the book partly because it is a subject that is not frequently associated with Wollstonecraft. For the first 28 years of her life she was a regular churchgoer, but afterwards her religious views became less orthodox although she did not become an atheist, like Godwin. She was strongly influenced by Richard Price, the Rational Dissent minister famous for his defence of the French Revolution. Of course, she could not but see the analogy between women, who were oppressed, and Dissenters, who were penalized in many respects. However, she did not adhere altogether to the Dissenters' culture, partly because of the cold instrumental reason through which they had access to God. This study of religion is followed by an analysis of the influence her religious beliefs had on her, in particular her views on sexuality, and, as Taylor remarks, sex pervades The Rights of Woman. In her book, Wollstonecraft castigates mostly rich idle women, in other words, aristocrats, whose sexuality was too lax, and advocates chastity on the part of both men and women. Taylor aptly points out that, when Wollstonecraft wrote about sexuality in the Rights of Woman she had very little experience on which to base her views, since her frustrating romance with Fuseli was certainly unconsummated and it was not until she met Imlay in 1793 that she discovered her sensualism.

The second part of Taylor's work is devoted to Wollstonecraft's vision of the emancipation of women, which is studied in the context of the French Revolution and of British Jacobinism. In the eighteenth century, it was widely believed that the advance of society ran parallel to the improvement of the situation of women, and, Wollstonecraft, who thought that hierarchy had degrading effects, was in favour of absolute egalitarianism, a position that was certainly reinforced by her stay in Norway, where she saw democracy at work. This was essential, because for her, to take up Taylor's words, "to live as a free woman in an unfree world was impossible" (202). In fact, she was no doubt much more in favour of democracy than many of her Jacobin compatriots at a time when there was a clear misogynist feeling among radicals, even in France, where people like Olympe de Gouges and Condorcet were almost exceptions. It is clear that Wollstonecraft wanted women to be citizens in their own right.

She was also convinced that family life narrowed women's horizons and curtailed their sense of public responsibility. As a consequence, she condemned the subordination of women to men, which encouraged females to be cunning and selfish. She wanted the independence of women, for, as Taylor puts it, "only a liberated woman can become a good citizen" (227), and this enthusiasm for independence, Taylor contends, is the evidence of her republicanism. In fact, female independence is at the core of Wollstonecraft's thought, especially economic independence. Not only does financial dependence underpin men's arbitrary rule, it also prevents women from being truly generous, as they do not own anything, or virtuous, as they are not free. Therefore women's economic self-reliance is an absolute necessity if they are to become good and happily united to men. In short, women should not regard men as their natural protectors because of the baneful consequences such an attitude can have, as husbands can die or become unable to provide for their wives, who, then, find themselves in dire straits. One should remember that for Wollstonecraft "in a man's world, all women are prostituted," a point Taylor underscores.

The epilogue of this biography presents how Wollstonecraft was perceived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the hostility frequently expressed in the first half of the nineteenth century, as a disappointed Flora Tristan noticed in the late 1830s, (hostility that was to be found even among some mid-century feminists) to her rehabilitation towards the end of the century, marked by Millicent Garrett Fawcett's introduction to the anniversary edition of the Rights of Woman in 1891. Although in the second half of the twentieth century, some feminists found fault with her bourgeois social attitudes and prim sexual prescriptions which made her look more like a 'grundyish schoolmistress' than a real feminist, the mere fact that, nowadays, she is the subject of innumerable university courses shows that her life and work still arouse much interest.

In many ways, Taylor's book is a new approach to Wollstonecraft's work and thought, in particular the emphasis she has put on the role of religion. The precise chronology and the detailed index is no doubt useful. Anyone interested in Wollstonecraft or in the beginnings of feminism ought to read this study, which, might, however, occasionally irritate those readers who are hostile to a feminist approach to history or literature.

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