Mary Wollstonecraft and the Historical Romance Heroine

If you don’t take care my gel, you’ll turn into a radical like that Wollstonecraft woman.”
The Stanforth Secrets, Jo Beverley, 1989.

Mary Wollstonecraft John Opie Tate Museum
Mary Wollstonecraft, 1790.
by John Opie
(The Tate)

Born on April 27th 1759, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 when she was only thirty-three years old.  In it, she argued against the natural inferiority of women, writing that “…it cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man, because she has always been subjugated” and that it was the neglected education of her “fellow creatures” that was the primary source of their misery.

As modern readers, it seems to be a perfectly reasonable, wholly uncontroversial argument.  Indeed, basic commonsense.  But what of readers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, you ask?  Surely they must have been scandalized by Wollstonecraft’s arguments for equality.

The fact is, the majority of the initial notices for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman were favorable.  Many reviewers saw it as a “sensible treatise on female education,” choosing to ignore the more political feminist aspects of the work.

It was only later that the negative criticism of Wollstonecraft’s ideas set in.  This was largely due to the publication of William Godwin’s biography of his deceased wife, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which he revealed deeply personal facts about Wollstonecraft’s life.  The public was shocked and there were many who were quick to conclude that Wollstonecraft’s love affairs, suicide attempts, and the birth of her illegitimate daughter were a direct result of her feminist theories and lifestyle.  She was held up as a warning to those women who sought equality of the sexes.

Seduction Amanda Quick
Seduction, 1990.
by Amanda Quick
(Original Inside Cover)

Julian’s indulgent expression was wiped off his face in an instant as he read the title aloud. “Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?”

“I fear so, my lord.”

His eyes were glittering as he looked up from the book in his hands.  “This is the sort of thing you have been studying?  This ridiculous nonsense espoused by a woman who was no better than a demirep?”

“Miss Wollstonecraft was not a…a demirep,” Sophy flared indignantly.  “She was a free thinker, an intellectual woman of great ability.”

“She was a harlot.” 

(Seduction, Amanda Quick, 1990.)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been used in countless romance novels as a sort of shorthand, a means of conveying to us that the heroine who possesses Wollstonecraft’s book is an intelligent and independent female – a lady who is not “created to be the toy of man, his rattle” that must “jingle in his ears whenever he chooses to be amused.”

According to Wollstonecraft, at that time in history, “gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection” were “consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex.”  If you are a historical romance reader, however, I would wager that a novel with a spaniel-like heroine might not be very high up on your “To Be Read” list.

Conversely, some of the most memorable and beloved heroines of modern day historical romances are the spirited, independent, free thinking variety of females that begin by aggravating and confounding the straight-laced hero and end by winning his heart.  The next time you encounter one of these magnificent leading ladies in your literary travels, I urge you to take a moment to remember the late, great Mary Wollstonecraft.  Without her contribution, who knows what our historical romance heroines would look like today.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Beverley, Jo.  The Stanforth Secrets: A Regency Romantic Intrigue.  New York: Walker, 1989.

Godwin, William.  Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London; J. Johnson, G.G. and J. Robinson: 1798.

Janes, R. M.  “On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”  Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1978), pp. 293-302.  Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Quick, Amanda.  Seduction.  New York: Bantam, 1990.

Wollstonecraft, Mary.  A Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989.


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14 Comments on "Mary Wollstonecraft and the Historical Romance Heroine"

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Sarah Waldock
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In the West we take it for granted now that women will be educated and have free choice. Let’s raise a glass to Mary Wollstancraft for that and take a moment to think of those women who do not get education as right, or who are gunned down in school for wanting to be educated, and who may be forced into marriage while they are still children. Girls, there’s still plenty to fight for!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Too true, Sarah. Wollstonecraft’s arguments for the education of women are as important today as they were at the end of the eighteenth century. Thank you for commenting.

Nancy
Guest
Mary W’s life style was the biggest drawback to the acceptance of her ideas. Hannah More said about the same thing though with more emphasis on religion. Her ideas were opposed by some but mostly it was rational discussion until it was known about her sex life. What parent would want their daughter to have affairs and illegitimate children? Those who could see the sense in her arguments ( not well presented) were shouted down by those who could only see affairs and bastard babies. I go along with the idea that our heroines should be women of sense, but… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the comment, Nancy! I agree. There are some heroines in historical romances who interpret independence as contrariness. My personal pet peeve are the “too stupid to live” heroines who insist upon going with the hero into very dangerous situations only to end up putting both of them in even greater danger. The trick is to find those authors who craft heroines that are independent and free-thinking (at least reasonably so within the construct of their era) without sacrificing intelligence and common sense.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I’d avoid any period novel that used a word like ‘feisty’ to describe the heroine since it wasn’t used in England at the time, being purely American in usage, and dubious at that period anyway. Moreover it referred to the habits of small dogs. It derives from Middle English and would have been familiar to Shakespeare as being in the habit of breaking wind. The version of it ‘fice’ may be found in the 1811 cant dictionary with reference to the older use and usually referring to silent but deadly ones. I dislike period stories using seriously anachronistic language because… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

This gave me a good laugh. But in all seriousness, thank you for that bit of linguistic history. I agree about the seriously anachronistic language. It pulls me right out of a story.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
This is pretty accurate and is a wonderful free resource and there’s no excuse for not checking: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=bug The site tends to err on the side of caution, which is perhaps the safest way to be! Some words are surprisingly early, and some have changed in meaning! so beware of using words like ‘pragmatist’ as a virtue for a young lady [and I have been guilty of this before I delved deeper] since the Regency meaning was ‘an interfering busybody’. I LOVE language. The 1811 dictionary of the vulgar tongue is available in modern reprint and is good for a… Read more »
Angelyn
Guest

Love that cover!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I know, right? When that book came out, my mom had it on her “Romance” shelf and it was one of the first romance novels that I ever read. Thanks for the comment :)

Renée Reynolds
Guest
It was interesting to learn that most of MW’s opposition came after the facts of her private life were known. Add that to the list of things that never change: people and/or their actions are still judged by essentially irrelevant things like clothing, number of tattoos, or general lifestyle. On top of that, we judge worthiness of ideas – and even people – based on whether we would do or say the same things rather than its or their own merit. How true that quote is about no two persons ever having read the same book, and how perfectly your… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you liked the article, Renee, and thank you for your insightful comment. It is so true. Thank goodness perfection is not a legitimate prerequisite to worthy ideas. If it was, I have a feeling that the United States might still be a colony ;)

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I agree, but the problem is that if one wishs to put the world to rights, and plans to speak out about it, one has to be ‘as Caesar’s wife’ and demonstrate an impeccable moral compass as well as talking a good talk. Because it’s not enough to have good ideas; the ideas will always be linked to the person, and what kind of person he or she is perceived to be. Nobody wants to follow a flawed icon….

Mimi Matthews
Guest

That’s certainly true, especially where women are concerned. It is unfortunate that, even today, a female voicing an opinion on a public platform must be a nearer version of perfection than her male counterpart. It is by no means the same level that it was in Mary Wollstonecraft’s era, but it still exists. When it comes to the public perception of an impeccable moral compass, as you say, certain sins are just historically a bit more forgivable in a male than a female.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Ain’t that just the truth…

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