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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 18, mai 2000

Romantic Couplings

Sous la direction de Jacqueline M. Labbe

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005923ar

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Article

Escaping Discussion: Liminality and the Female-Embodied Couple in Mary Wollstonecraft's Mary, A Fiction

Ashley Tauchert

University of Exeter


Many women have not mind enough to have an affection for a woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft [1]

A considerable part of [Mary, A Fiction] consists, with certain modifications, of the incidents of her own friendship with Fanny. All the events that do not relate to that subject are fictitious. […] He that should imagine that the sentiments of this book are affected, would indeed be entitled to our profoundest commiserations.

William Godwin [2]

But it is only to be felt; it escapes discussion.

Mary Wollstonecraft [3]

1

Claudia Johnson describes the 'proto-lesbian sub-plot' of Mary Wollstonecraft's first novel, Mary, A Fiction (1788), as 'indiscursible', but we might understand this indiscursibility in turn as symptomatic of a more general eclipsing of female subjectivity under patriarchy: 'Love and desire between women and in women are still without signifiers that can be articulated in language'. [4] The markers of this radical indiscursibility—what Terry Castle calls 'ghosting'—occur in women's writing as a textual disavowal displacing and dispersing female-embodied same-sex desire and exchange into culturally available encodings that preserve and deflect their significance. [5] Lillian Faderman notes figures of displacement for female-embodied same-sex desire in twentieth-century women's writing prior to the liberatory movements of the 1970s, including use of male personae, encoding of desire, or de-gendering of the narrative. But while Faderman assumes that pre-twentieth-century women writers should be expected to have been more open in describing and owning same-sex desire prior to the sexological association of lesbianism with degenerate diseases, Wollstonecraft's Fiction suggests that female-embodied same-sex desire in the 1780s circulates as an 'open secret'; acknowledged, but dismissed as an impossibility (culturally disavowed). [6] Wollstonecraft's Fiction, then, can be read for its delineation of this indiscursibility embodied by the writing subject in her identificatory character, Mary. In this essay I will read Wollstonecraft's Fiction for modalities of female-embodied same-sex desire expressed through figures of disavowal. I will argue that what this Fiction offers is a female-embodied character whose desire is encoded as masculine. Following Teresa de Lauretis I suggest that this masculine encoding is, in turn, one of the disavowed signs of female-embodied same-sex desire.

2

While Wollstonecraft's novel has been claimed by lesbian literary history, it resists delimiting to that tradition as much as it claims inclusion in spite of the narrative's apparently heterosexual dyadic resolution. [7] The narrative is careful to indicate the degree to which Mary loves both Ann and Henry in very similar ways and is structured around a narrative parallelism drawing attention to the bi-conditional desire located in its heroine. The narrative is strikingly two staged, with a central transitional section based in Lisbon: it begins as a story of Mary's development from birth, the death of her parents, and her relationship with Ann up until Ann's death (chapters I-XV); it ends as a story of her relationship with Henry until his death and the expectation of Mary's death as the only possible resolution to her impossible desire (chapters XI-XXXI). The two-stages of the narrative are carefully paralleled: both are centred on the heroine's developing relationship with Ann and then with Henry, and in both cases the object of Mary's affection is an 'invalid' (p. 25 and p. 27). Both Ann and Henry die in Mary's arms, offering her an opportunity to reflect on grave subjects, and both deaths seem to recall and refer back to the early scene in which Mary 'ran to support her mother, who expired the same night in her arms' (p. 20). This is not, then, a novel of the repudiation of heterosexual (or same-sex) passion; but rather a novel of the collapse of female-embodied same-sex desire into a transgressive heterosexual dyad, and the breaching of the lesbian and heterosexual narratives available here by a heroine whose desire remains unclassifiable.

3

Leila Rupp reminds us that the problem with lesbian literary history is 'less one of sources than of definition: who, among the women whose stories we can find, can be called a "lesbian"?' [8] Rupp identifies 'romantic love between women' and 'transgendered behaviour' as two modes for the expression of female-embodied same-sex desire in women's writing. [9] Both figures occur in Wollstonecraft's novel, as well as a trope of 'nursing' or 'supporting' to denote sexual intimacy. Janet Todd has remarked that in eighteenth-century fiction 'lesbianism becomes either a quaint custom, poorly substituting for heterosexual coupling, or a grotesque madness demanding rigorous expulsion.' [10] The comment is appropriate in relation to the writers served by Todd's analysis (Fielding, de Sade, Cleland and Diderot), all of whom could only encounter 'lesbianism' in the incoherent terms described. Wollstonecraft's Fiction is a text that records female-embodied same-sex desire from the perspective of the female-embodied subject, through an authorial identification with its sexually liminal central character and in its encoding of indiscursibility. Wollstonecraft's Fiction, then, can be argued to offer a textual record of the disavowal of female-embodied same-sex desire that features as a condition of female identity, but also offers a record of the transgendering of female-embodied same-sex desire that results from this indiscursibility.

4

Mary's intimate and desiring relationship with Ann in this narrative is characterised by an unidentified disappointment: while Mary 'hoped now to experience the pleasure of being beloved' she experiences in her relationship with Ann only 'disappointment' (p. 13). Ann possessed 'a bewitching softness to her manners, a delicacy so truly feminine, that a man of any feeling could not behold her without wishing to chase her sorrows away' as a result of a prior earlier experience of 'ill-fated love' (p. 18). However, it is Mary who intervenes to 'chase her sorrows away', particularly when she 'imagine[s] that she looked sick or unhappy', when 'her tenderness would return like a torrent, and bear away all reflection' (p. 14). Mary is suitor and protector to Ann's virtue-in-distress: she 'loved Ann better than any one in the world—to snatch her from the very jaws of destruction—she would have encountered a lion'. But far from fulfilling her dream, Mary's cohabitation with Ann only compounds her 'disappointment' in terms which raise the figure of indiscursibility: 'Before she enjoyed Ann's society, she imagined it would have made her completely happy: she was disappointed, and yet knew not what to complain of' (p. 21; my emphasis).

5

Representation of Mary's intimate relationship with Ann is framed by moments of necessary physical intimacy between an 'invalid' and her 'nurse'. These deploy a language denoting heightened physical contact coinciding with extreme outpourings of emotion. When Mary is cohabiting with Ann prior to their residence in Lisbon, one such descriptive moment occurs in response to Mary being reminded of the man she unwillingly married. The sign of Ann's sickness (her cough) resolves Mary's marital nausea with its signal for a passionate embrace:

An extreme dislike took root in her mind; the sound of his name made her turn sick; but she forgot all, listening to Ann's cough, and supporting her languid frame. She would then catch her to her bosom with convulsive eagerness, as if to save her from sinking into an opening grave.

p. 22

At the time of Mary's father's death the narrative shifts momentarily to Ann's consciousness of Mary's declining health, and the emotional and physical effects this produces in her:

Night after night Mary watched, and this excessive fatigue impaired her own health, but had a worse effect on Ann; though she constantly went to bed, she could not rest; a number of uneasy thoughts obtruted themselves; and apprehensions about Mary, whom she loved as well as her exhausted heart could love, harassed her mind. After a sleepless, feverish night she had a violent fit of coughing, and burst a blood-vessel.

p. 23

The sleeplessness and feverishness that keeps Ann awake (not to mention her burst blood-vessel) is the closest the 'fiction' comes to internalizing the 'indiscursible' desire in her character, who otherwise appears as feminine and passive object of Mary's passion. [11]

6

The disavowal of the female-embodied couple in tropes of sickness and nursing is not simply a matter of historical ignorance prior to sexological classification. Terry Castle notes how Marie-Antoinette functions in the late eighteenth century as a public protolesbian icon, and offers the diaries of Anne Lister as evidence that female-embodied same-sex desire and eroticism are recognisable aspects of women's lives as recorded in private writing (Castle pp. 92-3). Randolph Trumbach shows clear evidence of a sub-culture of 'sapphists' emerging in the eighteenth century—women who desired women, and who were known to act out that desire in sexual relationships. [12] He concludes that '[I]t is likely […] that women attracted to women after 1770, when the new sapphist role had emerged, could either know or not know the sexual content of their feelings', and the degree to which a female-desiring woman was stigmatized might depend on the degree to which she was conscious of the sexual aspect of that desire. [13] Trumbach offers a picture of the sapphist as a recognisable cultural encoding, but one that 'wished the eye of the knowing beholder to be a woman's and not a man's'. This partial acknowledgement concurs with what Alan Sinfield—with reference to D.A. Miller—defines as the 'open secret' that is same-sex desire in literature prior to the twentieth century. Miller comments that the function of the open secret is 'not to conceal knowledge, as much as to conceal the knowledge of the knowledge'. The secret is never revealed fully and openly because then it 'attains public recognition; yet it must not disappear altogether, for then it would be beyond control and would no longer effect a general surveillance of aberrant desire'. [14] Tania Modleski suggests that the 'open secret' of same-sex desire 'depends on disavowal rather than negation'. [15] Female-embodied same-sex desire in Wollstonecraft's Fiction, then, might be said to be circulating as an 'open secret' that 'wished the eye of the knowing beholder to be a [knowing] woman's and not a man's'; an encoded discursive register that remains readable by 'knowing' readers, unrecognised as such by unknowing readers; a disavowal that both acknowledges this desire but also acknowledges that it is not 'possible' in a woman.

7

However, earlier I stressed the degree to which this Fiction emphasises the similarities between Mary's relationship with Ann and her relationship with Henry in a carefully paralleled narrative. The erotic stress audible in the 'supporting' that takes place in the context of nursing between Mary and Ann is stressed in an ambivalent scene between Mary and Henry, during which they discuss historical paintings and portraits. Mary cannot decide on a pose in which she would like to be portrayed, leading to Henry's interjection:

Henry, with more apparent warmth than usual, said, 'I would give the world for your picture, with the expression I have seen in your face, when you have been supporting your friend'.

p. 34

Henry's warm longing for Mary's 'picture' is both an appropriate approval of Mary's compassion towards her friend, but indicates at the same time his as yet undisclosed desire for that compassion (and the intimacies it allows) to take him as its object. The scene encapsulates the 'open secret' of this Fiction in that it hints at Henry's knowledge of Mary's particular relationship with Ann, without openly stating that knowledge. The scene also underlines the point that if we perceive sexual desire and activity between Mary and Henry (a reading necessary to account for the transgressive danger of their relationship and its prohibition) then we are invited to read it also as a narrative of sexual desire and activity between Mary and Ann. This parallelism and doubling characteristic of the 'open secret' can be seen again in the narrator's remark: 'had Ann lived, it is probable she would never have loved Henry so fondly; but if she had, she could not have talked of her passion to any human creature' (p. 55). The first clause prioritises Mary's love for Ann above her love for Henry, and positions Henry as a replacement for Ann; but the second can be read either as 'if Mary had loved Henry so fondly, she wouldn't have been able to tell anyone of her passion for him', or 'if Ann had lived, Mary wouldn't have been able to talk of her passion for Ann to any one'. But there is more than sexual desire at stake here—the images of 'supporting' and 'nursing' reveal moments of eroticised intimacy, for as Claudia Johnson puts it; 'Mary's relationship to Ann [and Henry] is hardly disembodied'. [16]

8

During an excursion, Ann leaves the carriage and insists on walking 'tho' the ground was damp', but she faints and the damp ground brings on a fever which leads to her death the next day. What happens when Ann faints is a complex moment emphasising the significance of the 'supporting' image:

Henry would have supported her; but Mary would not permit him; her recollection was instantaneous, and she feared sitting on the damp ground might do him a material injury; she was on that account positive, though the company did not guess the cause of her being so. As to herself, she did not fear bodily pain.

p. 38

Mary's territorial response to Henry's offer to 'support' Ann reveals her 'divided attention' between Ann and Henry, while Henry's move to 'support' Ann is swiftly warded off by Mary in a gesture that prevents the closure of the triangle between the three characters, while emphasising Mary's usurping of the masculine role of protector (to both Ann and Henry).

9

Ann's health declines soon after she begins her relationship with Mary; Henry's becomes increasingly more serious and life-threatening—it is earlier described as 'not alarming' and 'rather pleasing' (p. 36)—the closer he becomes to Mary, and the more explicitly his desire for her is narrated. A sub-current of imagery allows dampness and wetness to signify sexual arousal leading to illness and death. In the example above, Ann dies shortly after getting 'damp' in the long grass, and being 'supported' by Mary, who shows courage in allowing herself to get 'damp' in place of Henry. Later, a rain-shower during a boat trip endangers Henry's life, while offering a further screen for sexual intimacy in the trope of 'the luxury of wretchedness':

the clouds grew suddenly black, and broke in violent showers, which interrupted the solemn stillness that had prevailed previous to it. The thunder roared; and the oars plying quickly, in order to reach the shore, occasioned a not unpleasing sound. Mary drew still nearer Henry; she wished to have sought with him a watery grave; to have escaped the horror of surviving him.—She spoke, but Henry saw the workings of her mind—he felt them; threw his arm round her waist—and they enjoyed the luxury of wretchedness.—As they touched the shore, Mary perceived that Henry was wet; with eager anxiety she cried, What shall I do!—this day will kill thee, and I shall not die with thee!

pp. 65-6

It is this 'accident', we are informed, that 'put a stop to their pleasurable excursions' and leads inexorably to Henry's rapid decline and death in Mary's arms; as does Ann's moment of getting wet in the first stage of the narrative. The passage is highly sexual, encoding a scene in which the growing storm and plying oars reach a sexual crescendo as they 'touched the shore' and Mary perceives that Henry is 'wet'. Once again, sexual intimacy between Mary and Henry recalls and refers back to her relationship with Ann; the 'watery grave' imagined here for the lovers echoes the 'opening grave' Mary imagines she is saving Ann from falling into when she is 'supporting her languid frame' (p. 22).

10

So how should we understand these insistent parallelisms of desire? While I am keen to emphasise the (disavowed) lesbian tendencies of Wollstonecraft's Fiction, I am keen also to do justice to the equally insistent heterosexual cross-narrative between Mary and Henry. The Fiction lends itself to readings which emphasise the phantasmic scene in fictional construction, in which 'authorial desire manages to invade a particular corpus […] organized around some such structuring 'scene' or group of 'scenes'. [17] Moreover, Judith Butler argues that invocation of a 'pure' lesbian identity emerges from—and enacts—dangerously and often inaccurate exclusionary manoeuvres, as 'identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression'. [18] Wollstonecraft's Fiction might be said in some respects forcefully to resist lesbian identification as such, and seems above all else concerned to record in its central character and in its structure (using Butler's terms) 'identificatory and practical crossings between' such categories which 'renders the discreteness of each equally suspect'. [19] This would of course accord with its historical position prior to the availability of the lesbian category. Nonetheless, the text encodes sexual activity between Mary and Henry and between Mary and Ann, and perhaps most importantly resists any attempt to hierarchise or organise these desires except chronologically. The liminality of the central character, reiterated in the narrative structure which goes out of its way to draw parallels between, and refuse to hierarchise, the terms of Mary's relationships with Ann and Henry, has tended to be overlooked in accounts which—by subordinating the Mary-Ann narrative to the Mary-Henry narrative, and foregrounding the transgressive issue of extra-marital sex—re-enact the 'occluding' and 'ghosting' of women-desiring-women noted by Terry Castle. [20] Furthermore, Castle notes that 'in a society that typically ghosts or occludes images of women desiring women, the homosexually inclined woman will inevitably be attracted to the next best thing: to images of men desiring women' (Castle p. 104).

11

Kaja Silvermann argues that texts record a 'libidinal coherence' in markers of 'desire that circulates there, more or less perceptibly' so that 'works will contain certain sounds, images, characterological motifs, narrative patterns, and/or formal configurations' reiterating a phantasmic scene. [21] Silvermann's 'authorial spoors' would account for the echoing of the sexual liminality of the Fiction's central character at the level of its structure; and accords with the 'Advertisement' to this Fiction in the identificatory character of the 'Author', which claims a liminal identity for its heroine, while simultaneously insisting on her impossibility: 'Without arguing physically about possibilities—in a fiction, such a being may be allowed to exist' (original emphasis). The 'Author' claims nonetheless that 'compositions' are only able to 'delight, and carry us willing captives' when 'the soul of the author is exhibited' (p. 5). So while her heroine is not a culturally available model, she is still described as 'drawn by the individual from the original source'. The 'impossibility' embodied in her central character, then, is acknowledged and owned by the 'Author'. Judith Butler describes the 'radical discontinuity between sexual pleasures and bodily parts' endemic to the transsexual condition as a visible instance of a more general 'imaginary status of desire' which 'reveals the body not as its ground or cause, but as its occasion and its object'. She locates the 'strategy of desire' as at least in part 'the transfiguration of the desiring body itself' to 'fit the body capable of desire'. [22] Butler has also emphasised work by Laplanche and Pontalis on the '"scene" of authorial desire' deployed by Silvermann. [23]

12

The 'strategy of desire' available in Mary, A Fiction, then, is one that has demanded—in the context of a cultural indiscursibility grounded in what Butler terms 'homosexualized abjection' which 'must be repudiated for sexed positions to be assumed'—a 'transfiguration' of the identificatory character's 'desiring body', which 'exceeds the physical body through or on which it works'. [24] The 'imaginary bodily ego' embodied by Mary is heavily encoded as 'masculine'; through her reading taste for philosophy rather than fiction, her visual taste for the sublime rather than the beautiful and historical paintings rather than portraits, as well as through her 'thinking powers' in general. Claudia Johnson recognises this narrative transgendering in her comment that Mary is represented as 'a man of feeling': 'Mary is organizing her relationship with Ann according to sentimental conventions which encode her as masculine'. [25] Henry's status as 'invalid' and feminised hero allows Mary to avoid the role of passive femininity in her heterosexual encounter. What is significant, then, in the context of Butler's and Silvermann's understandings of the relations between authorial subjectivity and textual subjectivity is the fact that Wollstonecraft does not make her primary identificatory character a man. The masculinisation of Mary occurs in spite of her female-embodiment, and produces an irresolvably liminal character; both lover of the feminised female-embodied Ann, and loved by the feminised male-embodied Henry. Furthermore, this liminality is reiterated in a dual narrative structure, which reproduces the desiring split in its heroine in terms of a strict and un-hierarchised parallelism in its form.

13

This transgendering of the primary identificatory character can be argued to represent in disavowal the impossibility and indiscursibility of female-embodied same-sex desire. Teresa de Lauretis finds that female-embodied same-sex desire is often expressed through or associated with accoutrements of traditionally masculine identity. She argues that '[l]esbian desire […] is constituted against a fantasy of castration, a narcissistic wound to the subject's body-image that redoubles the loss of the mother's body by the threatened loss of the female body itself'. That loss is 'inscrib[ed] […] in the symbolic order of culture' through the 'prohibition of access to the female body (to the female body in the mother: incest; in oneself: masturbation; and in the other woman; perversion), as well as the 'inferiority' of women'. In this context, female-embodied same-sex desire 'displaces the wish for the missing female body and the (non-) perception of its absence onto a series of fetish objects or signs that signify at once the wish and the absence (loss), and re-present the absent (lost, denied) and wished-for female body'. These fetish objects with 'connotations of masculinity' are drawn on because 'such signs are most strongly precoded to convey, both to the subject and to others, the cultural meaning of sexual (genital) activity and yearning toward women'. Accoutrements of masculinity effectively 'deny the female body (in the subject) and at the same time resignify (her desire for) it through the very signification of its prohibition'. [26] The female-embodied couple functions, then, as an elusive sign of the refusal of this Fiction to resolve its desiring problematics in terms of a normative hierarchisation of irreconcilable desires; and through a parallel refusal to relinquish the female-embodiment of its heroine in the face of her desire for female-embodiment. Furthermore, we might—following de Lauretis to the limit—argue that the heterosexual couple which follows the female-embodied couple in this narrative is a further representation of the disavowal of female-embodied same-sex desire. De Lauretis asks whether even 'apparently heterosexual' relations can be understood in the context of the 'indiscursibility' and symbolic absence of female-embodied same-sex desire. [27]

14

If, as Godwin claims above, and modern criticism tends to concur, Wollstonecraft modelled this narrative and its central character on her own experience of same-sex intimacy with Fanny Blood, then Wollstonecraft—as an important maternal origin for Anglophone women's literary history and feminist theory—invites emphasis as a historical and literary figure of female-embodied subjectivity breaching the boundaries of normative heterosexuality. [28] While she has been available post-Godwin as an icon of unorthodox female sexuality, this unorthodoxy has a tendency to collapse into perceptions of a personal excess (number of known lovers; sex and maternity outside of marriage; emotional intensity—the 'loose' quality of her life and work), or an excessive ideological restraint (the 'chilly' Vindication of the Rights of Woman). [29] So Emma Goldman could describe Wollstonecraft as 'sexually starved' and assume that it was an excessive passion for men that 'led not only to a tragic desire for the married partner Fuseli but also the two suicide attempts resulting from her tempestuous involvement with the philanderer Gilbert Imlay'. [30] However, while her intimacy with Blood has been repeatedly documented since Godwin's Memoirs in biographical and critical work on Wollstonecraft, the significance of this relation and its representations in Wollstonecraft's written work remain largely undigested. While it is not the case that Wollstonecraft's experiences and representation of same-sex desire and intimacy have been entirely censored from our version of her life and writings—although we do know that letters between Wollstonecraft and Blood are missing from the Wollstonecraft archives, and references to Wollstonecraft's feelings for Blood have been deleted or censored in the remaining personal letters—we can say that the creative and disruptive potential of the radical breach with heterosexual normativity this literary example of female-embodied coupling preserves has been hitherto foreclosed, given the status of Wollstonecraft in literary history of the Romantic period and in feminist theory. [31]

15

Gary Kelly recently acknowledged Wollstonecraft's relationship with Fanny Blood, in the context of a wider discussion of her struggle 'to find an acceptable practice of sexuality', describing their relationship as an 'experiment in female sexuality' that Blood's death 'put an end to'. His version of the Wollstonecraft/Blood affair as a failed or foreclosed 'experiment' locates it as a juvenile margin-note to her later, larger, more colourful, more 'real' relationships with the triumvirate of men who featured in her life (Fuseli, Imlay, Godwin). [32] In this concluding section I want to raise the wider implications of a recognition of the disavowed female-embodied couple in Wollstonecraft's Fiction, which comes into focus when we refuse to herarchise the apparently conflicting desires circulating in this work. The textual strategies of disavowal which record, replay, and disguise an otherwise indiscursible or impossible female-embodied same-sex desire in Wollstonecraft's Fiction can be read back—aka Silvermann—to the 'text "inside" the author'. [33] To do so it is necessary to recognise that Wollstonecraft's desire for the possibility of a female-embodied couple extends beyond the boundaries of this Fiction as it might be said to extend beyond the mortal foreclosure of her relationship with Blood. I will offer a few examples of evidence taken from Wollstonecraft's letters and later writings, to indicate where this analysis leads.

16

Wollstonecraft comments in her private letters on attractive young women: 'The women [of Dublin] are really very pretty I have been pleased with many—yet cannot dwell on one as particularly charming—They catch the senses—'tis beauty's province—but sensibility can only reach the heart'. In her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) she remarks more than once on attractive young women. [34] There was gossip at the time of her dismissal as governess to the King family, and resurfacing at the time of her death, that Wollstonecraft had 'corrupted' her female charges, and was responsible for their subsequent unorthodox sexual relationships. [35] In her letter to Everina explaining what had happened, Wollstonecraft wrote: 'The regret Margaret shewed, when I left her for a short time, was Lady K's pretext for parting with me, they had violent quarrels and the consequence was this determination'. And it—too—suggests possible editorial contamination, in that the final part of the letter is missing, immediately following the exclamation: 'But you my dear girl have never felt the violent […]' (CL p. 165). Wollstonecraft continued a forbidden correspondence with Margaret, to which she refers in letters to George Blood (who seemed to have been the carrier) and Joseph Johnson (CL p. 167). The letter to Johnson reads:

I had, the other day, the satisfaction of again receiving a letter from my poor, dear Margaret.—With all a Mother's fondness I could transcribe a part of it—She says every day her affection to me, and dependence on heaven increase, &c.—I miss her innocent caresses—and sometimes indulge a pleasing hope that she may be allowed to cheer my childless age—if I am to live to be old.—At any rate, I may hear of the virtues I may not contemplate—and my reason may permit me to love a female.—I now allude to—. I have received another letter from her, and her childish complaints vex me—indeed they do—

Margaret later took on the name of Mrs Mason , the governess character in Wollstonecraft's children's book written shortly after her time with the Kings and based to some degree on her experiences with Margaret and Mary. [36]

17

We might also consider the young Wollstonecraft's letters to Jane Arden, which tell the story of a passionate and intense loving relationship made stormy by jealousy of rivals: 'Miss Arden.—Before I begin I beg pardon for the freedom of my style.—If I did not love you I should not write so;—I have a heart that scorns disguise, and a countenance which will not dissemble:—I have formed romantic notions of friendship.—[…] I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none.—I own your behaviour is more according to the opinion of the world, but I would break such narrow bounds.' [37] In fact the discovery of these letters, or at least of a notebook containing copies of them, probably preserved by Arden herself, offers an interesting perspective on Wollstonecraft's recording of her relationship with Blood. Only one of the letters copied in the notebook still exists in the Abinger collection, and Cameron suspects that all the letters copied in this notebook were once a part of this collection, but that the 'others were later lost or destroyed'. [38] Perhaps more interesting than the early Wollstonecraft letters to Arden, then, are a few letters written later in life from Bath, where Wollstonecraft—as companion to a Mrs Dawson—had become re-aquainted with her sisters and father. For in these note-book copies of Wollstonecraft's letters we have perhaps the only remaining uncontaminated record of Wollstonecraft's relationship with Blood; while the originals were destroyed, these copies made (probably) by an earlier recipient of Wollstonecraft's affection, are open in their comments. [39] Wollstonecraft's offer to cohabit with Fuseli and his wife (and, later, Imlay and his mistress) appear in a different light taking this kind of evidence into account.

18

Much has been made of Wollstonecraft's revision of 'masculinity' in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. [40] It seems clear from the passages in question, and from her references to the 'masculine' (or not) talent of Catherine Macaulay, that she was concerned to claim aspects of masculinity (as 'masculine virtue') for female-embodied subjects. [41] If we read this apparent desire for masculinity alongside the displaced encodings of female-embodied same-sex desire in her Fiction, the parallelism between writing subject and identificatory character appear to be very strong indeed: Mary's reading habits, her taste for the sublime and historical paintings (contrasted directly with Ann's taste for the beautiful and the ladies' taste for portraits), and her 'thinking powers' (deemed 'impossible' in a female body), are reiterated in the terms of the argument of the Rights of Woman that the conduct of women 'should be founded on the same principles' as that of men, as well as in the assertions of 'manliness' that characterise the 'mask' of masculinity adopted by Wollstonecraft in the Rights of Men. [42] If a recognition of symptoms of disavowal illuminates Mary's 'disposition' in Wollstonecraft's Fiction—and the accoutrements of masculinity that she claims—in terms of an otherwise indiscursible female-embodied same-sex desire, what prevents us from reading Wollstonecraft's desire for 'masculinity' as a rhetorical and social virtue in her Vindications in a similar light? [43] Indeed, Kaja Silvermann's notion of the 'text "inside" the author' and the 'mutually referential' relation between 'authorial identification and authorial desire' invites us to read Wollstonecraft's later works in just this way. [44]

19

In a discussion of 'the causes that […] have degraded women' Wollstonecraft decides that they all 'spring from a want of understanding', and informs us that she will 'not lay any great stress on the example of a few women who, from having received a masculine education, have acquired courage and resolution'. The footnote offers a brief list of women to 'be reckoned exceptions': Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs Macaulay, the Empress of Russia, and Madame d'Eon. One can at this stage only speculate on what she understood to be exceptional about Sappho and the Chevalier d'Eon, and in what sense she included herself in this list of 'exceptions to general rules'. [45] It can be inferred—as Susan Gubar notes—that the 'few extraordinary women' who have transcended the conditions imposed by femininity are understood by Wollstonecraft to be 'virtually transsexuals'. [46] Wollstonecraft's desire for masculinity apparent in her identificatory character of Mary in the Fiction, and in her political philosophy of the Vindications, gives way in her later writings to a concern for—and return to—the female-embodied couple, and the exchanges between female-embodied subjects (in the form of mother-daughter relations as well in the all-female community that is offered as a utopic conclusion to her last unfinished novel, Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman). Claudia Johnson observes that 'beneath the rubble of sentimental heterosexuality' that closes Wrongs of Woman we are invited to conclude that 'the emancipated, sturdy, purposive, mutually respecting, and rationally loving couple Wollstonecraft spent her career imagining is, finally, a female couple, the couple whose unrepresentability made Mary so difficult and strange'. [47]

20

Wollstonecraft's desire for masculinity in writing (as the Sublime, as 'history', as philosophy) is perhaps to be read to stand in for a desire for a female-embodied intersubjectivity, represented by the female-embodied couple, that remains 'indiscursible' until it re-locates itself in the mother-daughter exchanges that circulate in her later writings. The female-embodied couple can be said to haunt Wollstonecraft's earlier writing through recognisable figures of displacement and disavowal, and as a desire for masculinity. What we read as Wollstonecraft's proto-feminism, then, might turn out after all to be the trace left by the vanishing figure of her otherwise 'indiscursible' desire for the female-embodied couple in writing.


 

Notes

[1]

Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Ashley Tauchert (London: Dent, 1995) p. 200. Further references to this edition will appear in the text after quotation.

[2]

William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' and Wollstonecraft, A Short Residence in Sweden, ed. Richard Holmes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987) pp. 223-4.

[3]

Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Fiction, The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, vol 1, eds. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (London: Pickering, 1989) p. 60. All further references to this edition will appear in parenthesis after quotation.

[4]

Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995) chapter 2, 'Embodying the Sentiments' (esp. p. 48 and p. 54): 'Even if it were possible to demonstrate that the relationship between Mary and Ann was sexual […] this would not mean that it existed in the discursive space now called "lesbian". The complexity of this relationship consists in its indiscursibility, in the fact that it cannot be so designated'. Luce Irigaray, 'The Poverty of Psychoanalysis,' trans. David Macey and Margaret Whitford, The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) p. 101.

[5]

Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) p. 5; hereafter abbreviated as Castle.

[6]

Lillian Faderman, 'Who Hid Lesbian History?,' in The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-First Century, eds. Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A H Mcnaron (New York: The Feminist Press at City University of New York, 1996) pp. 41-47; D.A. Miller, The Novel and The Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) pp. 205-6.

[7]

See Leila Rupp, 'Finding the Lesbians in Lesbian History: Reflections on Female Same-Sex Sexuality in the Western World,' in The New Lesbian Studies, pp. 153-9.

[8]

Leila Rupp, 'Finding the Lesbians in Lesbian History,' p. 153.

[9]

Leila Rupp, 'Finding the Lesbians in Lesbian History,' p. 154. In a letter to her husband, Mary describes and defends her 'love' for Ann and describes her feelings arising from 'the tender office of a nurse' which has resulted in 'an affection very like [but significantly different to] a maternal one' (p. 25). Her husband's answer describes their relationship as a 'romantic friendship'.

[10]

Janet Todd, Women's Friendship in Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) p. 327.

[11]

Lillian Faderman identifies in Eleanor Butler's diaries—which refer to Sarah Ponsonby as 'my love', 'my beloved', 'my Heart's darling'—references to illnesses, which suggest an encoded sexual intimacy: 'I kept to my bed all day with one of my dreadful Headaches. My Sally, my Tender, my Sweet Love, lay beside me holding and supporting my Head' (Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature From the Seventeenth Century to the Present [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992] p. 33). Eve Sedgwick has suggested that the figure of 'unspeakable' terminal illness and nursing circulates in literature as an encoding for otherwise 'unspeakable' homosexual desire (Tendencies [London: Routledge, 1994] p. 89). The illness from which Mary's mother, Ann, and Henry all die—and which it is intimated at the end, of which Mary herself will soon die—remains unnamed throughout the novel.

[12]

Randolph Trumbach, 'London's Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture,' in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt (New York: Zone Books, 1994) p. 111.

[13]

Randolph Trumbach, 'London's Sapphists,' p. 135; my emphasis.

[14]

Alan Sinfield proposes that 'manifest discretion protects the dominant by indicating that boundaries are respected', and compares the way in which covert political criticism of the Elizabethan government is 'allowed' in Spenser's Shepearde's Calender to the way that literature that records same-sex desire 'anticipate[s] two audiences: a knowing and a naïve one; one that picked up gay references and one that didn't'. Sinfield argues for conceiving of a social context for same-sex desire which simultaneously recognised and allowed same-sex desire to flourish unmolested, and maintained somewhere near the surface the possibility of fully-disclosed same-sex desire as a threat to prevent the open avowel and recognition of this desire: 'homosexuality was censored, not absent' (Cultural Politics—Queer Reading [London: Routledge, 1994] p. 64).

[15]

Tania Modleski, Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a 'Postfeminist' Age (London and New York: Routledge, 1991) p. 145.

[16]

Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p. 54.

[17]

Kaja Silvermann, 'The Acoustic Mirror,' in Feminisms, eds. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) pp. 390-402 (esp. p. 401). While Silvermann develops her theory in relation to women's film, it can be fruitful as a frame for reading women-authored fiction, as it successfully avoids the pitfalls of the essentialism problems apparent in accounts of women-authored literary texts.

[18]

Judith Butler, 'Imitation and Gender Insubordination,' in Inside/out: Lesbian Theories/Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (London and New York: Routledge, 1991) pp. 13-14. Butler nonetheless upholds the importance of maintaining lesbian identity: 'It is one thing to be erased from discourse, and yet another to be present within discourse as an abiding falsehood. Hence, there is a political imperative to render lesbianism visible, but how is that to be done outside or through existing regulatory regimes? Can the exclusion from ontology itself become a rallying point for resistance?' (p. 20)

[19]

Judith Butler, 'Imitation and Gender Insubordination,' p. 17.

[20]

Castle p. 104. Gary Kelly focuses on the narrative's heterosexual, if transgressive, dyads: 'The illness of Mary's friend Ann arose from disappointed love […]. Similarly, Henry is caught between the personal absolute of love for Mary and the social and legal prohibition against loving a married woman…' (Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft [Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992] p. 47). See also Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1984; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992) pp. 84-6; Harriet Devine Jump, Mary Wollstonecraft, Writer (New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994) pp. 10-16.

[21]

Kaja Silvermann, 'The Acoustic Mirror,' p. 391.

[22]

Judith Butler, 'Imitation and Gender Insubordination,' p. 71. Silvermann argues that paying attention to patterns of libidinal coherence might allow us to 'hear' authorial voices that speak against the operations of dominant meaning, since these voices are much likelier to manifest themselves through isolated formal and diegetic irregularities than through formal systematicity'. ('The Acoustic Mirror,' p. 394.)

[23]

Kaja Silverman, 'The Acoustic Mirror' p. 400; quoting J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1973) p. 317. Judith Butler, 'Phantasmic Identification and the Assumption of Sex,' Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) p. 267n.7. Butler is quoting Laplanche and Pontalis, 'Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality,' in Formations of Fantasy, eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald, Cora Kaplan (London: Methuen, 1986) pp. 26-7.

[24]

Judith Butler, 'Phantasmic Identification and the Assumption of Sex,' p. 109.

[25]

Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p. 54.

[26]

Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994) pp. 261-2 and p. 263.

[27]

Teresa De Lauretis, The Practice of Love p. 283: 'is the penis, object of such insistence, a fetish? Or, put otherwise, does my model of perverse desire apply to forms of female sexuality that are apparently heterosexual?'.

[28]

See Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, p. 84; Gary Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism, p. 40; Harriet Devine Jump, Mary Wollstonecraft, Writer, p. 12. For claims to Wollstonecraft's 'maternal' status in feminist theory and women's literary history see: Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, ed. by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, 2nd edition (New York and London: Norton, 1996) p. 258; Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977) p. 216; Janet Todd, Feminist Literary History: A Defence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988) p. 103; Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (London: Secker and Warburg, 1958) p. 391; Margaret George, One Woman's 'Situation': A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1970) p. 3; Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947) p. 33; Perspectives on the History of British Feminism, vol. 1, The Radicals: Revolutionary Women, ed. Marie Mulvey Roberts and Tamae Mizuta (London and Tokyo: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1994) p. xi; Mary Jacobus, 'The Difference of View,' The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, ed. by Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989) p. 54.

[29]

See Ralph Wardle's description of Wollstonecraft's character in life and writing as 'loose' and 'impetuous' (Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography [Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1966 (1951)] pp. 155-6), and Godwin and Mary: The Collected Letters of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph Wardle (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1966) p. vii; hereafter abbreviated as CL. For examples of Wollstonecraft's anti-sexual stance in the Rights of Woman, see Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 (London: Virago, 1989) p. 206; Cora Kaplan, 'Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism,' Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986) p. 39; and 'Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism,' in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, eds. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn (London and New York: Methuen, 1985) p. 157. See also Mary Jacobus, 'The Difference of View,' pp. 54-5; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984) pp. 77-80.

[30]

Emma Goldman, 'Mary Wollstonecraft: Her Tragic Life and Her Passionate Struggle for Freedom,' quoted by Susan Gubar in 'Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of 'It Takes One to Know One,' Feminism Beside Itself, eds. Diane Elam and Robyn Wiegman (New York and London: Routledge, 1995) p.140.

[31]

See for example; pp. 84-6; Gary Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism, pp. 40-54; Harriet Devine Jump, Mary Wollstonecraft, Writer, pp. 10-16; Janet Todd, Sensibility; An Introduction (London and New York: Methuen, 1986) pp. 115-28. Wardle surmised an affair between Wollstonecraft and Joshua Waterhouse to explain Wollstonecraft's otherwise inexplicable despair following Blood's marriage to Hugh Skeys in 1785 (Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography, pp. 40-41; quoted by Faderman, 'Who Hid Lesbian History?,' p. 43). See also Wollstonecraft's letter to George Blood, dated August 1785: 'as to the girls [at Wollstonecraft's school] they teaze and please me by turns—I am particularly anxious' at which point four lines of deletions begin (CL p. 98). Wardle's footnote acknowledges the improbability of the Waterhouse affair: 'I theorized that these passages and a section torn from a letter to her sister dated May 11, 1787 (Letter 59) might have concerned her friendship with the Reverend Joshua Waterhouse. Recovery of the missing portion of that letter […] and identification of 'Neptune' (see Letter 36, n.3) however, invalidate my theory.' Wardle does not consider Blood as an alternative to Waterhouse.

[32]

Gary Kelly, '(Female) Philosophy in the Bedroom: Mary Wollstonecraft and Female Sexuality,' Women's Writing, 4, 2 (1997) 148. There is something to be said for the effect of preserved letters on our perception of a relationship—the absence of Wollstonecraft's letters to Fuseli tends to make this a less fully articulated relationship in her biographies.

[33]

It is worth pointing out that according to Silvermann, authorial identification in the text is not 'an ontological extension of the material reality it mimics': 'so far from being a mere reflection of the author "outside" the text' an identificatory character like Mary 'could reasonably be said to constitute him or her as such, in much the same way that the mirror reflection (retroactively) installs identity in the same child' ('The Acoustic Mirror,' pp. 397-8).

[34]

CL p. 152. See also Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) Letters 5, 8 and 22.

[35]

Claire Tomalin discusses this at some length in relation to the events of 1798 concerning Mary King's elopement with, and pregnancy by, the her mother's illegitimate half-brother, but she never really considers the nature of Wollstonecraft's relationship with Margaret King (The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, pp. 294-6).

[36]

Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (1788).

[37]

Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822, ed. Donald H. Reiman, vol VII (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986) p. 955.

[38]

Shelley and his Circle, p. 934.

[39]

Wollstonecraft describes Blood as a 'friend, whom I love better than all the world beside' and comments 'you wod not wonder at it, if you knew the many favors she conferred on me' (Shelley and his Circle, p. 966). In a slightly later letter to Arden, Wollstonecraft describes a visit with Blood at Walham Green, her plans for them to spend the rest of their lives together, and her aversion to 'any matrimonial tie' (p. 976).

[40]

For an intelligent and thought-provoking discussion of heterosexuality in Wollstonecraft's Vindication and Wrongs of Woman see Vivien Jones, '"The Tyranny of the Passions": Feminism and Heterosexuality in the Fiction of Wollstonecraft and Hays,' in Political Gender, eds. Sally Ledger, Josephine McDonagh, and Jane Spencer (New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994) pp. 173-188. For Wollstonecraft's claims to masculinity, see Wendy Gunther-Canada, 'Mary Wollstonecraft's "wild wish": Confounding Sex in the Discourse on Political Rights,' in Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Maria J Falco (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996) p. 69; Meena Alexander, Women in Romanticism Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1989) p. 19; David Simpson, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1993) p. 105.

[41]

'I am aware of an obvious inference: from every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind;—all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine' (Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 10). See also p. 118 and review of Macaulay's Letters on Education for the Analytical Review in Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, vol 7, p. 309.

[42]

Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 30; Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Men, in Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, vol. 5, p. 8; and see Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, p. xv.

[43]

De Lauretis leads us to a position where we might read female heterosexual desire as a symptom of the disavowal of women loving women: 'is the penis, object of such insistence, a fetish? Or, put otherwise, does my model of perverse desire apply to forms of female sexuality that are apparently heterosexual?' (The Practice of Love, p. 283). See also Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) pp. 57-65.

[44]

Judith Butler argues: 'To identify is not to oppose desire. Identification is a phantasmatic trajectory and resolution of desire; an assumption of place; a territorializing of an object which enables identity through the temporary resolution of desire, but which remains desire, if only in its repudiated form' ('Phantasmic Identification and the Assumption of Sex,' p. 9).

[45]

Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 87, n.29. For an account of the debate concerning Chevalier d'Eon's ambiguous gender and sex in the 1770s, see Gary Kates, 'D'Eon Returns to France: Gender and Power in 1777,' in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, eds. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York and London: Routledge, 1991) pp. 167-94. Trumbach notes that in the eighteenth century Sappho was both 'domesticated into a tragic heterosexuality' but also present in a libertine tradition that 'makes clear her taste for girls' ('London's Sapphists,' pp. 520-1, n. 4).

[46]

Susan Gubar, 'Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of 'It Takes One to Know One',' p. 137.

[47]

Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p. 69.

Auteur : Ashley Tauchert
Titre : Escaping Discussion: Liminality and the Female-Embodied Couple in Mary Wollstonecraft's Mary, A Fiction
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 18, mai 2000
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005923ar
DOI : 10.7202/005923ar

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