Review of Eileen Hunt’s Portraits of Wollstonecraft – by Sylvana Tomaselli

The following is a review of Eileen Hunt‘s Portraits of Wollstonecraft, by Sylvana Tomaselli, based on a talk she gave at the book launch organized by Notre Dame.

Why Appearances Matter, or, the Appearance of Mary Wollstonecraft

I will not be the only person who on reading Portraits of Wollstonecraft wished it had appeared a long time ago. Considering the many presentations and representations of Wollstonecraft these two volumes bring together gives rise to a myriad of disparate thoughts not only about her as an author, but also about issues of methodology in the history of ideas, of philosophy and political thought, and of feminisms.  They make one reflect, amongst other things, about biography as a genre as well as about autobiographies.   They make one ponder as to how thinkers become adopted, appropriated in various ways, and owned.  This is brought home by the very helpful accounts of the serial ownership of portraitures of Wollstonecraft, those by Keenan and Opie in particular.  It is also highlighted, for instance, by Alice Wexler’s remarks in ‘Emma Goldman on Mary Wollstonecraft’ on the way the early twentieth-century anarchist made the eighteenth-century writer her own.  Through making copious or scare references to Wollstonecraft a variety of authors have spoken about the condition of women as if the portrait of the great ‘pioneer’ hung on the wall behind them as heads of states do in offices throughout the world.  This in turn engenders questions about canonical figures, and the need we seem to have for find the Ur-mothers and fathers of every idea, concept, and ideology, our craving for genealogies.

            I stop my enumeration of the many ideas that these volumes provoke and hope you will forgive my making a personal remark starting with what might appear as a confession, but I very much hope it will not be taken as such or I will have failed to make my point.  

            Until relatively recently, I would not have known Wollstonecraft had she been seated opposite me at dinner, let alone recognised her in the street, not, that, is until she had spoken.  One did not comment on appearances, especially not of a female intellectual, and to ensure this I took no interest in portraits of Wollstonecraft.  I blanked them out, though of course that could not but wane with the years, given that most editions of her works and works about her feature a portrait on their cover.  The same was true of her personal life.  One made a point of not knowing it and, if one did, one made a point of not bringing it up.  Principles, ideas mattered, not scandals or dull routines, if one worked on Immanuel Kant. Contexts, to be sure, but intellectual contexts, battles of ideas not bedroom ones, especially not when studying the works of a woman, and most especially not those of Wollstonecraft.

            That was the Zeitgeist in much of the academic environment of the 1970s/1980s.  In relation to Wollstonecraft, it was largely a reaction to the exaggerated interest in her love life of which one is reminded in many of the texts Eileen has judiciously included in her edition.  Reflecting on these two volumes however makes me realise that it was also due to the manner in which Beauvoir’s novels and theoretical works were received for much of the C20th.  

            Both Wollstonecraft and Beauvoir themselves blurred the divide between their private and public selves, or rather between their multi-layered public-private and private-public selves.  How much one said or did not say about Wollstonecraft’s (or Beauvoir’s, for that matter) has not only changed in time, but may be a question of culture.  In her comments on Roy’s engraving, ‘Marie Wollstonecrafft,’ for the frontispiece to Vie et mémoires de Marie Wollstonecraft Godwin, Auteur de la Défense des droits de la Femme, Traduit de l’anglais (1802), Eileen explains how Mary Hays’s long anonymous obituary barely mentioned Fuseli and said not much more about Imlay.  She further remarks how ‘The French translator of Vie et mémoires took Hays’s philosophical approach to Wollstonecraft’s biography to a higher level of abstraction. In the translator’s preface, Fuseli and Godwin are not mentioned, and Imlay only once, with a reminder that this episode in her life must be viewed with impartiality. Instead, the translator attempts a character sketch of Wollstonecraft from the perspective of French culture and politics.’  How much a light was or is cast on Wollstonecraft’ life and appearance in print or on canvas has fluctuated over time and according to cultures.  This is just one of the fruits in the cornucopia of ideas that Portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft offers to its readers.

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