Romantic Circles Features and Events
Chamber Music Feature


Chamber Music: Tuning Up the Instruments

Nora Crook, Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge

The four extraordinary persons on whom our panel are shortly going to speak and whom it is my privilege to introduce—William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley—were linked by blood, friendship, marriage and discipleship. Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Hays were all born in the late 1750s and were at the height of their powers during the 1790s, their great decade. Shelley, the daughter of Godwin and Wollstoncraft, was born in 1797; Wollstonecraft died in child-bed within 11 days of the birth. Shelley's career took off after the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815. It lasted until the Early Victorian era. Godwin was the greatest English philosopher of his age. Wollstonecraft and Hays its foremost radical feminists; Shelley the author of Romanticism's most long-lasting myth.

Godwin and Wollstonecraft were both independent spirits who learned from each other. Godwin had been destined for the ministry, but, becoming increasingly unorthodox, he turned London journalist and author instead. When Wollstonecraft met him properly in 1796, he was famous as the author both of his magnum opus, Political Justice (1793), and of the radical novel Caleb Williams (1794). He had also written a pamphlet, Cursory Strictures (1794), which had saved 12 men, including his best friend, from going to the gallows for treason.

Wollstonecraft was famous as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Letters from Norway (1795). Her previous life had been turbulent. Her father was violent and shiftless; she had earned her living as a governess before coming to London. Like Godwin she had become an author and journalist. She had been to Paris during the French Revolution where she had had a daughter, Fanny, by her lover, an American, Gilbert Imlay. He gave her the job of going to Scandinavia on a secret business mission. She travelled with little Fanny and a maid, sometimes alone, to this then remote part of Europe, an unprecedented journey for a woman. On her return to England, she found that Imlay had deserted her. She attempted suicide, but, saved from drowning, started putting her life back together and wrote Letters from Norway.
4. It was then that Godwin met her. They became lovers and she became pregnant. Godwin came to recognize that in the world as it was, for a woman to have children out of wedlock bore harder on her and the children than it did on the man, and, rather sheepishly and to the astonishment of their friends, he and Wollstonecraft sunk their principles (they were both anti-matrimonialists) and discreetly married. He gave her the equal companionship and dependability she needed and had no reservations about being a father to Fanny. She gave him the "intuitive perception of intellectual beauty" which he lacked. "What I wanted in this respect, Mary possessed, in a degree superior to any other person I ever knew. [. . . ] This light was lent to me for a very short period, and is now extinguished for ever!"[1]
5. Godwin was throughout his career a writer of Lives. The above quotation comes from his most famous piece of lifewriting—his Memoir of Wollstonecraft, published in 1798, a year after her death. Godwin had intended to honor her, but the immediate result was to defame her and to heap scorn on his head for revealing her "scandalous" behaviour. Godwin has been much criticized for his misjudgment. Today, time has vindicated Wollstonecraft and we are able to read his Memoirs in the spirit in which it ought to have been read in 1798. From our own perspective, we may be glad that Godwin did not censor himself. Pamela Clemit will be our guide and will be telling us something of what Godwin was trying to do. The other two were disciples of both Godwin and Wollstonecraft. Mary Hays was instrumental in bringing them together. Gina Walker will be filling us in on Hays's life, so I shall touch on this only briefly. Mary Shelley, the fourth member of the quartet, never met Hays, but she knew the caricature of Hays that appeared in a reactionary novel called Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800).[2] Very likely that she had also read Hays's strong, passionate, committed 1790s novels. After Godwin's death in 1836, Mary Shelley wrote to Hays assuring her: "Your name is of course familiar to me as one of those women whose talents do honour to our sex—and as the friend of my parents."[3]
6. Mary Shelley and Godwin furnish an extremely interesting case of a Romantic period literary father-daughter relationship. Godwin was obviously a towering personality; Shelley was to admit that as a young girl she had excessively romantic feelings for him and made him into the god of her idolatry. But the idol was seen to have feet of clay when in 1814 she eloped, aged sixteen, with another disciple of Godwin, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (And then followed Frankenstein, but that is another story.) Godwin behaved, for all his enlightened principles, like a traditional heavy never-darken-my-door-again father, until the pair got married, and it would appear that his behavior released her from this excessive worshipfulness. On balance, Godwin's influence on Mary Shelley was a very positive one. He gave her an education equal to if not better than that of the boys in his household; he encouraged her to have high expectations; he had numerous contacts in the arts, science, and politics, and introduced her to them. After her literary fame was established, he even acted as her research assistant on occasion. How Shelley represents her father will form part of Michael Rossington's paper. He is also going to introduce some of her little-known but important late works—the lifewriting she did for a popular encyclopaedia for a man with the strange name of Dionysius Lardner.
7. She never knew her mother except through her writings (which she reread many times) and through her imagination. But her relationship with her dead mother is as important as that with her father. Jeanne Moskal's paper will address this, and show how Wollstonecraft represents herself as a mother speaking to her daughters, leaving behind her a mother's legacy—for the works were for Fanny, her daughter by Imlay, as well—and indeed to women in general.
8. I'll now say a little bit more about their intellectual milieu and what they believed in. All four were part of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and its concommitant, the Age of Sensibility. And each was a feminist or a pro-feminist. (Each, also, was in an important sense a Romantic.) Their political positions covered the spectrum from radical to liberal. They all supported the French Revolution in principle, were on the side of the moderate republicans (the Girondins) and were appalled at the violent and bloodstained turn the revolution took.
9. The Enlightenment is associated with the elevation of rationality as the defining feature of humanity. It rejected the idea of a fallen humanity. Rather, humanity is able to take charge of its destiny. True to Enlightenment principles, all four believed that the direction history was taking was progressive and that human society was improving on all fronts. Godwin and Shelley, in particular, were actually in favour of applying science and technology for the benefit of mankind, and welcomed, for instance, the railways for their speed in bringing people together. The quartet's religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) were also Enlightenment ones. Godwin maintained he was an atheist, but acknowledged religious feelings, prompted by the beauty, vastness and unknowability of the universe. The three Marys believed in some kind of supreme being and could be called deists, though both Mary Hays and Mary Shelley moved closer in later life to mending their fences with orthodox Christianity, particularly Hays. But all of them, whatever their differences, excluded from their beliefs the doctrine of Hell and of retribution, the miraculous and the authoritarian.
10. Sensibility elevates feeling as Enlightenment elevates reason. "What is the source of moral feeling?" the Enlightenment psychologist asked himself. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) located it in sympathy. We are not merely rational beings, but sensitive, or to use eighteenth-century terminology, sensible beings—a confusing term, since in this context "sensible" means not that you have common sense—in fact you can be extremely silly and still have sensibility—but that you are the opposite of insensible. You are not a stone or a clod, but one who feels the pains and joys of others, the beauty or the grandeur of nature and the arts—you are capable of forgetting yourself in the universe or in the world created by a great painter or composer; hence the association between sensibility, nature poetry, love of music and the joys of love-making. But to have too much sensibility is to risk becoming viciously sensual, or dying of a broken heart, or going mad, or committing suicide.
11. Wollstonecraft was seen as a "case" of excessive sensibility after Godwin's Memoir appeared. But her travel book, Letters from Norway, was praised for the exquisite and refined sensibility that it revealed. The heroines of Hays's and Shelley's novels are almost invariably women of great sensibility; the reader is stirred to feel for them, and their feelings and sensations are minutely analysed. Hays's love letters (which Gina Walker rediscovered) read like a novel of sensibility. Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft are also written within the genre of the literature of sensibility. He reveals himself to be a "man of feeling" as much as one of reason.
12. Many feminisms emerge during the period 1770-1840, but one main strand is Bluestocking feminism (circles of learned ladies, or at least of cultivated minds, who promote female pride and self-respect through reading and rational discourse). The "Blues" welcomed the support and conversation of enlightened men. "Blue" literature, in its pure form, tends to stress women's strength of character and firmness of intellect.
13. Another strand lays more stress on political and legal freedom for women, the rights of women to travel, to enter public life, and to conduct their love-lives with the same liberty as men. Though the bluestocking feminist characteristically down-plays sexuality, both kinds of feminism—blue-stocking and libertarian—can meet in the same person, and do, par excellence, in Wollstonecraft. "Bluestocking" was an old-fashioned term by the 1830s, but Shelley was still referred to occasionally as one; her reputation was that of an intellectual, as well as the Author of Frankenstein.
14. All four are committed to the view that men and women can relate to each other as friends and equals. Godwin could be regarded as both an advocate of pro-libertarian feminism and as the Bluestocking's friend. He was attractive to intelligent women because he listened to and corresponded with them as equals. Political Justice famously urged that marriage is an odious monopoly which made woman the slave of man. Why should a woman not allow other men to enjoy her "conversation" if she wishes? How appallingly selfish and irrational that it should be the exclusive possession of a husband! But as we have seen, he was prepared to be inconsistent on this point where abstract justice and the wish to protect the woman whom he loved were in conflict—partly because he changed his mind and came to attach more importance to what he called "private affections."
15. Wollstonecraft has qualities of both the Bluestocking and the libertarian. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) she is intensely suspicious of the identification of femaleness with sensibility and indeed of treating women as pre-eminently sexual objects. But she also waxes indignant at the double standard, and the prudish premium placed on female modesty. What kind of impure mind is it, she wonders, which would forbid girls to study botany because they will learn of the sexual reproduction of plants? For Wollstonecraft, woman's nature is domestic, but emphatically not amiably weak and infantilized; for her, the domestic order and active citizenship are not opposed. She aims above all at reform of the education of the middle-class woman; she has been criticized for this limitation, but her work was called A Vindication, not The Vindication, and was a first salvo, not the last word. Wollstonecraft contributes to a subgenre, what one might call "Wrongs of Women" literature; this literature is strongly consciousness-raising and didactic; its purpose is above all to arouse indignation and the political will to change things.
16. Hays also contributes to "wrongs of Women" literature; she is both the champion of Wollstonecraft and a strong voice in her own right; she suffered guilt by association after Godwin's memoir made Wollstonecraft's name scandalous. Of the four, she is probably the frankest in her depiction of female sexual desire and its frustration, as in her novels of the 1790s, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) and The Victim of Prejudice (1799). Hays was later to write lives of celebrated women—Female Biography (1803) and Memoirs of Queens (1821), forerunners of and perhaps influences on Shelley's own Literary Lives for Dionysius Lardner.
17. Shelley's brand of feminism worked by stealth; she answered criticisms that she lacked the bold spirit of her mother by maintaining that she had always been the champion and supporter of the oppressed of her own sex. Partly she does this simply by being one of the leading literary women of her time but the private and semi-private support she gave was genuine enough; indeed, one amazing episode, helping two female friends to escape to the Continent disguised as husband and wife, exceeded the usual remit to help a sister in trouble. She eventually found a position which merged public and private spheres and allowed her both to speak out and to efface herself—writing lives: lives of celebrated writers, of her husband and of her father. The half-completed "Life of Godwin" kept on nagging at her saying "Finish me, finish me" through the last decade of her life, and if she hadn't been a very ill woman with a brain tumor I think she would have done.
18. So, here is the quartet. Do they harmonize? Yes, in a way that makes room for discords as well as agreements. In the words of Bacon, a favorite author whom Mary Shelley quoted in The Last Man: "The falling from a discord to a concord, which maketh great sweetness in music, hath an agreement with the affections, which are integrated to the better after some dislikes." Let us hear their music.

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