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The Death of the Author and the Birth of the Reader in Wollstonecraft's Life-Writing

Jeanne Moskal, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s created new interest in the first British feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). At that time, in 1974, Clare Tomalin published a biography entitled, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Tomalin's title and its emphasis on death make perfect sense to those familiar with Wollstonecraft's death at the age of 38, having found domestic contentment at last, having achieved a career as what she called "a new genus"—the woman writer—and pregnant with her much-desired second child. The title, emphasizing the sense of loss of what might have been had she lived, stresses the singularity of Wolstonecraft's life. But here what I would like to do is to modify somewhat the emphasis on death in the reception of Wollstonecraft's writings, to rethink of it not only as biographical but as shaped by literary and generic conventions. Roland Barthes wrote, famously, "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."[1] Barthes' polemical force in this dictum was to destroy the myth of the Author to whom all meaning must be referred in favor of readerly and textual play. But literary history also has a generic tradition of contemplating literal death of the author, and my aim is to locate Wollstonecraft's works within it. This generic tradition of life-writing writes not only the writer's life, but also the reader's. This genre writes the writer's death, and with it, the birth of a certain kind of reader. I will be focussing on the death of the author in an unfinished novel, published posthumously, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman.[2]

By talking about "writing the reader's life," I am drawing from Marxist Louis Althusser's notion of "interpellation." Althusser maintains that literature does its cultural work by representing the myths and imaginary versions of real social relationships, and that these myths and imaginary versions constitute ideology. The point of entry, the hook, that literature extends to the reader, occurs when literature seems to address itself to him or her directly. The literary work offers the reader "one position from which the text is most 'obviously' intelligible, and that position of apparent sense is the position of the subject in (and of) ideology." The process of readerly education, formation, and/or manipulation is what Althusser calls "interpellation."[3] Literature teachers know this process well. I encounter it, for example, when I teach Charlotte BrontĪ's Jane Eyre. Once in awhile, one of the white Southern undergraduate women in my classes has identified so strongly with the heroine throughout her adolescent readings of the novel that she strenuously resists my efforts to take up Bertha Rochester's claim to a hearing. Fortunately for my pedagogy, sometimes students of color and/or white men will speak up angrily to voice their sense that the author is coercing them into adopting Jane's position, illustrating Althusser's point about interpellation. Like Jane Eyre, Wollstonecraft's Letters from Norway (1796) also enacts an interpellation that some readers may accept and others reject. Letters from Norway, cajoling and scolding by turns, tries to win back the affections of the reader who is also the lover. William Godwin, a later lover of Wollstonecraft and her biographer, commented on its interpellative efforts: "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book." Another admirer, poet Robert Southey wrote to his publisher, "Have you met with Mary Wollstonecraft's [travel book]? She has made me in love with a cold climate, and frost and snow, with a northern moonlight."[4] Both Godwin and Southey note the element of calculation, of "making a man in love," that registers the presence of a distinct conscious agenda for interpellation, for writing the reader's life as well as the author's.

In addition to Wollstonecraft's intention to write the reader's life, the brute fact of her untimely death also skews the reception of her work by endowing it with a poignancy and inevitability. This biographical weight of grief and loss is extremely powerful and should not be discounted. However, it is not the whole story. Wollstonecraft's first readers, including her family, had generic models in their culture that helped to educate them to certain models of interpellation. In particular, the generic conventions of the so-called "mothers' legacies" structure the reader's response as the child/reader guiltily born out of the mother-author's death. By bringing to the table an analysis of literary conventions surrounding the depiction of the death of authors, I am drawing from the reception theory developed by Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss. Reception theory holds that a reader's "horizon of expectations" includes not only the cues, or blanks, present in the text, that invite the reader's participation, but also a nonsubjective, identifiable set of expectations, that a literary historian can discern, in part, through generic models and precedents.[5]
4. The genre of mothers' legacies, which originated in England in the seventeenth century, mixes components of devotional literature, life-writing, and so-called "courtesy books," a genre of educational advice and moral tales. In this genre, aristocratic women wrote books of advice, instruction, and prayer during their pregnancies, directed to their unborn child and written to address the mother's fear that she would not survive childbirth. (Since numerous courtesy books employed the device of a parental author and a filial addressee, the link to mother's legacies is a close one.) Scholars Sylvia Brown and Jean LeDrew Metcalf have recently recovered three sample legacies for scholarly attention, those penned by Elizabeth Joscelin, Dorothy Leigh, and Elizabeth Richardson, and published by them or their heirs. The evidence tantalizingly suggests that the genre may have flourished in coterie writing as well as published form. As Sophia Blaydes observes, one Anne Halkett wrote a manuscript entitled "The Mother's Will to her Unborn Child," which is now lost; a determined Halkett wrote similar books during three subsequent pregnancies! In characterizing the genre's features, Brown writes, "Drawing on the language of the deathbed-and sometimes literally writing from the deathbed-these women decided to leave their advice in form of a written 'legacy' or 'blessing' which would speak for them after they were gone. As a result, some mother's legacies . . . can produce an uncanny effect of immediacy and intimacy: as of a mother's voice speaking to her child from the grave." Brown writes that these authors probably hoped to address a wider audience than their children, but, in a curious reversal, they exert this wider pull by inviting the reader, kindred or not, to interpellate himself/herself as the child whom the mother addresses from the shadow of her death.[6]

To suggest, just briefly, the affinity of The Wrongs of Woman with the genre of the mother's legacy, I'd like to compare a couple of excerpts from Joscelin and Wollstonecraft. One important feature of Joscelin's opening, addressed to her husband Taurell Joscelin, is that it stresses the mother's intellectual rather than her physical nurturance.

Myne own dear loue I no sooner conceyued a hope that I should bee made a mother by thee but wth it entered the consideration of a mothers duty and shortly after followed the apprehension of danger that might preuent me for [sic] executing that care, I so exceedingly desired, I mean in religious trayning our childe, and in truth deathe appearing in this shape was doubly terrible vnto mee first in respect of the paynfullnes of that kinde of death an[d] next the losse my littell one should haue in wantinge.[7]
6. A similar distinction animates the opening pages of Wollstonecraft's novel, when the heroine is abducted and separated from her child. Just as Joscelin stresses not the loss to herself of her life and the sight of her child by writing of "the losse my littell one should haue in wantinge me", so Wollstonecraft writes of the child's hunger for the maternal breast. Further, Wollstonecraft, like Joscelin, asserts the superiority of the mother's spiritual disposition ("self-denial") to her ability to feed her child. Wollstonecraft writes:
Her infant's image was continually floating on Maria's sight, and the first smile of intelligence remembered, as none but a mother, an unhappy mother, can conceive. She heard her half speaking half cooing, and felt the little twinkling fingers on her bursting bosom-a bosom bursting with the nutriment for which this cherished child might now be pining in vain. From a stranger she could indeed receive the maternal aliment, Maria was grieved at the thought-but who would watch her with a mother's tenderness, a mother's self-denial?[8]
Though Wollstonecraft eschews the explicitly religious instruction penned by Joscelin and her sisters, she shares with them the notion that the mother has a unique kind of instruction to give. Maria begins the memoir with this point: "Addressing these memoirs to you, my child, uncertain whether I shall ever have an opportunity of instructing you, many observations will probably flow from my heart, which only a mother—a mother schooled in misery—could make."[9]

Moreover, Wollstonecraft makes explicit the compensatory function of the book when the mother is physically absent. She writes of Maria,

But of her child, debilitated by the grief with which its mother had been assailed before it saw the light, she could not think without an impatient struggle. "I, alone, by my active tenderness, could have saved," she would exclaim, "from an early blight, this sweet blossom; and, cherishing it, I should have had something still to love." In proportion as other expectations were torn from her, this tender one had been fondly clung to, and knit into her heart. The books she had obtained, were soon devoured . . . Writing was then the only alternative . . . [her memoirs] might perhaps instruct her daughter, and shield her from the misery, the tyranny, her mother knew not how to avoid.[10]
8. Within the matrix of these rough generic similarities, enormous differences obtain between Wollstonecraft and her seventeenth-century foremothers—different attitudes to religion and different forms of maternal absence, to name two of the most obvious. Nonetheless, the generic matrix deserves attention for its role in teaching readers to be interpellated in certain ways even before they encounter a particular text. Evidence of the material form of this generic matrix can be found in the National Union Catalogue. It records one edition of Elizabeth Richardson, in 1625; nine editions of Dorothy Leigh's legacy in the seventeenth century and two in the eighteenth; and for Elizabeth Joscelin, six in English in the seventeenth century, and two in Dutch; two eighteenth-century editions, one in English and one in Dutch; and five, in English, in the nineteenth century. And, as Brown and Metcalfe have discovered, such mothers' legacies remained popular reading well into the nineteenth century. Brown observes that the Rev. Charles Henry Gregan Craufurd, a well-known Victorian book collector, published a reprint of Joscelin as an addendum to an anthology of his sermons in 1840. Dr. Robert Lee, a Scotch Presbyterian minister, was so piqued by the Anglicanization of Joscelin's Puritan theology that he produced a new edition of her work in 1853; and Randall Davidson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a new introduction to the Legacy in 1894. In addition to this history of publication, further clues point to the history of readership in the decades when no new editions were published. Metcalfe affirms that "signatures in surviving copies suggest [Joscelin's legacy] was read by both female and male readers." And the prefaces to two of the nineteenth-century editions mention receiving an earlier edition as a gift.[11] Thus the evidence does suggest that the genre exerted a continuous influence on eighteenth and nineteenth-century readers.
9. It is not clear whether Wollstonecraft herself and her circle read any mother's legacies. But we know for sure that she read and wrote courtesy books, with their strong parental-filial tradition. Wollstonecraft directs much of the vitriol of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) against Dr. John Gregory's A Father's Legacy to his Daughters (1774), and she herself wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786) and Original Stories from Real Life (1788). Yet my discussion of the mother's legacy here and my sketch of its continuing popularity does suggest that Wollstonecraft's readers did indeed have specific generic cues to guide their responses to The Wrongs of Woman. These cues created a horizon of readerly expectations that encompassed, but was not limited to the biographical fact of her death.[12] The significance of this line of inquiry extends to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the most frequently assigned novel in college courses today. As one of the daughters most obviously addressed by The Wrongs of Woman, Mary Shelley created a response to the death of mothers in Victor Frankenstein. The scientist makes his determines to discover the secret of bestowing life on dead matter soon after the premature death of his own mother, Caroline Frankenstein. His determination to undo this damage marks the dawn of a scientific response to maternal mortality, in which Mary Shelley attempts to exorcise and placate the ancestral voices of Wollstonecraft and her foremothers in the vexed relation between maternity and writing.

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