In the late 18th century, women did not have the same goals and aspirations as they do today, and in literature they were quite often portrayed as overly-sensitive, air-headed and romantic individuals. In her novel Maria: or, TheWrongs of Woman, Wollstonecraft writes, “How difficult it was for women to avoid growing romantic, who have no active duties or pursuits”. What she is illustrating here is the way in which women, because of their lack of personal goals and productivity, become easily fooled and manipulated by men. Thus, women are left completely dependent upon them. This concept of women getting lost in romance because of their lack of productive pursuits is seen in both the novel of Wollstonecraft as well as Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. These two novels illustrate the way in which women without active duties or pursuits become lost in their feelings and imagination and become easily infatuated, thus leaving them at the will of their husbands and losing their liberty entirely.
In The Wrongs of Woman the character of Maria is portrayed to be a woman who does not have any active duties or pursuits, and is thus left to the will of her imagination, so she easily becomes foolishly romantic on several occasions throughout the novel. These weaknesses’ Maria has and her lack of productivity is seen most obviously at the beginning of the novel through her isolation. Maria is being incarcerated in an institution where she has little to do in the small room that she is being kept. Maria is alone and has nothing to do but contemplate her own feelings. “She began to reflect, as an excuse to herself, on the little objects which attract attention when there is nothing to divert the mind” (Wollstonecraft The Wrongs of Woman 24). Her isolation is an important factor in her tendency to turn romantic throughout the novel, for she has nothing to distract herself with but her own imagination. Wollstonecraft then depicts Maria to fall in love very easily, when she isn’t able to distract herself and thus, she is mocking a woman’s weak mentality. For example, Maria becomes quickly infatuated with Darnford, for she is solitary in the institution and Darnford is the only man she communicates with. Darnford may have even used this to his advantage, as he is described as leaving Maria to her own thoughts to contemplate them. When he tells her his story, he “left her to her own thoughts, to the ‘never ending, still beginning’ task of weighing his words, recollecting his tones of voice, and feeling them reverberate on her heart” (Wollstonecraft 37). This demonstrates how Maria’s isolation is what causes her imagination to take over. Maria’s falling in love with Darnford is juxtaposed with the helpless and isolated situation she is in. In this way, Wollstonecraft is depicting Darnford to be nearly seducing Maria, whose weak mind and vulnerability leave her prone to his seduction. In the conclusion notes for the novel it states “A prosecution for adultery commenced” (Wollstonecraft 330), in which Wollstonecraft intended George Venables, Maria’s husband, to win a lawsuit against Darnford for the seduction of his wife. George is thus suing because of the seduction of his seemingly weak-minded and easily persuaded wife, although what George did to marry Maria was also seduction and equally, if not more, taking advantage.
As Maria recounts the story between her and her husband it is clear that her lack of activity in her life led her to fall in love with a man who was not at all what she thought he was. The horrible situation Maria is put it with her husband and their destructive relationship, not only shows Maria’s weakness in mind but also her blindness and ignorance. When Maria fell in love with Venables, she explains that she was longing to meet people and was quite bored, so she decided to open her heart. “I longed to see new characters, to break the tedious monotony of my life; and to find a friend, such as fancy has portrayed” (Wollstonecraft 76). The complacency Maria felt about her life goes hand in hand with her falling in love with George Venables. Maria consciously knows this, and even uses it as an excuse for her bad decision making. She states, “Had my home been more comfortable or my previous acquaintances more numerous, I should not probably have been so eager to open my heart to new affections” (76). Instead of admitting it was her own weakness and fault, Maria blames her household and links her misjudgment with her lack of social acquaintances. Maria later has another excuse, for she blames her tender heart and heated imagination for her marriage. She says, “The tenderness of my heart would not have heated my imagination with visions of the ineffable delight of happy love” (88). It’s as though Maria is admitting that she is weak-hearted, and prone to becoming romantic. However, as she is admitting this, she is making the same mistake again with Darnford. Her weak heart and overwhelming imagination is allowing her to imagine Darnford as her “hero” just as she did with George Venables. When explaining her infatuation for Darnford, Maria says, “What a revolution took place, not only in my train of thoughts, but feelings! I trembled with emotion – now, indeed, I was in love” (Wollstonecraft 83). It is evident that Maria is letting her imagination get the best of her. She is constructing an ideal man and a hero to her life out of Darnford, and because she has no active distractions, her imagination takes over her mental state and wipes out logic from her mind.
Because of their weak-mindedness, tenderness of heart, and lack of pursuits, women in this novel are left without freedom. They are completely dependent and reliable upon the men in their lives. Maria, for example, attempts to escape George Venables but in the end cannot succeed at gaining her liberty. Wollstonecraft makes clear that although Maria tries to be independent with her child, she fails, only to result in her imprisonment and in turn, falling in love again blindly with Darnford. Maria is constantly being depicted as imprisoned, or as property of the men in her life. George Venables even attempts to sell Maria into prostitution, as if she was a possession that he can sell at any given point. Maria explains this, as she says “But a wife being as much a man’s property as his horse, or his ass, she has nothing she can call her own” (Wollstonecraft 109). All this imprisonment and sense of possession goes back to a woman’s lack of duties and pursuits. A woman not being independent of her husband is the source of her struggles later in life. Maria’s blindness because of her lack of education or goals and her falling in love with George, is what gets her into this position of being a slave to him. The difficult cycle is often argued with the concept that women are born slaves and cannot escape that existence. As Maria laments at the beginning of the novel, “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?” (Wollstonecraft 14). Wollstonecraft seems to be challenging this idea, and is aspiring women to have their own pursuits so as to not become slaves in their lives, so as to live virtuously amongst men. She is often known for her views of liberty, as described by Susan Ferguson, “Wollstonecraft’s understanding of liberty has little to do with the negative concept implied by the more modern liberal principle of equality of opportunity. Rather, she suggests, a free society must be a virtuous society” (Ferguson The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft 444).
The concept of being born as a woman means you are born a slave is seen also in the 1797 Inchbald play Wives as They Were, and Maids as They Are. In it, Lady Priory says, “I was born to be the slave of some of you—I make the choice to obey my husband” (Inchbald IV). She is willingly the slave to her husband and lives merely to be at his beck and call. Lord Priory even says, “The soft, delicate, and tender hands of my wife are at my command” (I). Without her own active duties, Lady Priory is at the will of her husband. She is incarcerated by him in a way, for she is locked up and cannot see anyone, similar to the way in which Maria is incarcerated at the institution. Even when Lady Priory is given the option of some sort of liberty, she decides to return to her dominating husband, just like Maria can leave the institution but is not in a rush to leave without Darnford. Wollstonecraft would argue that Lady Priory’s complacency towards her entrapment is rooted in her lack of active duties or pursuits. In addition, in this play Miss Dorillon takes to gambling and other troublesome endeavors. Because of this, she becomes indebted to a man to get her out of the situation, and is even physically incarcerated for a period of time, like Maria and Lady Priory. Thus, a woman’s solitude and isolation is being juxtaposed with her weakness of the mind and dependence on man. This play, like Maria’s situation in The Wrongs of Woman makes clear the way in which liberty for a woman is merely swapping one man for another. The most choice a woman can make in her life is to choose which tyrannical man is to rule her life, and some women can barely do that. In some cases, women are left with only choices of prostitution or suicide.
Jemima from The Wrongs of Woman, for example, attempted to escape her horrible and abusive master; and she ends up working as a prostitute. “Detesting my nightly occupation though valuing, if I may so use the word, my independence…” (Wollstonecraft 52). Wollstonecraft is using these women as examples of the difficulties they have of going through life with and without men. They need them to succeed, and are thus put through many pains because of them. Wollstonecraft is demonstrating the limited options women have and how difficult it is to become reputable or self sustained without men. She writes, “By allowing women but one way of rising in the world… society makes monsters of them, and then their ignoble vices are brought forward as a proof of inferiority of intellect” (Wollstonecraft 86). It seems as though Wollstonecraft is blaming a woman’s lack of “active goals and pursuits” for not only their romantic entrapment, but their proneness to becoming a possession or slave to their husbands. This is a concept that is seen again, and challenged in 1890, when Ibsen writes in Hedda Gabler about a woman who seems to lose her freedom, “Subject to your will and your demands. No longer free! No! That’s a thought I’ll never endure! Never” (262). However, even in this case, Hedda’s only escape is through suicide, just like Maria’s.
The women in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice also go through this sort of entrapment, where they have little choice but to find a husband and live by him. Their goal in life is to find a husband and become settled and comfortable by means of him. The women in this novel do not have any active duties or pursuits beyond that, and are all desirous of marriage, either romantic or not. Charlotte, for example, expresses towards Elizabeth after she admits she is engaged to Mr. Collins, that she is not a romantic person, she just wants a husband. “I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character… I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state” (Austen Pride and Prejudice 152). Although her lack of independence does not lead her to grow romantic, it still leaves her with little option in her life, and must marry without love. Charlotte is thinking very logically about her future and is weighing her options. She is also trying to make the best of what she has, which isn’t very much.
In contrast, Lydia thinks a bit differently than Charlotte does, for she easily grows romantic and wants to marry for love, although she may not even know what that is. Lydia’s air-headedness leaves her vulnerable to the convincing of men and prevents her from thinking logically. She has no active goals apart from finding a husband she can gush about, and is easily persuaded by Wickham, although he does not have honest intentions. Lydia is able to use her imagination to become easily infatuated with him, although it could have ended up very poorly if it wasn’t for Mr. Darcy. Lydia does not even care for the embarrassment she might have caused her family. The dense depiction of a woman seen in Lydia is quite a common motif, from the eyes of man and woman. A modern example of this representation of a woman is seen in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House where Torvald describes Nora to be “a little featherbrain” and “little scatterbrain”, which is a good description for Lydia in this novel.
Elizabeth is arguably the most romantic character in Pride and Prejudice. She isn’t airheaded like her sister, but she is not completely independent either. Although she is well read, Elizabeth still needs to get married and eventually falls in love with Mr. Darcy. Also, she fits in with the other characters previously discussed like Maria who let their imaginations get the best of them. Elizabeth is left alone many times to contemplate her feelings, and grows easily romantic as her imagination takes over. Elizabeth struggles to see the truth behind her assumptions and imagination many times throughout the novel, about Wickham and about Mr. Darcy. “Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (Austen 244). Elizabeth is constantly wrong and judging people wrongly by first impressions. Even as she is admitting this, she still does not realize she has been blind because she is in love. Readers are left to question if she even knows herself. Austen uses Elizabeth as an example of how love can cause blindness, and how even Elizabeth can become overly romantic because of her feelings taking over. It’s clear when she first fell for Wickham, she was letting her imagination get the best of her. As Morgan describes, “We notice Elizabeth’s self deception, her lack of any serious feelings for this handsome young officer about whom, as she is to realize later, she knows nothing at all” (Susan Morgan Intelligence in “Pride and Prejudice” 60). Elizabeth, although seemingly the most well spoken and intelligent female of these texts, is still subject to her own mind and shows weakness to the men in her life.
Ultimately, the texts discussed all make clear the downfall of women because of their lack of active duties, pursuits and own goals in life. Women in these texts are born to be slaves to the men in their lives, and without establishing their independence, continue to be throughout their lives. Since the female characters are either imprisoned, isolated or merely without a mind of their own, they are easily manipulated to become romantic or lost in their own imaginations. What the women in such novels as Maria or Pride and Prejudice prove is that one must not be enslaved by their imaginings and their inability to perceive and embrace possibilities of freedom and independence outside the expected social framework.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Project Gutenberg, 2009.
Ferguson, Susan. “The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 32.3 (1999): 427-450.
Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Inchbald, Elizabeth. Wives as They Were, and Maids as They Are. Montreal: Etang, University of Montreal , 2003.
Morgan, Susan. “Intelligence in “Pride and Prejudice”.” Modern Philology 73.1 (1975): 54-68.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. Project Gutenberg, 2006.