“Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?”
Wollstonecraft’s Maria, & Exploring a Cycle of Immobility for Women in the Romantic Period
When considering Britain in the Romantic period as an ever-changing, modernizing empire, it is crucial to note those who were participating in and embracing mobility, and those excluded from it. With the extensive growth of trade, travel and worldly views, the British who were not partaking in several acts of mobility, were absolutely lacking in engaging fully with their evolving country. Unfortunately, nearly every woman in England at the time was grouped into this category of immobility. Forced to remain in the private sphere and having few goals past marriage and the raising of a family, women were closer to being items of trade (on the ‘marriage market’) than allowed to be traders themselves. Having limited abilities of moving up the social ladder, a woman in the Romantic period who had aspirations for mobility had seemingly the best chances of doing so by getting married, which is paradoxically an act of rooting yourself further. Author Mary Wollstonecraft depicts women in this immobile state, and through her novel The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria she illustrates the consequences of the imprisonment in which women were fixed. Wollstonecraft, who emphasizes the “locomotive faculty of body and mind” (Johnson 210) shows that female immobility is synonymous with their lack of education, which then leads to further immobility since they do not know how to, and are unable to, escape from their entrapped situations. Therefore, a detrimental cycle is created where a woman’s immobile position in society urges an ignorance and naivety which only adds to their imprisonment and constriction.
Female authors of the period were writing “within a novelistic tradition of deluded and delusional women readers that circulated throughout the British Atlantic in the eighteenth century” (Carnell 518). Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is a radical early Romantic period author, now considered a feminist, who wrote concerning the male oppression which encouraged women to be “delusional” and remain uneducated, preventing them from being considered valuable equals in society. According to Carnell, “starting in about the 1750s, novelists increasingly moved to creating heroines who, while fundamentally ‘virtuous’ in character, had yet to learn to recognize youthful mistakes in judgment and to refine their behaviors accordingly” (518). Wollstonecraft works with this method of character building with Maria from The Wrongs of Woman, who acknowledges and must learn from the mistakes she has made. What Wollstonecraft does further is create a social commentary on the patriarchy which actually incites women to make these mistakes, and continue to make them. The text, described by Hoeveler as a “barely-disguised sociological text” (Dolan 196), therefore argues on behalf of women who were seen as tools rather than rational beings capable of success, and depicts men who were groomed to keep them in an enslaved state. Her criticism of Maria’s acts, and of the men who oppress her, therefore, is immersed within a greater argument against society’s conduct. Wollstonecraft “identifies as her ‘main object, the desire of exhibiting the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society’” (Dolan 196).
Throughout the novel, a fictional version of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft attempts to create a narrative for female oppression; a text which she insisted “ought to be considered as the history of woman”. Dolan states that in The Wrongs of Woman “she examines individual financial, emotional, and physical suffering in the context of corrupt and oppressive legal and social structures” (Dolan 195). For instance, through the character of Maria, Wollstonecraft questions: “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?” (253). A slave embodies someone who cannot make decisions for themselves, someone who lacks control over their own lives. The novel tells the story of a woman who, limited by her uneducated mind and trapped within a cycle of immobility, is not able to make advantageous decisions to better her life. Rather, because of society confining women to the private sphere, Maria lacks the opportunity to expand her mind and her opportunities. Wollstonecraft, who as a travel writer considered herself “as a person on the move” is emphasizing the “analogy of physical movement to mental exercise, or even physical exercise to the movement of thoughts” (Johnson 210). Most importantly, Wollstonecraft considered the “body and mind legitimating each other by covering ground” (Johnson 210). Therefore, women who were physically confined as “slaves” were at a disadvantage, for she considers “movement as progressive”, and “promotes forward motion as the basis for intellectual achievement” (Johnson 210). By illustrating Maria as a being who is physically, emotionally and mentally trapped and therefore, showing her inability to further her mental capacities, Wollstonecraft is placing mobility at the centre of female progression.
There is a link present between Maria’s mistakes and her immobile situation, between her detrimental decision making and lack of occupation. Wollstonecraft reflects on, “how difficult it was for women to avoid growing romantic, who have no active duties of pursuits” (260). This is represented in the text through Maria’s lack of occupations as a girl and later, the imprisonment she experiences by her tyrannical husband. These situations allow her to “grow romantic”, only serving to worsen her situation. Wollstonecraft is arguing that women need and should be allowed to have meaningful “duties or pursuits”, which will then help them make constructive decisions and lead them to have a beneficial role in society. Maria describes the insufferable captivity women are forced to endure as follows: “the want of occupation became even more painful than the actual pressure or apprehension of sorrow; and the confinement that froze her into a nook of existence, with an unvaried prospect before her, the most insupportable of evils” (253). Due to this “confinement” she depicts, women are not allowed to take part actively in society and are forced to remain enslaved, rooted in place, with no chance of upward mobility. In other words, having no “active duties or pursuits”, synonymous with immobility, leads to a woman’s “romantic” demise which then leads to further immobility, through marriage or disadvantageous relationships with men.
Maria in The Wrongs of Woman for instance, gets married to the villainous George Venables because she was not provided with the opportunity to widen her mind with occupations, or educate herself, which may have prevented her future misfortunes. According to Dolan, Wollstonecraft is commenting on “the failure of the nuclear family” (196) here, where “Maria Venables’ abusive father, weak mother, and unfairly favored brother” reflects Wollstonecraft’s “own family of origin” (196). Maria describes her situation prior to meeting Venables as a constricted one: “I longed to see new characters, to break the tedious monotony of my life; and to find a friend, such as fancy has portrayed” (76). Therefore, lacking in sense and eager for acceptance, when she comes across George Venables she is not able to decipher his motives. She “grows romantic”, and describes her weakness of thinking him the best of men, which she blames for the lifestyle placed upon her: “I began to imagine him superior to the rest of mankind. Had my home been more comfortable, or my previous acquaintance more numerous, I should not probably have been so eager to open my heart to new affections” (297). Here, Wollstonecraft’s voice is protruding through the narration, as she is critiquing society for oppressing women, and by forcing them to be immobile are taking away their chances of being acquainted with educated people and influenced positively. She is adding to a literary tradition of depicting women who were, according to Gilbert, “literally confined to the house, figuratively confined to a single ‘place’, enclosed in parlors and encased in texts, imprisoned in kitchens and enshrined in stanzas” (84).
The societal critique Wollstonecraft presents is that if Maria had been a more mobile person, allowed the liberties of men, she may not have been so easily persuaded to marry Venables. The idea that a woman’s only chance at mobility is through marriage, is present here, although as it will turn out, marriage to Venables was far from a positive thing to do, and instead of allowing her options, ends up with her physically imprisoned. Maria describes her marriage: “I had been caught in a trap, and caged for life. Still the novelty of London, and the attentive fondness of my husband, for he had some personal regard for me, made several months glide away” (308). Therefore, although “caged”, Maria benefits from the opportunity of seeing London. Wollstonecraft is illustrating how women must sacrifice and endure through much just to have a chance at freedom. Jemima, for example, is the epitome of a woman who does everything to try and ensure empowerment over her own life, but goes through turmoil for trying: “Detesting my nightly occupation, though valuing, if I may so use the word, my independence” (281). If not gaining through marriage, Jemima turns to this “nightly occupation” for freedom, which is a terrible alternative. Ultimately, the end result of Maria’s marriage with George Venables is not only being emotionally imprisoned, but physically confined, reflecting on her situation as a determined slave: “what was to be here employment in her dreary cell? Was it not to effect her escape, to fly to the succour of her child, and to baffle the selfish schemes of her tyrant – her husband?” (250). Therefore, what may have seemed to her as a chance for mobility through marriage, results in her physically immobile, with “manacled” arms (250). Wollstonecraft illustrates this as a never-ending cycle, for although Maria admits to the dangers of being “so eager to open [her] heart to new affections”, unfortunately she is placed in the same situation when, incarcerated by Venables, she falls in love again, with Darnford.
The irony of Wollstonecraft’s novel, is that as much as Maria is presented to have learnt her lesson, is writing a tale to her daughter explaining the mistakes she has made, Maria is simultaneously making the same mistakes by falling in love with Darnford. Wollstonecraft is therefore following the literary pattern of women “recogniz[ing] youthful mistakes” (Carnell), but instead of having a resolution, Maria repeats her fault. Instead of the fault laying in her lack of acquaintances, and the lack of comfort given to her by her family, her “growing romantic” here is a result of her imprisonment, and physical immobility: “Thus shut out from human intercourse, and compelled to view nothing but the prison of vexed spirits, to meet a wretch in the same situation, was more surely to find a friend” (Wollstonecraft 259). Once again, because she lacks in the abilities to have human connections, educate herself, or move up in society, she puts herself in a detrimental situation and feels herself in love: “What a revolution took place, not only in my train of thoughts, but feelings! I trembled with emotion – now, indeed, I was in love” (83). Darnford, who was confined himself, relates to Maria as a character but being a male, he is given opportunities that Maria does not have. For example, he describes being mobile during his life which served as a distraction and educational tool, which Maria has no access to: “Consequently, I determined to travel. Motion was a substitute for variety of objects” (268). It seems Darnford understands the power and dangers of having no “active duties”, for even with his intercourse with Maria, he seems to use it to his advantage. When telling his story, Darnford leaves her alone, with no active duties, apart from weighing his words, which only serves to make her fall more in love with him: “When Darnford 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” (269). Once again, because she is alone, imprisoned, and immobile, she cannot help but growing romantic, weighing his words, and falling exceedingly in love. The downfall for Maria is that “she as more anxious not to deceive, than to guard against deception… we see what we wish, and make a world of our own” (345), which she does with Venables and also with Darnford.
Wollstonecraft’s voice is again clear here, using Maria as an example for woman of how societal imposed expectations can consume them and how their lack of opportunities does not allow them to identify deception. Confiding in Darnford may, at first look, be considered a positive action made by Maria, but in the conclusions of the novel Wollstonecraft clearly depicts it as being a mistake. In addition to a trial between Darnford and her husband, Maria’s love affair elicits issues of a pregnancy, Darnford having an affair, and leads to Maria committing suicide: “Her lover unfaithful – Pregnancy – Miscarriage – Suicide” (355). Although Wollstonecraft suggests through her writings in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman that women can and should find a companion in a husband, in this novel she is depicting how Maria’s foolish and “romantic” mistake of falling in love with Darnford, has its consequences. Maria’s relationship with Darnford does not give her freedom, but rather as with George Venables, creates further ruin in her life and a slavish life of imprisonment and immobility.
As a result, the only mobility that Maria is privy to in the novel is when she is being hunted by George Venables, her husband. As he chases her, she compares herself to a beast and a criminal, saying “I was hunted, like an infected beast, from three different apartments” (337) and “I was hunted like a criminal from place to place” (352). This is a forced mobility, one which Maria does not choose to take part in but she must do in order to escape Venables. The type of mobility Maria dreams of is escaping to Italy, something which she ponders during this chase, but which never occurs: “we would plan a journey to Italy leaving the fogs and cares of England far behind… my waking thoughts to wander to the delightful Italian vales, I hoped soon to visit” (337-338). Her mobility here, is also slowed down by the fact that she is pregnant, which is another type of forced immobility. Because she is a woman, she cannot travel, cannot be free to make her own choices in mobility, and is restricted by a pregnancy which slows her down from her escape. Wollstonecraft is arguing that in this patriarchy it is unfeasible for women to take part in full mobility. As a result, Maria at the end of the novel chooses suicide, which is debatably the only option Maria has to take control over her own life for once, and willingly take part in a mobility that she desires for herself.
Although Wollstonecraft did not complete the novel entirely, her notes suggest that Maria would have ended with suicide, and may have been the only “chance of freedom” (251) Wollstonecraft wanted her to have. Because of societal pressures, the tragedy of her life and the mistakes she had made, Maria, as a representation of an entrapped woman during this period, felt like she had no options left but suicide. To Maria, “nothing remained but an eager longing to forget herself – to fly from the anguish she endured to escape from thought – from this hell of disappointment” (356). This concept became an archetype for the constricted woman in society, and throughout literature an attempt for freedom by woman has been illustrated as suicide being the only option. When Maria says, “‘Was it possible? Was I, indeed, free?’ – Yes; free I termed myself” (324), she is “terming” herself free, even though she really is not. This shares similarities with the ending of the 1891 Ibsen play Hedda Gabler before Hedda kills herself: “No longer free! No! That’s a thought I’ll never endure! Never” (268). Evidently, there is an interest by authors in reiterating this feeling of hopelessness that leads to suicide. Killing oneself in literature is a way for female characters to at least be metaphorically mobile, going to a better place, leaving this world.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman is a depiction of female suffering embedded in a critique of a patriarchal society which limits the opportunities of women. With Europe having an uprising of mobility, transforming its existence to shape itself around these new ideas and experiences, it is significant to note those people who were forced to remain rooted. Writers, like Wollstonecraft, explored the immobile state of women and worked to reform those societal conventions which encouraged female oppression. Feminist authors, in a time of significant growth in the reading population during a period of revolution and creativity, held the power to alter established regulations and ideas which kept women in place. Using Maria from The Wrongs of Woman as an example, it was crucial for women to have “active duties and pursuits” in order to mobilize themselves and be able to make advantageous decisions which will uproot their social roles. Wollstonecraft created an example for women depicting how significant it was for women to pursue mobility in their lives and, as she said concerning her own life in a letter to her sister in 1789, even when things are unbearably challenging: “avaunt despair, and push forward” (Johnson 210).
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