Original stories, from real life; with conversations, calculated to regulate the affections, and form the mind to truth and goodness – by Mary Wollstonecraft (Sp Coll Z7-l.2)
Mary Wollstonecraft is, perhaps, better known today than she has been for over two hundred years. The everlasting nature of the written word means that last month, 218 years after her death, #MaryWollstonecraft was trending on Twitter. This event was seemingly brought about by two things: the release of Bee Rowlatt’s recent biography In Search of Mary, and by Wollstonecraft being dubbed ‘the original suffragette’ ahead of the UK premiere of the film Suffragette. This prevailing interest is not unfounded, and we are lucky enough to hold a few items in Special Collections that would be of great interested to anyone looking to learn more about one of Britain’s most important female figures.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer and advocate of women’s rights. Perhaps her best known works, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (published anonymously in 1790), and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), were public letters in which she passionately responded to male chauvinistic ideas. In these letters she argued against the contemporary view that women were naturally inferior to men, and reasoned that educating women could create an equality between the sexes, with each being seen as rational. Wollstonecraft also criticised conventional femininity, and the women who imagined themselves as ‘sentimental heroines’.
It is Wollstonecraft’s interest in the education of women that can be seen to define her ideas. This interest is exemplified in her book Original Stories, from real life, &c. (1788), the first edition of which we hold here at Special Collections.
This work is the second piece of writing by Wollstonecraft, her first being the conduct book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). It is however her first piece of children’s literature, and concerns the education of two young girls, Mary and Caroline, by Mrs Mason, an eternally patient and wise maternal figure:
They were shamefully ignorant… they had caught every prejudice that the vulgar casually instil. In order to eradicate their prejudices, and substitute good habits … Mrs. Mason never suffered them to be out of her sight – p. xii.
As the children are guided through their schooling, this initial frame gives way to a series of moralistic stories intended to promote the education of young girls, in order that they will become rational adults. These tales cover a variety of topics, such as the treatment of animals, charity and vanity:
You are certainly handsome, Caroline; I mean, have good features; but you must improve your mind to give them a pleasing expression, or they will only serve to lead your understanding astray – p. 59
Although once popular, with a later reprint featuring engravings by William Blake, the work has drifted into relative obscurity, much as Wollstonecraft had herself until more recent years. This was perhaps due to the biography published by her husband, the philosopher William Godwin, shortly after she died giving birth to her second child, who later became the author Mary Shelley. The memoirs spoke of Wollstonecraft’s nonconformist lifestyle, of an illegitimate child and suicide attempts, and placed her firmly into disrepute for over a century. Indeed later editions of Original Stories were published anonymously in order to distance themselves from her dishonourable reputation, and the ridicule aimed at her which was taking such forms as the damning poem The Un-Sex’d Females (1798) by Rev. Polwhele.
The novel itself also received reproach, with critics believing it to be overly prescriptive and didactic. One might see however, that beyond being simple children’s morality tales, Wollstonecraft is preoccupied with an emerging middle-class ideology, concerned with promoting self-disciple, rationality and charity. Her work seems to set itself against the values placed upon luck and chance in chapbooks, which were the popular, affordable reads at the time. This is as well as the importance she is placing, and radically so, upon the education of women and young girls; the dues of which, it can be argued, we still owe her today.
These dialogues and tales are accommodated to the present state of society; the author attempts to cure those faults by reason, which ought never to have taken root in the infant mind – p. V
Early on in her life, Wollstonecraft became experienced in the education of children, seen through her work as a governess, a teacher, a children’s writer, and a pedagogical theorist. Perhaps informed by this, Original Stories can be seen to sit comfortably within the bildungsroman genre, following the moral and rational development of the two children. It emphasises the importance of leaving childhood flaws behind when growing into womanhood, with Wollstonecraft primarily arguing that this can be achieved through learning to balance reason with emotion:
[Caroline] generally ate more than her share … she complained of a pain in her stomach in consequence of it … Mary was not permitted to stay with her. Had her sickness been accidental, we would both have tried to amuse her, said Mrs. Mason; but her greediness now receives its natural and just punishment – p.80-81
With the contemporary interest in early feminists, this novel is a fascinating example of the attempts to create gender equality in the eighteenth century. It is perhaps not Wollstonecraft’s most radical piece of writing, nor would many modern children relate to the rather dry narratives. However, whilst her better known works are experiencing something of a revival, it would be wrong to exclude this unassuming little book which, for all we know, was the childhood foundation upon which Mary Shelley and others took up their own pen.
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Categories: Special Collections