The Female Philosopher and her Afterlives: Mary Wollstonecraft, The British Novel, and the Transformations of Feminism, 1796-1811
Deborah Weiss's study aims to offer a new understanding of “feminist literary history at a time when ideas of female character and opinions about the appropriate role for female intellectuality were rapidly changing” (Weiss 2017, 1). It takes Mary Wollstonecraft as the embodiment of the figure of the female philosopher and examines the influence she exerted on her contemporaries, namely, Mary Hays, Amelia Opie, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, to show that these writers “used the resources of the novel to construct a more politically moderate and pragmatic form of feminism” (Weiss 2017, 2). Weiss aligns herself with Wollstonecraft scholars such as Mary Poovey, Claudia Johnson, Adriana Cracium and Barbara Taylor, who think Wollstonecraft was the image of a “female philosopher” in her time and after her death. However it is her intention to take that concept further than these scholars have, beyond the caricatured figure of the intellectual woman associated with the notoriety Wollstonecraft gained thanks to William Godwin's all too revealing memoir of his late wife's sexual life; indeed, she also wishes to broaden it so to include not only those of Wollstonecraft female contemporaries who shared her political views, but also those who developed an accommodating, pragmatic form of feminism, better suited to the post-Enlightenment, post-Revolutionary age' (Weiss 2017, 7). These authors created “the non-parodic female philosopher”, in Weiss' view, better suited to a more conservative age. This persona featured in their novels in more or less appealing shapes, and their authors appeared to have thought of themselves as such figures to varying degrees. On this account, the character of the female philosopher, of which Wollstonecraft was the first manifestation, was imagined and re-imagined in her life time and long after her death in various works thereby rendering her legacy both more far-reaching and diverse than might be assumed. The book focuses on five novels: Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (1798), Hay's Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), Opie's Adeline Mowbray; or, the Mother and Daughter (1804), Edgeworth's Delinda (1801), and Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811).