Saturday, June 4, 2011

Mnemonic for Mary & Maria

As we saw in Jane Austen's secret nod, she and Mary Wollstonecraft both restricted themselves to a limited palette in their choice of first names for characters in their novels. With MW it becomes ridiculous, frankly: not only had her parents given her the most common name in the Christian world, but she went on to use it, or a variant, for her protagonists -- and then saddled the novels themselves with the first name as a title. There is such a thing as taking an eponym too far. So, to refresh your memory:

Mary: A Fiction (1788) starts with a loveless marriage based on money [the Anglo-Irish Kingsboroughs, for whom MW was governess]; this Mary falls for Anne, a local girl of refined tastes who helps develop her mind [Fanny Blood]; Anne in turn develops consumption, so they go to Lisbon, where she dies. [Then the roman-a-clef turns to romance:] Mary then falls in love with someone called Henry; he dies too; she is naturally depressed but manages somehow to make it up with her loathsome husband.

Maria: Or, the Wrongs of Woman, written - very slowly - as a sequel, or novelistic response, to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published posthumously in 1798. MW was deliberating between five fragmentary endings to the story at the time of her death. Maria has been deprived of her child and shut in an insane asylum -- a legal way for husbands to rid themselves of inconvenient wives. [This was a threat hanging over MW's sister Everina Bess Bishop, a year into an unhappy marriage.] She had grown up in a family where her elder brother was favoured, leading him to rule despotically over the younger children [as did Edward Wollstonecraft]. Maria wanted to leave the household; the only way to do so was marriage; her husband seemed charming but turned out to be a libertine [shades of Imlay?].  Maria's keeper or wardress is a hard-bitten woman named Jemima, and the two forge a bond that has been held up as the first example of cross-class female solidarity in English literature. [MW and the domestics is a theme not yet explored. Virginia Woolf's relationship with the largely invisible serving class got a whole book not long ago.] Maria glimpses a gentleman elsewhere in the asylum; he looks no madder than she. Through Jemima's bending of the rules, first in carrying books back and forth and then in facilitating forbidden meetings, Maria and Darnley manage to meet, and fall in love. [Remember William Godwin reading her Letters from Scandinavia? ""If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book." Marginalia do not provide quite the same scope, but still.]

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