Lecture Review: “Planting the Seed for the Austen Oeuvre ~ Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman” ~ Guest Post by Margaret Harrington

Gentle Readers: I welcome this guest post by JASNA-Vermont member Margaret Harrington, as she offers a review of the lecture at our last meeting by Vermont author Nancy Means Wright (I would have posted this sooner, but Hurricane Matthew and the JASNA AGM last week kept me from my duties! – thank you Margaret for this write-up, and to Nancy for her terrific talk – see below for links, etc.)

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“Planting the Seed for the Austen Oeuvre ~
Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman”
Presented by Nancy Means Wright,
Sept 18, 2016 to JASNA-Vermont

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Nancy Means Wright
in the Morgan Room at Champlain College

 When Nancy Means Wright started off her talk by saying that Mary Wollstonecraft was her alter ego, I knew an extraordinary experience was in store. Nancy brought up her own life and work experiences comparable to Mary Wollstonecraft’s, such as leaving home at a young age, coming from an impecunious family, all the while emphasizing the strength needed to keep trouble at bay. She quoted Mary Wollstonecraft’s early dictum, “I shall live independent or not at all.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie 1790-91 (Wikipedia)

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie 1790-91 (Wikipedia)

Then by using Mary Wollstonecraft’s own words in her letters, books, and beautiful illustrations in the power point presentation, Nancy projected us into a thrilling portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft as a caring young woman who made tremendous sacrifices for her family and friends. Concurrently Wollstonecraft formulated her revolutionary thought based on her own life experiences, her intellectual depth and daring, and her intolerance for sham and injustice.

The members of the Irish family with daughters for whom Mary worked as governess were elites of the Protestant Ascendancy. Only a few years older than her pupils, Mary labored to teach the girls to think. In a society which demanded that women obey their husbands and breed more Protestants, this was a revolutionary idea and eventually cost her that job.

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William Blake frontispiece to “Original Stories from Real Life” (Wikipedia)

The moment when Nancy Means Wright brought up the William Blake illustrations for Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life* was when I knew I was captured by a masterful storyteller. Step by step Wright transported me into the thoughts and feelings of the founder of modern feminism. She vividly set the scene for Mary’s time in Paris when three hundred people a day passed her window on the way to the guillotine.

I am grateful to Nancy Means Wright who wove so beautifully the tragic facts of Wollstonecraft’s life into a living tapestry. A particularly moving account of Mary’s attempt to drown herself, after being spurned by her lover Gilbert Imlay, was enhanced by Wright’s reading of her own poem which evoked the sorrow which Mary herself did not write ( leaving the task to Nancy as alter-ego).

Later, participants from the audience talked about the slender but strong connection between Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft. Scholars weighed in on the lack of evidence that Austen had read or even had access to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There was consensus that Wollstonecraft’s work magnified our understanding of the struggles of Austen’s women who are constrained in the class system of primogeniture and who use their wits to manage the inevitable marriage plot.

Wollstonecraft wanted women to take power, not over men, but over themselves. At the same time, in Wright’s words, “She herself couldn’t balance her principles with her passion.” There are so many deep thoughts that arise from Wright’s talk on the immortal, dynamic woman, Mary Wollstonecraft.

By Margaret Harrington, JASNA Vermont

You can find Margaret’s photos of the event on our facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2094244057466958/permalink/2116252491932781/

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*Full title: Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness – first published in 1788, with Blake’s illustrations in 1791. You can see all the illustrations at the Blake Archive here: http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/work.xq?workid=but244

You can find Nancy’s Mary Wollstonecraft mysteries here: http://www.nancymeanswright.com/index.htm#acts

  • Midnight Fires (2010) 
  • The Nightmare (2011) 
  • Wild Nights (2015) 
  • Acts of Balance: a Chapbook of Poems (2014) – featuring Mary Wollstonecraft
 c2016, Jane Austen in Vermont

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