18th century, 19th century, Arts

Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft: A Sublime Lineage

By Maisie Corkhill

Mary Wollstonecraft – writer, philosopher, and early feminist – was one of the first to present an extended doctrine for female emancipation in her pioneering text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791). Although not the first to write on the systematic subjugation of women in the period, she brought the discussion of women’s rights into the context of the more general discussions on civil rights that pervaded the time. Author Janet Todd has pointed out that Wollstonecraft argued not only for greater equality for women, but a more equal society for all, based on the ‘rights of all people to education and consideration’. 

Wollstonecraft was at once very modern, and remarkably holistic in her work: she considered female emancipation in the broader terms of the emancipation of ‘mankind, including woman’ (Vindication). To reach a greater understanding of what female emancipation meant to Wollstonecraft, we can scrutinise the male doctrines of power against which women were forced to define themselves in the eighteenth century. This includes, of course, the literary establishment, where male tradition still dictated women’s literary representation and literary production. Because what we often forget when we pay attention to Wollstonecraft is that she was a writer of fiction too, and she used her lesser-known fictions such as Mary (1788) and The Wrongs of Woman (1798) to challenge a woman’s position in both society and literature. 

In challenging at once the prevailing political attitudes of the time, and the literary ones, Wollstonecraft lays a foundation for her daughter, Mary Shelley, to continue these efforts. Wollstonecraft was arguing for a sense of radical inclusion, that by ironing out the divisions between men and women mankind might become, in her words, ‘more wise and virtuous’, with a greater sense of equality. Wollstonecraft died giving birth to her daughter, Mary, a fact which haunted Shelley throughout her life. Many of her novels implicitly or explicitly feature the theme of progeny, so much so that Professor Rachel Fender has read Frankenstein (1817) in the context of Shelley’s other works as a portrait of ‘monstrous motherhood’. Despite this complicated and overcast lineage between mother and daughter, we can catch glimpses of Shelley continuing her mother’s feminist literary tradition. First in her bleak short story Mathilda (1819) – which sees the sins of the father being visited on the daughter – then The Last Man (1826) – in which a plague is visited on all of mankind – Shelley challenges and co-opts the prevailing literary forms of the romantic period to present her own view of radical inclusion, moving towards a sense of community and equality that Mary Wollstonecraft argued for in her Vindication

In 1790 Wollstonecraft had published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she contributed to the heated discourse surrounding the French Revolution. This text was published in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). It challenged his attack on the French Revolution and identified a dichotomous reasoning to his arguments. Wollstonecraft identified that Burke’s political argument lay in a wider one concerning morality, which was fundamentally based on a masculine versus feminine distinction. Burke’s thoughts on the revolution divided the masculine virtue of action from the feminine virtue of sensibility, whilst also placing women in a ‘scheme of things’ where ‘a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order’ (Reflections).

Wollstonecraft exposed Burke when she argued that onlookers should consider the evils of the Revolution from a less dichotomous perspective, as critic David Bromwich puts it, ‘with the weight of a judging conscience that is neither masculine nor feminine, and on the behalf of the weak who are bound neither to be nor to resemble women’. But women’s emancipation was not limited to the political sphere: as Wollstonecraft identified, there was also work to be done in the literary sphere. She said in Rights of Men that ‘truth, in morals, has ever appeared to me the essence of the sublime; and, in taste, simplicity the only criterion of the beautiful’. Her use of the terms ‘sublime’ and ‘beautiful’ are not incidental. It is difficult to see this as anything other than a pointed reference to Burke’s earlier doctrine, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). 

Like his thoughts on the Revolution, Burke’s Enquiry divided the sublime, seen as powerful, masculine and awe-inspiring, from the beautiful, which is subordinate, ornate, and delicate. Considering just how pervasive ideas of the sublime were in Romantic literature, Burke’s dichotomies can be seen dominating the arts in the period (Wollstonecraft referred to him as ‘a man whose literary abilities have raised him to notice in the state’). It is in this intersection between politics and the arts that Wollstonecraft challenged Burke’s political doctrine based on its inescapable connection to his artistic one, in order to move towards a vision of inclusivity in both society and literature that would go on to become a defining characteristic of feminist discourse. 

In the preface to her novella Mary, Wollstonecraft denounced the sentimental heroine that had dominated fiction: Mary is not a ‘Clarissa, a Lady G – nor a Sophie’. In Wollstonecraft’s literature 

‘these chosen few, wish to speak for themselves, and not to be an echo – even of the sweetest sounds – or a reflector of the most sublime beams. The paradise they ramble in, must be of their own creating.’ 


Here, the autonomy of women in literature is placed in juxtaposition with the male-aligned concept of the sublime. Taking the literary work itself as sublime implies that, to Wollstonecraft at least, female characters in literature are never autonomous, and simply a reflection of the ‘sublime’ implemented by the male author. According to Burke, the ‘beautiful’ – observed in women – is defined by a lack of autonomy and mental capacity, when he says ‘The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it’ (Enquiry). In her novella Wollstonecraft utilizes the literary work itself to undermine the habitual association of women with a weakness of mind, by presenting a woman with a complex interior psychology. Through introspection and interior monologue, Wollstonecraft extends an intellectual ‘quality of mind’ to her female characters, making them capable of ‘rambling’ in a ‘paradise [of] their own creating’. 

Mary’s fate, however, is akin to that of other Romantic heroines. She is trapped in a marriage that restricts her intellect and freedoms, from which death offers the only release. But as an autonomous character with the ability to ‘speak for [her]self’ the societal critique is focalised: Mary’s fate is not due to her inherent weakness but the fault of the society which upholds the dichotomies apparent in precepts such as ‘the sublime and the beautiful’. The challenge that Wollstonecraft offers Burke in her political texts and literature is vital to the efforts of female emancipation in both of these fields. Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft’s fictional output was not extensive, and is confined to her (perhaps overly didactic) short stories. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, would continue to break down the artistic and social divisions her mother fought against in remarkable ways. 

Shelley also offers us female characters with complex interior psychologies, who are often on a particularly ‘Romantic’ journey of inward discovery and psychic struggle. In Mathilda, she encapsulates the violence of suffering when it is internalised, rather than externalised. Mathilda has an acute ability to suffer. This is first, because she is a woman, who feels she should be punished as the object of her father’s incestuous affection (whereby Shelley gives us a narrative of gender inequality where the woman is punished based on the man’s digression from social norms). But more importantly, Mathilda attests to her ability to suffer even without being at fault: ‘I disobeyed no command, I ate no apple’, still to be ‘ruthlessly driven from paradise’ (Mathilda). Mathilda can be seen to represent not just the position of women, but of post-lapsarian man(kind), bound in the ‘adamantine chain’ of existence. Mathilda is an unapologetically gothic text, but it also contains Shelley’s experiments in representing the ‘Romantic’ psyche, which she expresses through Mathilda’s relentless orientation towards death. There are efforts to contain this force, represented through the character of Woodville, a poet. Where Mathilda represents a death-force, Woodville offers a life-force: he rejects her suicide pact, and even tries to assimilate her into his narrative of Romantic redemption. As critic Steve Vine has argued, Woodville ‘fruitlessly attempts to incorporate her into something like a dominant Romantic male humanism’, but Mathilda ‘refuses to become a figure in Woodville’s transformative enterprise – specifically, a ‘figure’ in one of his poems’. Shelley is taking the dominant male literary forms and using a female character to both encapsulate them and reject them. While Mathilda represents a sublime inward consciousness, she is fundamentally abject: she refuses to define, or be defined by, male literary tradition. 

Shelley is a master of the sublime. In her novels she challenges Burke’s critique of women, upholding her position as a woman writer capable of representing the sublime horror of creation in Frankenstein, and later musing over the sublime as a literary form in The Last Man. In this strikingly relevant text, she questions the prevalence of a romantic individualism, and of course conceives of the sublime, all-encompassing force of the plague. Both Mathilda, and Lionel Verney, the protagonist of The Last Man, share a sense of absolute isolation. For Mathilda, this isolation is associated with death, and becomes sublime: ‘I am in a strange state of mind. I am alone – quite alone – in the world. The blight of misfortune has passed over me and I feel happy – joyous – I feel my pulse; its beats [are] fast’. She eagerly waits for death: Lionel, on the other hand, can never quite open himself up to this death-force, and instead longs ‘to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear, to have some task, however slight or voluntary, for each days fulfilment’. He seeks out practical occupation despite finding himself in a sublime landscape, where all of humanity have fallen to the plague, and says ‘the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney – the LAST MAN’. 

Throughout the novel Shelley orientates all representations of human happiness towards a sense of community. The characters are united in their early bliss of communal living: the tragedy ensues when this sense of community dissolves, largely instigated by the sublime force of the plague. While The Last Man may not appear an obvious text to consider in terms of feminist discourse, it in fact contributes to ideas of female emancipation in the period on numerous levels: the emancipation of the writer, Mary Shelley, in writing and creating her own forms of the sublime – an emancipation from the divisions of the ‘sublime’ and the ‘beautiful’ that had dominated the former literary period. In her fiction she harnessed the power of an overwhelming natural force, against which there are no distinctions. In an unsettling parallel to today, Shelley reveals that in the face of plague – or a worldwide pandemic – we are united (for better or worse) in the plight of mankind. This leads us back to exactly the social justice that Wollstonecraft fought for: finding equality in community, in order to avoid divisions and isolation. To move towards this Wollstonecraft and Shelley scrutinise the inequalities in society and literature, in order to reach the vision that Shelley upholds in The Last Man: ‘Let us live for each other and for happiness’.   

Further Reading

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791)

Mary Shelley, Mathilda, (1819), and The Last Man, (1826) 

Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, (1976)

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