While exploring the lives three authors set before me, I found that all three writers were unfortunate enough to have fathers who were destructive influences in their lives. I feel that this was less a coincidence than a shared impetus to write and strike out on their own as creative individuals. The atypical home lives only added to the revolutionary character of their writing, which at the time it was written, was incendiary just because it existed. It is the criticism they endured that was the main form of commentary on their station in life, and on their writing. The sacrifices of marginalized artists can be significant, and in the cases of writers Mary Wollstonecraft, Felicia Heman, and Dorothy Wordsworth, their respective sacrifices are inextricable from their adult familial strategies.
Wollstonecraft was the most personally assailable. Fittingly, her writing is also the most audacious of the three writers. A Vindication of the Rights of Women was not only business-like prose, but also addressed to Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun, who was handling a case for public education of both sexes at the time. Further, she avoided marriage for most of her life and lived what would be a rather scandalous life, even now. Though her relationships were sometimes experimental, she still suffered from the same injuries as married women at the time. Her lover Imlay left her in Revolutionary France with a newborn, prompting her to attempt suicide (Masters of British Literature, pg. 145). The desertion echoes Felicia Hemans’s experience both as a child of a wandering man, and the wife of one. In their own ways, they all tried to construct substitute adult familial arrangements.
Wollstonecraft spent what appears to have been a good deal of her life pursuing men, not promiscuously, but with the devotion of a spouse. In a turn both ironic and fitting, her Wikipedia page is broken down chronologically, with each of her significant lovers given a heading. Wollstonecraft’s writing illustrates her understanding of the emotional economics of marriage in a way that indicates to me, that she was made keenly aware of the cost of dependency in an emotional sense as a lover.
Heman’s early abandonment by her father, and later by her husband indicates a woman who craved the stability of the family she had lost, and makes it easy to see why she withdrew to her family’s mantle. After the departure of her husband left her with five children, Hemans withdrew to her family’s mantle, a move which both provided security for her children and liberty for her to write. Establishing herself as an “affectionate, tender, and vigilant mother” in preface to her poetry along with residing with family protected Hemans from the sort of criticism that Wollstonecraft endure (Masters of British Literature, pg. 515). As well, Hemans did not write revolutionary prose, she is better known for her romanticized depictions of family and childhood. Psychologically, this may reflect her early life experiences, and a tendency to fantasize about better circumstances, but it also shielded her from the crossfire Wollstonecraft engaged in, a move which provided Hemans with comfort, but denied her the fury which made Wollstonecraft’s work enduring, if even in notoriety.
Heman’s poetry was less revolutionary in its message than for other reasons. Its erudite tone and commercial nature were threatening to the public in a time when women were strongly encouraged to decline commercial affairs and were almost totally denied education. Further, her poetry show poet-laureate aspirations, which not only threatened the men in the literary world, but also put her in direct competition with them in terms of merit, even if her gender blocked her from gaining the distinction. Heman’s poem Casabianca and “The Spartan Mother and her Son” are good examples of her appreciation for the military and patriotism. (Hermans and Home, pg 204)In that sense, Casabianca is fittingly her best-remembered poem. It combines the incendiary elements which made the critics of the time take note, as well as the softening aspect of a woman writing sentimentally about a child, enough to make it acceptable for public consumption.
Dorothy Wordsworth’s relationship with her brother was most intriguing of all three relationship constructs. Her attachment to her brother was very strong, and she shared some of the domestic duties with William Wordsworth wife, without appearing to incur any animosity for it (Masters of British Literature, pg. 279). During her life with him they worked as a pair, with her gathering imagery and journaling to provide her brother with material. Her Grasmere Journals might be the best example of this.
Though her familial arrangement likely drew attention at the time, the move was not so out of step with the thinking of the era. In the 1856 text “A Physiology of Marriage,” William Alcott asserts that the “leading design” of marriage, is “to form a brotherhood or sisterhood for life.” Though this was published around the time of Dorothy’s death, the times do not change so quickly that she could not have been embodying a nascent form of Alcott’s philosophy. Understandably, Dorothy has been least covered by critics. Of the three writers, he adhered most firmly to the feminine mold of the times, living most comfortably and gaining the least attention for herself. Fittingly, she has been the least investigated and dispersed.
In summation, I posit that the respective lifestyles of Wollstonecraft, Hemans and Dorothy Wordsworth were both an extension of their writing styles and also an influence on their enduring power. The more incendiary and direct Wollstonecraft is still better known than the other two writers, with Dorothy Wordsworth being least known. Working within the system allowed for a much more comfortable lifestyle, but didn’t garner the attention that gave Wollstonecraft and Hemans their relative celebrity. To end, their writing styles, familial strategies and enduring attention are all linked for these women.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, eds. Masters in British Literature. Peason, Longman, 2008
Lootens, Tricia. “Hemans and Home: Victorianism, Feminine “Internal Enemies,” and the Domestication of National Identity.” Modern Language Association 109 (1994)
Kelly, Gary, ed. Felicia Hemans. Broadview Literary. 2002: 211
Alcott, William. The Physiology of Marriage. Boston: Jewett. 1860: 13