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Ashley Tauchert, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Accent of the Feminine

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 10:10
Ashley Tauchert, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Accent of the Feminine.  New York: Palgrave, 2002. ix + 169pp. $52.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-96346-6).

Reviewed by
Harriet Devine Jump
Edge Hill College

Is there anything new to say about Mary Wollstonecraft? Mary Wollstonecraft and the Accent of the Feminine offers a sophisticated theoretical approach, based on Luce Irigaray's philosophy of sexual difference and subjectivity.

In her introduction, Ashley Tauchert rightly identifies "three distinct waves of interest" (4) in Wollstonecraft's life and works since her death. First-wave feminists--nineteenth century campaigners for women's rights--claimed her as a founding mother in their struggle for women's suffrage; the second wave, academic feminists of the 1970s, reclaimed her works and thought from the shadows; and the third wave ("symptomatic of the identity crisis of millennial feminism" [5]) has shifted the focus from celebration to identifying the flaws and inconsistencies in her feminism. Tauchert offers a refashioning of Wollstonecraft, emerging from a consideration of Irigaray's model of Western culture as replicating masculinist subjectivity and thus forcing those women who wish to write intelligibly into a crypto-masculinist subjectivity. She proposes a new category for women's writing, the Athenic mode, in which masculinist forms are disrupted by "figures of excess, lack, and hysteria . . . gestures towards a lost, and mourned, female embodiment" (8). She argues that Wollstonecraft's texts document a struggle between this mode and Matrilineal subjectivity, but believes that her later works point to a resolution of the struggle.

Part I, Chapter One reads Wollstonecraft's early writings "for evidence of transitional moments in her self-engendering as a writing subject" (20). Re-examining Wollstonecraft's unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, and her "proto-lesbian" (25) relationship with Fanny Blood, Tauchert suggests that the unresolved losses of these two figures, whose deaths occurred within two years of each other, are replayed in the early texts. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters is said to reflect on the failure of maternal affection, and to offer rational reflection as a substitute. Rational authority also displaces maternity in Original Thoughts, but Tauchert argues that the text also reconfigures the loss of Fanny Blood through the figures of Mrs Mason and Mary. In Mary: A Fiction, Wollstonecraft is shown as "defining (and defending) her identity as a woman" (34).

Part II, Chapter Two, reads Wollstonecraft's two Vindications. As previous commentators have remarked, this is the period when her distinctive voice emerged: Tauchert defines it as "a voice worrying at sexual difference and virtue, struggling to define femininity and masculinity in new ways" (55). She finds seeming contradiction in Rights of Man: Wollstonecraft effeminizes Burke and claims manliness for herself but also adopts the speech of female-embodied reason with which to admonish him. Tauchert goes on to argue that in the second Vindication Wollstonecraft offers the "surprising" communication of "fragments of a female imaginary beyond the rape paradigm of Rousseau's moral philosophy" (68).

In the third part of this book, Tauchert moves on to discuss Wollstonecraft's later texts under the heading "Matrilineal Writing." The Historical and Moral View of . . . the French Revolution was written during Wollstonecraft's first pregnancy, a moment, according to Tauchert, at which "the repression and burial of the maternal body . . . reaches its apex" (86). The result is a crisis, "a piece of writing that is peppered with bodies and body parts, a revolution that is imagined as a giant labouring body" (87), from which the maternal body emerges with new potency and creativity.

Having thus far discussed Wollstonecraft's works chronologically, Tauchert reverses the order of the two final texts--Letters from Sweden and The Wrongs of Woman--which are discussed in Chapter Four. Tauchert sees them as marking "a shift in [Wollstonecraft's] writing voice" (98), and accounts for the return of sensibility in these writings as a reflection of the fact that "the writer's maternity [is] a condition of their production" (100). The reverse chronological order is owing to the fact that while Wrongs of Woman is seen as recording "a narrative of the emergence of Matrilineal writing from patriarchy" (118), Tauchert argues that Letters from Sweden represents Wollstonecraft's most successful production of Matrilineal writing. Interesting connections are made here between these two texts, both of which incorporate the presence of daughters: in Wrongs of Woman, Maria's memoirs are addressed to her child, and in Letters, Fanny Imlay's presence pervades the text and, since the relationship with Imlay was at an end before the book was published, also provides a reason for publication (financial independence as a single mother). The chapter concludes with a discussion of Wollstonecraft's relation to the category of the Sublime, and suggests that the female-embodied writing subject of Letters from Sweden successfully disturbs the Athenic mode, making a different, Matrilineal, "journey into symbolisation" (129).

Does Tauchert's book offer a genuinely new and different Wollstonecraft from the feminist icon we have all come to know so well? It is presented as being a result of its author's dissatisfaction with "the popular versions of Wollstonecraft in circulation" (141), but, as she points out elsewhere, third-wave feminist critics have already to a large extent moved beyond the rather simplistic figure who appeared in much of the early criticism. This being said, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Accent of the Feminine is an impressive work, and offers a genuinely fresh and exciting way in to reading texts which are increasingly coming to be seen as canonical. The notes are helpful, and the bibliography is satisfyingly full and wide ranging. A brief summary such as this cannot hope to do justice to the subtlety and complexity of Tauchert's arguments.