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Kirstin Collins Hanley - Mary Wollstonecraft, Pedagogy, and the Practice of Feminism. Review by Katherine Gustafson

Saturday, November 28, 2015 - 08:01

Kirstin Collins Hanley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Pedagogy, and the Practice of Feminism. (Routledge, New York: 2013). 188 pp. (Hdbk., $145; ISBN 9780415893350).  

Katherine Gustafson
Indiana University Northwest

In Mary Wollstonecraft, Pedagogy, and the Practice of Feminism, Kirstin Collins Hanley rereads Wollstonecraft’s corpus to argue that Wollstonecraft’s pedagogical beliefs are central to her reformist agenda. In so doing, Hanley ventures down a well-trod scholarly path. For at least three decades, feminist historians have demonstrated that educational literature provided Romantic-era female authors like Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, and others with a respected outlet for publication while enabling them to construct positive heroines and advocate for women’s education. While Hanley acknowledges her indebtedness to scholars like Laurie Langbauer (5-6), Mary Poovey (6), and Mitzi Myers (8), her book offers fresh and important insights into Wollstonecraft’s most famous works, as well as her least explored ones. As she insists, Wollstonecraft’s entire corpus reflects the Dissenting educational principles developed through her work as a schoolmistress and governess (3).

The depth of Hanley’s analysis far surpasses the scope of a single-author study, for she revises the way scholars understand Wollstonecraft’s development and impact on nineteenth-century novelists and current feminist pedagogy. “Modern-day accounts” of Wollstonecraft, Hanley argues, repeat ideas established in William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (4), which “posits her literary achievement within a narrative of intellectual development, featuring A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as the apex of her career as a political reformist and, most often, A Short Residence as her most mature and complex aesthetic contribution” (15). Hanley finds that these terms not only diminish the importance of Wollstonecraft’s oft-dismissed early works, but also skew our perception of her feminist politics. This reorientation of Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre is one of Hanley’s most important interventions, for she demonstrates Wollstonecraft’s literary development as dialogic rather than linear. Far from a “monolithic credo for the rights of woman” (8), Hanley insists that Wollstonecraft’s later manifestos reflect her early works, which encourage readers to “re-interpret, critique, and re-evaluate their relationship to the ‘ground rules’ that dictate late eighteenth-century constructions of gender and sexuality” (8).

The book’s first five chapters demonstrate that this method is not confined to Vindications or Maria but pervades Wollstonecraft’s entire corpus. Chapters One and Two read Wollstonecraft’s three most seemingly commercial works—Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), Original Stories from Real Life (1788), and The Female Reader (1789)as “illuminating guidebooks for how Wollstonecraft understood what we now refer to as her ‘feminism’” (16). Hanley illustrates how Wollstonecraft’s children’s books engaged with contemporary conduct manuals to encourage analysis. The “pedagogic persona” (18) Wollstonecraft adopts in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Original Stories, Hanley insists, demands the social critique denied in conduct literature by John Gregory and Sarah Pennington. Moreover, Original Stories engages more thoroughly with Jean Jacques Rousseau than scholars have acknowledged. Far from adopting the mentor figure, Wollstonecraft “dramatiz[es] the so-called ‘perfect’ Sophie’s weaknesses and vices in narratives of everywoman characters adapted from Sarah Fielding’s innovative novel for children, The Governess” (27). Finally, Hanley shows how Wollstonecraft’s anthology, The Female Reader, trains readers in “what is now labeled ‘critical thinking’” (40) through a juxtaposed set of excerpts that “encourages the female reader to call into question and grapple with traditional representations of ideal domesticity and woman’s proper sphere” (41).

Hanley’s most exciting argument lies in her treatment of Vindications, Mary, and Maria in Chapters Three and Five. Here, she locates connections between these works and Wollstonecraft’s early pedagogical literature in hitherto unseen ways. She meticulously demonstrates how Vindications adapts the posture of the Mentoria figure from Original Stories and is structured around the interpolated narratives seen in contemporaneous children’s fiction. This reading accounts for those sentimental vignettes in Vindications that juxtapose the work’s insistence upon reason. While such scenes could be seen as characteristic of Wollstonecraft’s oscillation between sensibility and rationality, Hanley insists that they consciously “dramatize the possible consequences of unchecked irrational behavior” (65) and “the exemplary versions of womanhood at the opposite extreme of idyllic domesticity” (65). They thereby encourage “readers to engage in their own self-reflexive approach to analysis” by questioning the roles society consigns to women (71). This process, she argues, is expanded and dramatized in Maria when the heroine analyzes how society has led to her exploitation. Thus, she argues, Maria contrasts Mary, which “simultaneously celebrates and critiques the reticent selfhood central to Romantic ideology” (96).

Chapter Six and the Conclusion move from connecting Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre to cogitate on Wollstonecraft’s legacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chapter Six traces how Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre adapt Wollstonecraft’s pedagogical values. Then, the Conclusion considers how Wollstonecraft’s practice of anthologizing could be used in today’s classroom to teach critical reading. Though compelling in its ideas, the Conclusion is less persuasive than Hanley’s earlier treatments of Wollstonecraft’s works. Although Hanley demonstrates the possibilities of pairing canonical literature with its responses, this practice does not seem as groundbreaking or as connected to Wollstonecraft as she insists. Indeed, the anthologies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editors also arguably engage in a literary hermeneutics through the selection and placement of excerpts. Despite the more conjectural nature of this final chapter, Hanley’s work provides new insights into Wollstonecraft’s corpus in ways that shed light on Wollstonecraft’s literary development, recuperate her early educational works, and insist that her feminist politics is more grounded in Dissenting educational principles than previously considered.