Monday, 28 May 2018

More a Critique Than a Novel (Maria by Mary Wollstonecraft)


"Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wandering mind." - Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, Page 1

Okay, first of all, this is not a reflection on the politics of the novel. This book is a stark, eye-opening look at the non-existent rights of women in the eighteenth century. After marriage, they were owned by their husbands. Any money they had, any property, was his by rights. The children were his by rights. A husband could divorce his wife for adultery. A wife needed more than that. This novel is a great critique of the time period, written by a woman who lived in it.

That said, I rate books on enjoyment, and this was more of a critique than it was a novel. I always feel like Wollstonecraft uses six hundred words where she could use six. It's a bleak novel, yes, but it's still a novel. It shouldn't read like A Vindication of the Rights of Women . That said, I loved the gothic imagery that surrounded the setting of the asylum.

Between them, Maria and Jemima embody every terrible thing that could happen to a woman in this era. Maria is a sane woman locked up in an asylum because her husband, who she considers herself seperated from, said she was mad. She's recently had a baby daughter, and she has no idea where she is. Jemima was born out of wedlock to a servant. She's treated as a servant by her father and stepmother, denied the love that their other children receive. When she gets a job in a big house, the master rapes her. Pregnant, she's thrown from the house. The master gave her a potion to induce abortion, which she takes, and then, with nowhere to go and no way to get employment, she has no choice but to become a prostitute to survive. By the time she meets Maria she has a job at the asylum, but she's become a cold, hard person. Life made her that way.

This novel was left unfinished when Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth to Mary Shelley. There were a number of possible endings. Personally, I like the one where Maria gets her child back. I am always drawn to hope. I would like to think that, despite everything that women went through in the eighteenth century, Wollstonecraft would still have believed in it. 

Have you read any unfinished novels?