- How to Think with Animals in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories and The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria
For as long as there have been books written for children, animals have been featured as major figures—and most often as anthropomorphized, speaking characters—within these works.1 In his pedagogical treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), John Locke extols narratives about animals such as Aesop’s Fables and Reynard the Fox as the only books in English “fit to engage the liking of Children, and tempt them to read” (260). Mindful of the tremendous influence of this treatise on the emerging children’s book publishing industry and on both religious and secular writers who targeted juvenile audiences, historians of eighteenth-century works for children have treated animal stories as a popular literary subcategory.2 Sarah Trimmer, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Dorothy and Mary Anne Kilner, for example, commonly used animal figures not only to “tempt” children into reading, but also to instruct children in benevolence toward lesser beings or to impart to them the variety and wonder of God’s creation. An admirer and contemporary of these writers, Mary Wollstonecraft appropriates—but more interestingly departs from—their conventional uses of children’s book creatures in her work of didactic fiction for juvenile audiences, Original Stories from Real Life (OS; 1788).3 Although they are playful inclusions in most children’s books, the birds, insects, and dogs featured in Original Stories register distinctions that made animals a touchstone of serious Enlightenment debates over the limits of human rationality and the naturalness of maternal sensibility. Through the lens of seemingly simple animal tropes Wollstonecraft focuses complex issues of gender and reason, extending a common children’s literature feature beyond its Lockean pedagogical ends and foregrounding some of [End Page 1] her most significant ideas from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (VRW; 1792) and The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (WW; 1798).4
In the first three chapters of Original Stories Mrs. Mason, the tutoress to two girls, Mary and Caroline, introduces her young pupils not to anthropomorphized, talking creatures, but to language-less animals in nature. Mrs. Mason highlights how these animals form familial relationships of mother, father, and sibling within their species, pointing out the behaviors of animals in which humans share. While recent scholars have emphasized the fantastic verbal capabilities of fictional animals in eighteenth-century creatures, it is the lack of linguistic communication in Wollstonecraft’s fictional animal kingdom that makes the animal figures in Original Stories and their domestic roles interesting: her animals are meant to appear more natural than their precedents in juvenile fiction. They do not speak, and yet Mrs. Mason observes in them recognizable human motives and family responsibilities. These lessons prompt young females to receive an education in conduct through reflection on their individual experience with nature rather than through the maxims that filled popular conduct books of the day.5 And the subtext of these lessons suggests that since the civilization of man, innate animal tendencies have become so unnatural in humans that they must be explicitly taught to Mary and Caroline.6
In this way, Original Stories not only responds to Rousseau’s pedagogical masterpiece, Emile (1762), as many scholars have acknowledged, but it considers as well what man “unlearns” in the process of civilization, of differentiating himself from animals, which Rousseau examines in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755). Mrs. Mason’s teachings imply that well-guided, “natural” observations overturn artificial refinements instilled in young women, foreshadowing both the language and the claims in Rights of Woman leveled against “a false system of education gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers” (71). As animals model the naturalness of maternal roles in particular, they focalize some of the most controversial issues surrounding gender equality and biological difference between females and males.
Mining Wollstonecraft’s earlier works for traces of her most influential ideas about womanhood, recent scholars have identified contradictory shifts in Wollstonecraft’s arguments that problematize the...