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ELH 68.4 (2001) 897-927



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Countenancing History: Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Stanhope Smith, and Enlightenment Racial Science

Scott Juengel


In sketches of life, a degree of dignity, which distinguishes man, should not be blotted out; nor the prevailing interest undermined by a satirical tone, which makes the reader forget an acknowledged truth, that in the most vicious, vestiges may be faintly discerned in a majestic ruin, and in the most virtuous, frailties which loudly proclaim, that like passions unite the two extremities of the social chain, and circulate through the whole body.

Mary Wollstonecraft 1

As most historians of feminist thought observe, the early nineteenth-century reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's challenge to male cultural hegemony suffered at the hands of her scandalous biography. By naturalizing feminine passivity and subordination, anti-Jacobin ideologues such as T. J. Mathias and Richard Polwhele cast Wollstonecraft as a mind come "unsex'd," a woman who "O'er humbled man assert[s] the sovereign claim, / And slight[s] the timid blush of virgin fame." 2 However, in "Mary," an often neglected lyric found in the 1805 Pickering manuscript, William Blake counters the public censure of Wollstonecraft by granting the outcast a voice of mournful inquiry:

Some said she was proud some calld her a whore
And some when she passed by shut to the door
A damp cold came o'er her, her blushes all fled
Her lilies & roses are blighted & shed

O, why was I born with a different Face
Why was I not born like this Envious Race
Why did Heaven adorn me with bountiful hand
And then set me down in an envious Land

In response to her own questions, Blake's heroine resolves to "humble [her] beauty" and forsake the balls and public entertainments where her charms were once celebrated as the "return [of] [End Page 897] Golden times"; however, her self-abnegation only brings a charge of madness from those who behold her "plain neat attire," a testament to the double bind of eighteenth-century gender propriety. 3 Mary finally succumbs to the delusional state that is projected onto her, and the text ends with only the narrator's eulogistic voice speaking for the heroine's saintly physiognomy:

With Faces of Scorn & with Eyes of disdain
Like foul Fiends inhabiting Mary's mild Brain
She remembers no Face like the Human Divine
All Faces have Envy, sweet Mary, but thine

And thine is a Face of sweet Love in despair
And thine is a Face of mild sorrow & care
And thine is a Face of wild terror & fear
That shall never be quiet till laid on its bier 4

What interests me about Blake's lament is the text's insistence that the subject's face is at once a site of ideological conflict, the mark of her difference, and the source of the narrator's poetic consolation. The memorialization of Wollstonecraft's visage at the end of the poem is an answer to the "[f]aces of scorn" that consolidate masculine prerogative; yet there is another figure haunting the lyric, for Mary's plaintive questions concerning her "different face" have a precursor in Blake's own private correspondence. On 15 August 1803, charges of sedition were brought against the poet after an altercation with a soldier who Blake forcibly removed from his garden. In his deposition, Private John Schofield claimed that during their scuffle Blake cursed the king, chided England's military prowess, and boasted that Napoleon could "be master of Europe in an hour's time" should he wish to be. 5 In a letter written the following day, Blake explained to his friend Thomas Butts how "this contemptible business" had produced considerable paranoia in Blake's neighborhood: "Every Man is now afraid of speaking to or looking at a Soldier." The fear of the gaze here is not incidental, as Blake illustrates: "Perhaps the simplicity of myself is the origin of all offenses committed against me . . . I have found it! It is certain! that a too passive manner, inconsistent with my active physiognomy had done me...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 897-927
Launched on MUSE
2001-12-01
Open Access
No
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