- Mary Wollstonecraft's Cottage Economics:Property, Political Economy, And The European Future
A few pages from the end of A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Mary Wollstonecraft recalls her return to England from an extended visit to Lisbon some years back. "[W]ith what delight," she says,
did I not observe the poor man's garden!—The homely palings and twining woodbine, with all the rustic contrivances of simple, unlettered taste, was a sight which relieved the eye that had wandered indignant from the stately palace to the pestiferous hovel, and turned from the awful contrast into itself to mourn the fate of man, and curse the arts of civilisation!1
Homing in on the cottage garden, at one level Wollstonecraft's image here is entirely conventional, as well as thoroughly political—despite (or perhaps because of) its celebration of a rustic aesthetic. As Sarah Lloyd has shown, the cottage was a favorite object of attention for a "heterogeneous mix" of "traditionalists, reformers, improvers and political radicals" in the last third of the eighteenth century, a focal point in debates about poverty and poor relief, enclosure, agricultural reforms, and social and economic change more generally.2 An emblem to debate Britain's national health, it was also used, as John Barrell has shown, by both sides in the post-French Revolution debates of the 1790s, whether to show (by critics of the wars with France) the deleterious effects of war, or (by loyalists) to contrast the supposedly flourishing state of the British working-classes with the poverty of the lower orders in France.3 The importance of the cottage for the late eighteenth-century picturesque has also been well-documented, but, locating her cottage in "a part of England well cultivated, but not very picturesque," Wollstonecraft distinctly casts her object as of more than mere aesthetic interest (VRM, 56).4 Wollstonecraft's cottage garden, with its simple contrivances and homey feel, suggests not the rundown and ramshackle cottage so favored by picturesque artists, but rather might appear to have much in common with the neat, [End Page 453] tidy, and well-regulated cottage celebrated by social reformers across the political spectrum. For these reformers—as Lloyd argues—such an image, combining virtuous independence with social submission, dignity with humility, and economic productivity with deference, apparently contained and resolved the seemingly escalating problems of poverty and political restlessness which marked the century's end.5
But Wollstonecraft's cottage scene—one of many which recur throughout her writings—is not a point of resolution; rather, it is a visual fragment briefly offered in the hurried, heated, and dense pages with which she reaches toward the Vindication's conclusions, and in which she takes conventional discourses around the cottage and poverty in a different direction: specifically, to an engagement with the political economy defended by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the French Revolution, to which she is responding. The briefly glimpsed cottage scene provides an opening onto a very different kind of landscape, followed as it is by an excoriating account of the conditions of the unemployed working poor in a London which "boasts of its … commerce" while "Hell stalks abroad" (VRM, 58). For Wollstonecraft, the "misery" (VRM, 57) lurking in "pestilential corners" (VRM, 57) of the capital—the mechanics laid off by a "flux in trade" (VRM, 57), the "sick wretch" (VRM, 58), no longer able to "earn the sour bread of unremitting labour" (VRM, 58)—is a direct consequence of established regimes of political economy which Burke has justified on, for Wollstonecraft, entirely objectionable terms.6 As J. G. A. Pocock has shown, one of Burke's central aims in his Reflections is to defend a political economy founded on labor, property, and the circulation of goods: a political economy whose "great wheel" is kept turning through, as Burke himself admits, the "servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often most unwholesome and pestiferous occupations, to which by the social œconomy so many wretches are inevitably doomed."7 Against Burke's at best regretful acknowledgement of the impossibility of disturbing the "natural course of things," Wollstonecraft's brief glimpse of cottage life suggests a possible alternative, though whether...