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  • The Female Philosopher and Her Afterlives: Mary Wollstonecraft, the British Novel, and the Transformations of Feminism, 1796–1811 by Deborah Weiss
  • Elizabeth Way
The Female Philosopher and Her Afterlives: Mary Wollstonecraft, the British Novel, and the Transformations of Feminism, 1796–1811. By DEBORAH WEISS. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. ix, 291. Cloth, $119.99.

Deborah Weiss's excellent debut monograph, The Female Philosopher and Her Afterlives, offers exciting new considerations of Mary Wollstonecraft's influence on depictions of the female philosopher in Romantic-era works by women writers. Chapters include analyses of the female philosopher in novels by Mary Hays, Amelia Opie, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Weiss's book joins a robust critical conversation on the topic of the female philosopher by scholars such as Mary Poovey, Claudia Johnson, Adriana Craciun, Barbara Taylor, Anne K. Mellor, and others. Weiss's approach to the topic differs in that she examines the "nonparodic female philosopher as a protagonist" (p. 29) in these novels, claiming that such a protagonist is "a new type of literary character [and] should be seen as an index of the crisis experienced by intellectual women" (p. 29) in the aftermath of the French Revolution and in light of Wollstonecraft's fraught revolutionary feminist legacy. Faced with an ever-increasing conservativism in society and politics, women writers of the time, Weiss argues, wrote novels on Wollstonecraft's model that refashioned fictional representations of the female philosopher in important ways, granting her more acceptance and less censure than fictionalized parodic, radical female philosophers of the Revolutionary period.

In a rigorously comprehensive introduction on Wollstonecraft's life, legacy, and writings, Weiss presents a more detailed portrait of the figure of the radical female philosopher to which subsequent writers responded. Highlighting the central tenets of Wollstonecraft's feminism as presented in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Weiss sets up a trajectory of non-parodic fictionalized female philosophers that become increasingly less tragic and less radical over time, offering new novelistic embodiments of the female intellectual distanced from a Wollstonecraftian female marred by sexual transgressions.

Chapter 2 assesses Maria Venables's moral and intellectual journey in Wollstonecraft's Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) and her struggle with the "commonality of [female] experience from which she was not exempt" (p. 52). A female philosopher Maria may be, but as a woman in late eighteenth-century England, she cannot practically elevate herself above accepted feminine norms though she may attempt to do so in theory. This inaugurates a through line of analysis in Weiss's book that tracks the shift from exceptionality to commonality regarding the female philosopher's relationship to women's experiences [End Page 207] at large, her quest for happiness, and desire to improve her society. Chapter 3 analyzes Hays's Emma Courtney as a female philosopher whose experiences help her to see her place within orthodox gender norms but hinder her ability to escape those norms through philosophy. Emma is ultimately a tragic figure, claiming "moral martyrdom" (p. 87) as her only option for her ethical and intellectual missteps. In Chapter 4, Weiss astutely shows how Opie's Adeline Mowbray, in her opposition to marriage, actually becomes less of a philosopher. In Adeline's "blend of a 'masculine' intellect with a 'womanly' sensibility" (p. 135), Opie acknowledges Wollstonecraft's and William Godwin's influence on the creation of her character. But, Weiss explains, while Adeline might want to live as a philosopher, she does not necessarily want to think like one, and this marks a fundamental distinction between Opie's female philosopher and those of Hays and Wollstonecraft.

Chapter 5 on Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) and Chapter 6 on Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) turn a corner from the fallen, tragic stories about the nonparodic female philosophers in Hays's and Opie's novels. Belinda Portman emerges as the true female philosopher, Weiss contends, escaping her predecessors' stigma of sexual transgression and exemplifying instead an "everywoman figure" (p. 174) who seeks happiness and promotes the common good of society through reason rather than rebellion. Weiss's superb study of Harriet Freke as the false female philosopher gestures toward Judith Butler's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2328-112X
Print ISSN
0453-4387
Pages
pp. 207-208
Launched on MUSE
2020-10-30
Open Access
No
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