Five Questions: Laura Kirkley on Mary Wollstonecraft: Cosmopolitan

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Laura Kirkley is a Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at Newcastle University. Her research interests include cross-cultural exchange and women’s writing in the eighteenth century and Romantic period, as well as editing and the digital humanities. Her publications examine subjects including Mary Wollstonecraft’s translations and translational afterlife, Wollstonecraft and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and transnational literary networks, particularly in the context of women’s writing. Her edition of Thomas Holcroft’s translation of Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline of Lichtfield (discussed here) was published in hardback in 2013 and reissued in paperback in 2016. She is also one of the team behind The Gothic Women Project. Mary Wollstonecraft: Cosmopolitan, her new monograph, which we discuss below, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press.

1) How did you first encounter Mary Wollstonecraft?

I was supposed to be writing an essay about Austen in my second year as an undergraduate at Exeter College Oxford, and I got distracted by references to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Marilyn was my tutor and she was very encouraging when I went down a Wollstonecraft rabbit-hole in my Austen essay. I didn’t know at the time that she’d worked with Janet Todd to put Wollstonecraft’s collected works back in print in the 1989 Pickering and Chatto edition, so I didn’t fully appreciate my good fortune until Marilyn ended up supervising my final-year dissertation on Wollstonecraft and Rousseau. I’ve been a Wollstonecraft obsessive ever since.

2) How does your previous work on translation inform your monograph’s focus on Wollstonecraft’s cosmopolitanism?

I define Wollstonecraft as a cosmopolitan partly because she spent so much of her career as a translator of European literature and a reviewer of foreign works for the Analytical Review. I’ve previously published on French and German translations of her works, but those translations were directly influenced by the transnational networks she established through Joseph Johnson’s publishing house, which had strong links with Continental Europe and America. It’s clear from her surviving letters that she tried to make contact with the French and German authors she translated. For instance, when she translated Christian Gotthilf Salzmann’s Moralisches Elementarbuch (1782; extended edition 1785), the overlap between their educational philosophies resulted in Salzmann and his son-in-law translating and editing some of Wollstonecraft’s works for their German readership. In her advertisements, Wollstonecraft also makes it clear that she is a creative translator whose naturalised English versions constitute critical commentaries on her source texts as well as attempts to convey their moral and cultural importance to her British audience. In short, Wollstonecraft’s translations inform and contribute to her engagement with other cultures. They tend to reflect her cosmopolitan belief that there are broadly universal values which are best instilled with sensitivity to local contexts and practices, and they often mount a subtle challenge to the misconceptions that divide people across false barriers of race, class, religion, and nation.

3) Which authors, events and experiences do you see as most strongly influencing Wollstonecraft’s thinking on cosmopolitanism?

Wollstonecraft was driven by British anti-Jacobinism and legally sanctioned misogyny to prefer Revolutionary France to her mother country. Having said that, I don’t define her as a cosmopolitan simply because she rejected blinkered national allegiances. I define her as a cosmopolitan because she espoused an ethical model of patriotism that incorporated world citizenship, and because her works are shaped by transnational literary exchanges as well as her experiences of travel and expatriation. I show that she was influenced by several Continental European writers, including the French educationalist Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, the German pedagogue Christian Gotthilf Salzmann, and the French Revolutionary orator Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau. But the book puts two figures centre-stage: Wollstonecraft’s Newington Green mentor, Dr Richard Price, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Price was a rationalist theologian who supported the American and French Revolutions and, in his Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789), he put forward a model of patriotism that incorporated world citizenship. Rousseau might seem a surprising choice: most people know that she attacks his gender politics in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and he’s also often considered a proto-nationalist philosopher, the quintessential anti-cosmopolitan. But Wollstonecraft read every work of Rousseau she could get her hands on, and she once confessed that she had ‘always been half in love with him’. I argue that she drew on his philosophy to showcase her dilemma about how best to refine private affects into a cosmopolitan love of humankind, and that she was inspired by his work to foreground subjective responses with potential philosophical significance.

Equally important, though, are Wollstonecraft’s life experiences. As part of cosmopolitan circles in radical London and Revolutionary Paris, she rubbed shoulders with writers like Tom Paine and Helen Maria Williams, whose support for the Revolution stemmed from their embrace of world citizenship over national loyalties. She never made it out of Europe (despite plans to go to America) but even so, her travels confronted her with different political systems, social mores and literary traditions. She was often out of her comfort zone and forced – with varying success – to confront and revise her prejudices. With every border crossing and culture shock, she re-examined her cosmopolitan ethic, and, in Scandinavia particularly, she developed an anti-imperialist preference for cultural authenticity and diversity. I suggest that she struggled towards the end of her life to square that preference with her philosophical universalism.

4) Which works by Wollstonecraft do you think make the most distinctive contributions to advancing or interrogating cosmopolitan discourses?

Wollstonecraft expresses a universalist cosmopolitan ethic in her first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which came out in 1787. This is clearest when she advocates philanthropy – in the sense of charitable giving but also in the root sense of ‘love of humankind’. Other early works such as Original Stories from Real Life and Mary, A Fiction appropriate and transform foreign-language source material, reiterate the emphasis on philanthropy, and express a cosmopolitan belief in the underlying commonality of human nature. Having said that, from 1790, Wollstonecraft’s response to the French Revolution amplifies the cosmopolitanism of her early works. I argue that, in both Vindications, she promotes an ethical form of patriotism compatible with world citizenship. She also considers what nurtures public-spirited virtues within the bounds of a nation, and how national loyalties can further or frustrate the claims of justice and philanthropy. I devote two chapters to the much-neglected An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, and I argue that, for Wollstonecraft, political justice depends on channelling the human instinct for compassion towards a principled commitment to universal benevolence. This means wrestling with the paradox that human sympathies are both essential to benevolence and liable to corrupt it. In Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Wollstonecraft tries to resolve that paradox. She does this by identifying her personal suffering with the suffering of female outsiders from unfamiliar cultures. In this way, she constructs an epistolary voice that is compassionate, solidaristic, and distinctively gendered, embodying an ‘ethic of caring’ that distinguishes her from the detached, elitist Grand Tourist. Crucially, Wollstonecraft’s ethic of caring entails a philanthropic commitment to the well-being of others that grows out of her feelings for her lovers and her daughter. In the spectacular natural world of the Scandinavian fjords, her erotic and maternal sentiments inspire imaginative connections with a pantheistic nature as well as intense compassion for a boundless community of strangers whose pain she longs to relieve. I therefore argue that her epistolary persona enacts a cosmopolitan ethic of caring which is driven by heartfelt sentiments but which can also be reconciled with the principles of justice.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently editing Wollstonecraft’s translations for the Oxford University Press scholarly edition of The Collected Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, which is contracted under the General Editorship of E. J. Clery. As part of the team behind the Gothic Women Project, which runs monthly online seminars on underappreciated works by Gothic women writers, I’m also researching connections between Wollstonecraft’s cosmopolitanism and the works of Mary Shelley. Others have remarked on Shelley’s transnational outlook, but I’m especially interested in her examination of cosmopolitan and republican modes of thought in the contexts of war and trenchant nationalism, and in connections between her works and those of Germaine de Staël and Sydney Owenson.