(26) Burke v. Wollstonecraft

Composite portrait with wallpaper via Victoria & Albert Museum , London

On November 1, 1790, in London, an Irish-born member of the British House of Commons named Edmund Burke published a pamphlet titled Reflections on the Revolution in France. Packed with brilliant prose, an immediate best seller and future foundational classic of conservatism, it sparked outrage in many more liberal readers. They included an obscure ex-governess named Mary Wollstonecraft, who set about drafting a rebuttal that would beat the rest into print, just a few weeks later. A Vindication of the Rights of Men, her pamphlet, also sold briskly, and a second edition soon followed, this time with her name on the title page. A writing career was born.  

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1797; via Wikipedia; book image via Internet Archive

Her counterattack had personal roots. Burke launches his Reflections with an account of yet another pamphlet, this one containing the text of a sermon delivered by Doctor Richard Price, a British Unitarian clergyman, as a tribute in praise of the new post-revolutionary government in France. (All this is happening, by the way, two years before the first guillotine was built.) Though he works him over mercilessly in his Reflections, Dr Price himself has no significance for Burke beyond his usefulness as a pretext, example, and recurring satirical target. However, Dr Price was a real, live, elderly person; a Noncomformist sage with a loyal, left-leaning literary acquaintance which happened to include Mary Wollstonecraft.

She springs to his defense, addressing Burke directly. “I glow with indignation when I attempt, methodically, to unravel your slaving paradoxes, in which I can find no fixed first principle to refute.” She doesn’t hold back. If Burke had been a Jew, she writes, given his veneration for authority, he “would have joined in the cry, crucify him!—crucify him!” Underneath the private quarrel lie more basic conflicts, though.

For Edmund Burke, it’s terrible that France’s churches have had their wealth and lands appropriated by the state; for Mary Wollstonecraft, this fact is terrific and rather past due. Burke abhors the prospect of traditions in sudden decline; this prospect is exactly the kind Wollstonecraft welcomes the most, she’ll travel to reach one. (On that subject: their opinions differ upon the practice, common then, of clergymen accompanying young Englishmen of title and property on their customary Grand Tours of the European continent: he’s applauds it, while she claims it degrades the clerical character.) As for the “sentimentalized jargon” Burke uses to describe how Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were forced from Versailles by a mob, Wollstonecraft declares herself more inclined to sympathize with the women in the crowd who sell fish for a living.    

Portrait of Edmund Burke, studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, (1767-1769), National Portrait Gallery, London; Edmund Burke, Print by Isaac Cruikshank, 1793; British Museum

Burke characterizes the National Assembly in Paris as a self-dealing collection of provincial lawyers. He says that a cabal of financiers is buying up the church’s confiscated property all over France with their profits off the national debt. And, a true father of conservatism, he lambastes the compulsory use of paper currency unbacked by precious metals. Mary Wollstonecraft, to all this, writes, “It is not, perhaps, of very great consequence who were the founders of a state; savages, thieves, curates, or practitioners in the law.” Holding unromantic views of history and its leading figures, she looks for social change:

Man preys on man; and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and the dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer. You mourn for the empty pageant of a name, when slavery flaps her wing, and the sick heart retires to die in lonely wilds, far from the abodes of men. Did the pangs you felt for insulted nobility, the anguish that rent your heart when the gorgeous robes were torn off the idol human weakness had set up, deserve to be compared with the long-drawn sigh of melancholy reflection, when misery and vice are thus seen to haunt our steps, and swim on the top of every cheering prospect? Why is our fancy to be appalled by terrific perspectives of a hell beyond the grave?—Hell stalks abroad;—the lash resounds on the slave’s naked sides; and the sick wretch, who can no longer earn the sour bread of unremitting labour, steals to a ditch to bid the world a long good night—or, neglected in some ostentatious hospital, breathes his last amidst the laugh of mercenary attendants.

Such misery demands more than tears—I pause to recollect myself; and smother the contempt I feel rising for your rhetorical flourishes and infantine sensibility.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, 1783; via Wikipedia

It’s interesting to see Wollstonecraft reserve particular animosity for Burke’s fine writing. She implies a nearly Satanic coercive power in his eloquence that has been turning readers’ minds onto improper courses. It’s true, Reflections is full of wonderful prose—including the ever-popular, oh-so adaptable: “France has not sacrificed her virtue to her interest; but she has abandoned her interest, that she might prostitute her virtue.” Two copies from Internet Archive; the first, a beauty from the Boston Public Library, was printed in Philadelphia in 1792:

Attentive readers of the selection above (p. 38) will recognize a passage from Burke that Adrian quotes, back in Volume 1 of The Last Man (“In all bodies. those who will lead must also, in a considerable degree, follow.”) Strange to say, the next installment of Volume 2 contains another passage from the Reflections, drawn from the same pages—which unquestionably leave a strong impression on readers with pens. Strange—because, strikingly, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published at almost the same time by the author’s own mother, isn’t quoted or mentioned at all. Yet the same Satanic text against which Mary Wollstonecraft forged a literary identity, the daughter seems to have almost by heart.

Reading a little ahead in The Last Man, it becomes clear that Mary Shelley knew her mother’s pamphlet just as well. Volume 2, in important ways, unfolds as a reflection—a negative reflection—of this lovely, lightly edited passage:

Everything on the estate is cherished but human beings;—yet, to contribute to human happiness, is the most sublime of all enjoyments. But if, instead of sweeping pleasure-grounds, obelisks, temples, and elegant cottages, as objects for the eye, the heart was allowed to beat true to nature, decent farms would be scattered over the estate, and plenty smile around. Instead of the poor being subject to the griping hand of an avaricious steward, they’d be watched over with firm solicitude, by men and women whose duty and pleasure it was to guard their happiness, and shield them from exploitation. . . I could almost imagine I see a man thus gathering blessings as he mounted the hill of life; or consolation, in those days when the spirits lag, and the tired heart finds no pleasure in them. 

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