Mary Wollstonecraft and the Question of French Character

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.”

By Megan Gallagher

In his masterwork of comparative political thought, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu had observed that “if there were in the world a nation which had a sociable humor… one should avoid disturbing its manners by laws, in order not to disturb its virtues. If the character is generally good, what difference do a few faults make?”.[1] Forty-five years later, the English feminist and republican Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Montesquieu’s rhetorical question with serious concerns about the nature of the French character he had implicitly celebrated. In February 1793, a few short months after arriving in Paris, Wollstonecraft sent a letter containing her early impressions of France and its national character to her friend and patron, the publisher Joseph Johnson. Now known as the “Letter on the Present Character of the French Nation,” its contents were melancholic and marked by disappointment.[2] “The whole mode of life here,” she reported, “tends indeed to render the people frivolous.” Frivolity, in turn, was an issue of character: France was “probably the most superficial [nation] in the world.” 

Debates over national character were very much in vogue when Wollstonecraft wrote, as both the English and the French sought to define themselves both collectively and individually throughout the tumultuous eighteenth century.[3]Wollstonecraft agreed with those who characterized France as particularly voluble and polite, with a certain “lightness” of manner. Yet contrary to many French commentators who celebrated France’s légèreté as an important factor in French self-understanding, Wollstonecraft found it regrettable and even a threat to the state’s newfound republican aspirations.[4] She drew a distinction between the sensuality she identified as the key quality of French life and the sociability necessary to the cultivation of community. That is, sensuality was superficial and did not lend itself to fellow-feeling, sympathy, or the development of shared values. In fact, it did the opposite, hardening the heart and, she wrote, “stifl[ing] every moral emotion.”

Even more problematically, her observations of France in the wake of the Revolution troubled Wollstonecraft’s faith in progress. As David Bell has argued, the French “generally saw national character determined by three broad factors: climate, political action, and historical evolution.” Wollstonecraft emphasized the last.[5] If societies should ideally move from a savage stage to a civilized one – and here Wollstonecraft’s thinking was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment tradition[6]– then the Revolution should have ideally inaugurated a new era of civilization, one that leveled “the aristocracy of birth.” This it had done but, as she noted in the letter, only to give way to an aristocracy of wealth. One sure sign of this was a new emphasis on commerce, “a narrow principle,” which led to “the striking contrast of riches and poverty, elegance and slovenliness, urbanity and deceit” she saw around her.

Indeed, what Wollstonecraft had hoped would be the dawn of a new stage of civilization now seemed on the verge of being lost to the same critical faults that had necessitated revolution in the first place. Hence her concern for French character. In her stadial approach to human history, there was precious little reason to wonder “whether a nation can go back to the purity of manners which has hitherto been maintained unsullied only by the keen air of poverty, when, emasculated by pleasure, the luxuries of prosperity are become the wants of nature.” Wollstonecraft did not imagine an historical golden age—hers was in the future, which was “fading before the attentive eye of observation.” Here she varied considerably from her French brethren, who often engaged in a “search for a usable pristine past” on which to model the future, sometimes locating that in the Renaissance and other times going as far back as the Celts, Franks, and Gauls.[7] Wollstonecraft wished to see “the fair form of Liberty slowly rising, and Virtue expanding her wings to shelter all her children” but saw no value in looking for them in the past.

Such disappointment was not what Wollstonecraft had anticipated when she decided to travel to France and bear witness to the great historical moment she and many others believed they were witnessing. She had previously defended the Revolution in her Vindication of the Rights of Men against Edmund Burke’s aspersions and dedicated her Vindication of the Rights of Woman to the French politician Talleyrand, who had advocated for the education of both boys and girls in the French Constituent Assembly. Her letter—and her initial plan to write a series of letters—was modeled on Helen Maria Williams’ Letters on France (1790), the “air of sincerity” of which she had praised in Johnson’s Analytical Review.[8] In short, Wollstonecraft had gone to France expecting to find a national spirit that spoke to her deepest political convictions as “a fully paid up enthusiast for the Revolution.”[9]

Once there, Wollstonecraft was not wholly pessimistic in her evaluation of French character; she had to admit that its trademark vanity “lightens the heavy burthen of life.” Moreover, the Revolution had, she hoped, successfully freed France of “the standing evils of the old system.” Still, she was not optimistic about the new regime’s capacity to change the nation’s character while traces of the old remained: “every thing whispers me, that names, not principles, are changed, and […] I see that the turn of the tide has left the dregs of the old system to corrupt the new.” Vice, not virtue, seemed to drive French character, even if that vice was charming and witty. In that, she reluctantly agreed with commentators who depicted France as corrupt and infirm, in spite of its revolutionary politics.

Wollstonecraft’s letter caught her in a particularly low moment. In December 1794, Johnson published her longer account of the Revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, in EnglandA text that still lacks serious academic attention, it attempted to thread the needle with appreciation for the Revolution, and horror at its costs. After spending time in Neuilly and Le Havre, partially to avoid the violence and suspicion of foreigners in Paris, she returned to England in April 1795 with her young daughter, Fanny, to find the nation similarly rife with suspicion of political radicals and French sympathizers.[10] The letter is not Wollstonecraft’s final say on the French Revolution, an event which operates in the background of many if not most of her works. But it is an interesting window into Wollstonecraft’s experiences in the winter of 1792-3, when France declared war on Britain, both Britain and France were on the hunt for purported traitors, and her personal life was in disarray. If nothing else, we can understand why she might long to see progress amidst the chaos.


Megan Gallagher is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama, where she teaches courses on gender in the history of political thought and contemporary feminist political theory. Her website is https://www.meganegallagher.com/, and she can be found on Twitter at @twasmegan.

Title Image: Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1797.

Further Reading:

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Sapiro, Virginia. A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Silva, Samantha. Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2021.

Taylor, Barbara. Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Tomaselli, Sylvana. Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Endnotes:

[1] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, eds. and trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia C. Miller, and Harold S. Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); 19.5, 310.

[2] Though one of the better known, the “Letter on the Present Character of the French Nation” was not her first report to Johnson. Earlier letters can be found here. Mary Wollstonecraft, “Letter on the Present Character of the French Nation” (1793). Available here.

[3] On the parallels drawn between individual and national character, see Matthew D’Auria, The Shaping of French National Identity: Narrating the Nation’s Past, 1715–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 137-153.

[4] On pre-revolutionary France’s légèreté, see David Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680–1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 147-9.

[5] Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France, 144.

[6] See Chris Jones, “The Vindications and their Political Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 51. See also chapter four of Eileen Hunt Botting’s Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) on narratives of progress in Wollstonecraft’s treatment of non-Western women.

[7] Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France, 152. See also D’Auria, The Shaping of French National Identity, chapter 6.

[8] Mary Wollstonecraft, Review of Helen Maria Williams, Letters from France, Article XVI, Analytical Review, September-December 1790. Available here. See Tom Furniss’ chapter “Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution” in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft for more details of her intellectual life around this period.

[9] Tom Furniss, “Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution” in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 62.

[10] There are many accounts of the sedition trials of the period which ensnared many progressive voices. See, for example, John Bugg, Five Long Winters: The Trials of British Romanticism (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013) and Kenneth R. Johnston, Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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