Today is the anniversary of the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born in 1759, two years after William Blake, becoming one of the most important writers and thinkers of her day – although the full effects of her ideas were only to be felt a century after her death in 1797.
Wollstonecraft is, of course, most famous for her The Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 and a follow-up to her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. While there were plenty of other answers to Burke, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man being the most famous, her defence of women’s rights was almost unique in the late eighteenth century.
While the Vindication had an important influence on Blake in the early 1790s, it was not the only link between him and Wollstonecraft. He knew both her and her future husband, William Godwin, through the publisher Joseph Johnson, and when Johnson decided to issue a second edition of her Original Stories from Real Life in 1791, Blake was hired to illustrate the book. Wollstonecraft, like Blake in Songs of Innocence, sought to take advantage of the growing market in children’s literature that existed in the final decades of the eighteenth century; Wollstonecraft’s aim was to demonstrate that women would be rational if educated properly, and while it is hard to imagine Blake agreeing with her emphasis on reason, he nonetheless produced six charming illustrations for the edition.
It was the Vindication, however, that appeared to have a more profound effect, most notably on Visions of the Daughters of Albion which he produced a year after Wollstonecraft’s extremely important tract. Ever since R. M. James’s paper on the reception of the Vindication in 1798, it has been recognised that her book was greeted with favourable rather than horrified reviews – those didn’t follow until Godwin’s ill-advised memoirs were published in 1798. As such, Blake’s positive response to the book was not unique – but it was exceptional for a male writer to devote a substantial work to her ideas. (I welcome corrections and amendments on this point, by the way, from any readers.)
In Visions, Oothoon, travelling to her lover Theotormon, is taken and raped by a rival, Bromion. Theotormon, discovering the pair, binds them together in a fit of jealousy, holding them both responsible for the crime and, at the end of the book, Oothoon responds with a powerful soliloquy denouncing masculine laws:
How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?
How the industrious citizen the pains of the husbandman.
How different far the fat fed hireling with hollow drum;
Who buys whole corn fields into wastes, and sings upon the heath:
How different their eye and ear! how different the world to them!
With what sense does the parson claim the labour of the farmer?
What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him
With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude,
To build him castles and high spires. where kings & priests may dwell.
Till she who burns with youth. and knows no fixed lot; is bound
In spells of law to one she loaths: and must she drag the chain
Of life, in weary lust! (plate 5:12-23)
There are significant and important differences between Blake’s conception of proto-feminism and Wollstonecraft’s, an emphasis on sexuality rather than reason, for example – while subsequent lines in which Oothoon imagines procuring women for an orgy with Theotormon are troubling (Helen Bruder may be correct in seeing these as an example of just how far Oothoon is compromised by her slavery, rather than an expression of fantasies on Blake’s part). Nonetheless, what is most powerful about these lines and the poem as a whole is the way that Blake can move from the specifics of sexual oppression, for example within marriage, to an understanding of the wider extension of patriarchy and power.
Later Blake, for me, is much more disappointing with regard to his opinions on gender and sexuality: there is too much inveighing against “female will”, and while that brief dismissal does not cover anything like the complexity of his thought, this is one area that I am not willing to let him off the hook and race towards a positive interpretation. He was a great writer who sometimes rose above the conditions of his sex – but not always. One thing that is remarkable about his early work, however (and this is something that appears to have preceded his encounters with Wollstonecraft, or at least publication of the Vindication), is that he was a writer who, for a while at least, had a full and sincere appreciation of women’s conditions, not only their oppression but also what joys of motherhood, learning and general life were available to them in the late eighteenth century – joys that were often dismissed and denigrated by his more powerful contemporaries.