Mary Shelley and Utopian Domesticity
Sites, Melissa Jo
Fraistat, Neil R.
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In her seven novels and other writings, Mary Shelley critiques traditional restrictive domestic ideology while developing a feminist utopian vision of domesticity. She begins with Wollstonecraft's prescription for women's education and adds Godwin's ideas of simplicity, frankness, and forgiveness. Domesticity fosters these very conditions. Ernst Bloch's theory of the utopian function within ideology shows how the false consciousness of domestic and Romantic ideology can bear a utopian impulse. To provide a historical context of domesticity in feminist and reform thought, I discuss the emphasis on education, the importance of community, and the life of the mind in companionate marriage in Mary Astell, Sarah Scott and Margaret Cavendish; I then show how Adeline Mowbray by Amelia Opie and The Empire of the Nairs by James Lawrence illustrate the effects of putting Godwin's and Wollstonecraft's theories into practice. I look at Shelley's exploration of Romantic ideology in Frankenstein while countering prevalent critical misreadings of its nascent ideal of utopian domesticity. I then explore how Mathilda, Midas, Proserpine, and Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot develop contrasting ideas of utopia and dystopia around isolation and community. In her political novels, Valperga, The Last Man, and Perkin Warbeck Shelley developed Wollstonecraft's feminist theories and focused on women's relation to political power. Valperga's Euthanasia exemplifies the powerful Wollstonecraftian citoyenne and Shelleyan Romantic hero. The Last Man illustrates the priority of personal over public concerns, while Perkin Warbeck questions the legitimacy of political ambition. In her domestic novels, Lodore and Falkner, Shelley creates utopian domesticity by modifying Godwin's political system and by revising the Byronic Romantic hero; in Falkner, she rewrites Godwin's Caleb Williams according to a feminist idea of social justice. I conclude by looking at Persuasion by Jane Austen, Records of Woman by Felicia Hemans, and Helen by Maria Edgeworth, which demonstrate awareness of the potential benefits and drawbacks of domesticity, but were less concerned than Shelley with feminist critique.