Mary Wollstonecraft’s Trauma Narratives and the Invention of Autofiction
For many years after Mary Wollstonecraft’s novels returned to circulation in the 1970s, they were discussed almost wholly in terms of the cult of sensibility at war with reason. It was said that Wollstonecraft, a beacon of enlightenment in her polemical treatise A Vindication of the Right of Woman (1792), had fallen victim to the prevailing ideological pressure to construct female identity in terms of self-destructive excesses of feeling in Mary, A Fiction (1788) and The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (1798). The critic Diane Hoeveler, who died in 2016 and was an innovative interpreter of the Gothic genre, enabled a decisive shift in debate by discussing The Wrongs of Woman in terms of trauma, drawing on the theoretical work of Cathy Caruth. In this paper I will build on Hoeveler’s foundations in order to consider the ways in which the trauma of domestic violence is inscribed and worked through by means of non-linear and non-realist devices of horror, fantasy and rhapsody, not only in Wollstonecraft’s final unfinished fiction, but also in her earlier autobiographical novel Mary. I propose a reconsideration of her narrative method in light of the genre of ‘autofiction,’ the so-called ‘fiction of facts,’ which emerged in France fifty years ago and has become a prominent, even predominant, genre in the 2010s. Contemporary debate on the relationship between fiction, trauma and therapy can revitalise our understanding of confessional fictions in an earlier era.
The Garden Seminar Room, Kennedy Hall