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Laura Kirkley

The Trans-National Afterlives of Revolutionary Feminism: translation and reception of Mary Wollstonecraft in the nineteenth century


During Mary Wollstonecraft’s lifetime, her Vindication of the Rights of Woman was read in multiple translations throughout Europe. Her fame was such that her name remained linked to women’s rights in nineteenth-century Europe and its colonies – so much so that this particular aspect of the collective consciousness travelled as far as South America, resulting in a Portuguese version of the Vindication published in Brazil in 1832.

This paper is divided into two parts: the first will summarise the different strategies of Wollstonecraft’s eighteenth-century translators, which reflect the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of Europe and the rising nationalism of the period. For instance, whereas the French translator of the Vindication strengthens Wollstonecraft’s feminist voice, his German and Spanish counterparts silence it. The French translation reflects the utopian spirit of the early days of the French Revolution. The German and Spanish translations are created in response to an ideological climate and reading public uncongenial to feminism. The cosmopolitan ethos of the Enlightenment ostensibly ensures that Wollstonecraft’s feminist ideas cross national and linguistic borders, but as they meet and clash with the diverse ideologies and political systems of eighteenth-century Europe, her Revolutionary feminism is transformed by the traffic accidents of translation.

The second part of the paper focuses on a cross-cultural exchange between two nineteenth-century feminists: the Anglo-Irish Owenite, Anna Wheeler Doyle, who read the English Vindication; and the French Utopian socialist, Flora Tristan, who read the French version. Doyle espoused Owenite socialism after separating from her aristocratic husband. She made her home on the Channel Island of Guernsey and travelled frequently between London and Paris. In 1830 she wrote an article called "The Rights of Woman" for the British Co-operator. Tristan applied Wollstonecraft’s model of rational domesticity to a programme of reform for the working classes. The paper will argue that their shared reading of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, in two different versions and from two culturally distinct perspectives, led to a cross-fertilisation of ideas that generated an inimitably cosmopolitan brand of feminism.

AsK, September 2012

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