From: Memoirs of Mary Wolstonecraft, Constable and Co. Limited. London 1928
PASSAGES REWRITTEN IN THE
To understand this, we have only to recollect how dear to persons of sensibility is the exercise of the affections. A sound morality requires that "nothing human should be regarded by us with indifference" but it is impossible that we should not feel the strongest interest for those persons, whom we know most intimately, and whose welfare and sympathies are united to our own. True wisdom wil1 recommend to us individual attachments; for with them our minds are more thoroughly maintained in activity and life than they can be under the privation of them, and it is better that man should be a living being, than a stock or a stone. True virtue will sanction this recommendation, since it is the object of virtue to produce happiness, and since the man who lives in the midst of domestic relations, will have many opportunities of conferring pleasure, minute in the detail, yet not trivial in the amount, without interfering with the purposes of general benevolence. Nay, by kindling his sensibility, and harmonizing his soul, they may be expected, if he is endowed with a liberal and manly spirit, to render him more prompt in the service of strangers and of the public.
But, in the catalogue of domestic charities, there are none so capable of affording strong and permanent delight, as that of two persons of opposite sexes who have conceived a preference for each other. Human beings differ so much in their tempers and views, that, except in cases of a tender attachment, cohabitation brings with it small prospect of harmony and happiness. The connection between parents and children, between grown persons and young, is of too unequal a nature; and is bounded and restrained by a sense of responsibility on the one side, and the inattention and heedlessness particularly incident to the other. The charm of domestic life consists in a mutual desire to study each other's gratification; and this can scarcely subsist in sufficient force, but in this particular connection.
Mary had now lived for upwards of thirty years in a state of celibacy and seclusion. As her sensibilities were exquisitely acute, she had felt this sort of banishment from social charities, so frequent in a state of high civilization and refinement, more painfully than persons in general are likely to feel it. Or rather, as I believe, she suffered occasional accesses of uneasiness, torpor, and vacuity, without having clearly traced the sources and remedy of the evil. She was like what we are told of those lofty and aspiring genuises, who, being formed for busy scenes and daring projects, find the activity of their temper when debarred its proper field, corroding and preying upon itself. The sentiments which Mr. Fuseli excited in her mind, taught her the secret, to which she was so long in a manner a stranger.
Let it not however be imagined, that this was any other than the dictate of a most refined sentiment, and the simple deduction of morality and reason. Never was there a woman on the face of the earth more alien to that mire and grossness, in which the sensual part of our species are delighted to wallow. Superior at the same time to the idleness of romance, and the pretense of an ideal philosophy, no one knew more perfectly how to assign to the enjoyments of affection their respective rank, or to maintain in virgin and unsullied purity the chasteness of her mind.
It happened in the present case that Mr. Fuseli was already married; and, in visiting at his house, his wife became the acquaintance of Mary. Mary did not disguise from herself how desirable it would have been, that the man in whom she discovered qualities calling forth all the strength of her attachment, should have been equally free with herself. But she cheerfully submitted to the empire of circumstances. She conceived it practicable to cultivate a distinguishing affection, and to foster it by the endearments of personal intercourse and reciprocation of kindness, without departing from the consideration due to his previous engagements. She scorned to suppose, that she could feel a struggle, in conforming to the laws she should lay down to her conduct.
A circumstance by which the two sexes are particularly distinguished from each other, is, that the one is accustomed more to the exercise of its reasoning powers, and the other of its feelings. Women have a frame of body more delicate and susceptible of impression than men, and, in proportion as they receive a less intellectual education, are more unreservedly under the empire of feeling. Feeling is liable to become a source of erroneous decisions, because a mind not accustomed to logical analysis, cannot be expected accurately to discriminate between the simple dictates of an ingenuous mind, and the factitious sentiments of a partial education. Habits of deduction enable us to correct this defect. But habits of deduction may generate habits of sophistry; and scepticism and discussion, while they undermine our prejudices, have sometimes a tendency to weaken or distort our feelings Hence we may infer one of the advantages accruing from the association of persons of an opposite sex: they may be expected to counteract the principal mistake into which either is in danger to fall.
Mary and myself perhaps each carried farther than to its common extent the characteristic of the sexes to which we belonged. I have been stimulated, as long as I can remember, by the love of intellectual distinction; but, as long as I can remember, I have been discouraged, when casting the sum of my intellectual value, by finding that I did not possess, in the degree of some other persons, an intuitive sense of the pleasures of the imagination. Perhaps I feel them as vividly as most men; but it is often rather by an attentive consideration, than an instantaneous survey. They have been liable to fail of their effect in the first experiment; and my scepticism has often led me anxiously to call in the approved decisions of taste, as a guide to my judgment, or a countenance to my enthusiasm. One of the leading passions of my mind has been an anxious desire not to be deceived. This has led me to view the topics of my reflection on all sides, and to examine and re-examine without end the questions that interest me. Endless disquisition however is not always the parent of certainty.
What I wanted in this respect, Mary possessed in a degree superior to any other person I ever knew. Her feelings had a character of peculiar strength and decision; and the discovery of them, whether in matters of taste or of moral virtue, she found herself unable to control. She had viewed the objects of nature with a lively sense and an ardent admiration, and had developed their beauties. Her education had been fortunately free from the prejudices of system and bigotry, and her sensitive and generous spirit was left to the spontaneous exercise of its own decisions. The warmth of her heart defended her from artificial rules of judgment; and it is therefore surprising what a degree of soundness pervaded her sentiments. In the strict sense of the term, she had reasoned comparatively little; and she was therefore little subject to diffidence and scepticism. Yet a mind more candid in perceiving and rebating error, when it was pointed out to her, perhaps never existed. This arose naturally out of the directness of her sentiments, and her fearless and unstudied veracity.
A companion like this, excites and animates the mind. From such an one we imbibe, what perhaps I principally wanted, the habit of minutely attending to first impressions, and justly appreciating them. Her taste awakened mine; her sensibility determined me to a careful development of my feelings. She delighted to open her heart to the beauties of nature; and her propensity in this respect led me to a more intimate contemplation of them. My scepticism in judging, yielded to the coincidence of another's judgment; and especially when the judgment of that other was such, that the more I made experiment of it, the more was I convinced of its rectitude.
The improvement I had reason to promise myself, was however yet in its commencement, when a fatal event, hostile to the moral interests of mankind, ravished from me the light of my steps, and left to me nothing but the consciousness of what I had possessed, and must now possess no more!
While I have described the improvement I was in the act of receiving, I believe I have put down the leading traits of her intellectual character from which it flowed.
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