Translating the Rousseauvian Legislator: Female pedagogues in the works of Félicité de Genlis and Mary Wollstonecraft

21 November 2012, 12:30 - 14:30

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, SG2

Dr Laura Kirkley (French) presents at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

The event is free to attend but registration is required.  Please click on the link at the right hand side of the page to register online.  A sandwich lunch will be provided.

Abstract

Like many eighteenth-century women writers, Genlis and Wollstonecraft exhibit a vexed fascination for the works of Rousseau. Each appropriates and transforms aspects of Rousseau’s texts in order to critique the (gender) political implications of his pedagogical treatise, Émile. Like Rousseau, both women populate their works with semi-autobiographical personae, some of which can be viewed as ‘translations’ of the Rousseauvian Legislator, who also appears in the guises of educational Mentor and benevolent patriarch to exercise covert but benevolent control over Rousseau’s utopias. The Legislator furnishes a blueprint for Genlis’s Madame d’Almane in Adelaïde et Théodore, who in turn colours the portrait of Mrs Mason in Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories. These alter-egos seem designed to authenticate the events and conclusions of the text by emphasising their connection with lived experience. By following Rousseau’s commitment to sincerity through self-revelation, however, Genlis and Wollstonecraft also translate the resulting paradoxes into their own works. Although avowedly sincere, Rousseau’s multiple self-constructions challenge the very notion of a constant and knowable identity. Depicting himself by turns as the Mentor, an authority figure of near-supernatural wisdom, and the guilty and tormented Solitary Walker, he sets up an intertextual tension between imagined ideals and corrupt ‘reality’ that is personified in his own paradoxical self-portrait. Genlis and Wollstonecraft’s respective attempts to resolve this tension illuminate the distinct ideological agendas underlying their pedagogical theories. For Genlis, self-conscious performance is a pragmatic response to the necessity of social role-play. Resisting any fundamental challenge to the status quo, she equips her students to thrive in and improve the social order. By contrast, Wollstonecraft illuminates the paradoxes in a pedagogical plan based on ideal principles but accommodating a flawed reality. Her female Legislator, Mrs Mason, enforces an ideal of female self-governance, but other alter-egos, such as Mary and Maria, weep for its impracticability. Wollstonecraft’s pedagogy thereby evolves into a call for legislative and social change, without which personal authenticity is deemed impossible.

About Laura Kirkley

Dr Laura Kirkley spent two years as a Lecturer in French at the Queen's College Oxford before taking up a Research Fellowship in Modern Languages at Trinity Hall Cambridge in 2011. Focussing primarily on French and English literature, she uses translation and gender theory to research developments in women's writing across the boundaries of language and culture. She is currently turning her PhD thesis into a monograph entitled 'Sojourner in a Strange Land: the Revolutionary Cosmopolitanism of Mary Wollstonecraft'. She is also editing a new edition of the nineteenth-century international bestseller Caroline de Lichtfield by the Swiss novelist Isabelle de Montolieu.

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