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For Mary Wollstonecraft, the numerous cultural and political debates that constituted the public life of British citizens in the final years of the eighteenth century boiled down to some fundamental choices. As she put it in her discussion of Rousseau (a philosopher whose blend of republicanism and misogyny made him an important part of her thinking about the rights and wrongs of her age), “Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally; a crowd of authors that all is now right; and I, that all will be right.”1 Conservative thinkers would never have endorsed Rousseau’s primitivism, which provided a rationale for wholesale revolution against the ills of modern civilization, and they would likely have considered it a stretch to say that all was right in contemporary Britain. From the age of Pope and Swift onwards, conservative thinkers tended to align themselves with a vision of decline that had been hastened by the effeminizing influence of Britain’s consumer revolution. But in the deeply polarized climate of the 1790s, and in the face of growing demands for radical democratic reform from an extended public that had never before presumed to participate in the political process, the present (or at least the pre-1789 version of it) was looking good.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was one of the most influential and controversial women of her age. No writer, except perhaps her political foe, Edmund Burke, and her fellow reformer, Thomas Paine, inspired more intense reactions. In her brief literary career before her untimely death in 1797, Wollstonecraft achieved remarkable success in an unusually wide range of genres: from education tracts and political polemics, to novels and travel writing. Just as impressive as her expansive range was the profound evolution of her thinking in the decade when she flourished as an author. In this collection of essays, leading international scholars reveal the intricate biographical, critical, cultural, and historical context crucial for understanding Mary Wollstonecraft's oeuvre. Chapters on British radicalism and conservatism, French philosophes and English Dissenters, constitutional law and domestic law, sentimental literature, eighteenth-century periodicals and more elucidate Wollstonecraft's social and political thought, historical writings, moral tales for children, and novels.