MIDNIGHT FIRES & THE NIGHTMARE by Nancy Means Wright

Palo Alto:  Perseverance Press, 2010, 2011. $14.95, $15.95.


I must confess--I have never particularly cared for Mary Wollstonecraft. When I read THE VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN in graduate school, I found the tone of Wollstonecraft’s rhetoric hysterical and her style repetitive. Subsequent experience of 18th century literature has shown otherwise:  Samuel Richardson wins for repetitiveness, hysteria, and melodrama. Nancy Means Wright presents Mary Wollstonecraft as passionate feminist and radical who is impulsive and, occasionally, both melodramatic and hysterical. While my initial reaction to Wollstonecraft derived from a rather out-of-context reading of VINDICATION, Nancy Means Wright has immersed herself in Wollstonecraft’s life and work to provide greater context for Wollstonecraft’s views in the novels, MIDNIGHT FIRES and THE NIGHTMARE.

MIDNIGHT FIRES introduces readers to Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist, writer, and, in 1786, governess. The position of governess was ambiguous, for the governess was, generally, better educated than any other servant, except the estate agent, but, unlike the estate agent, she resided intimately with the family to educate and nurture the children of the family. With the children, the governess could, and frequently did, stand in loco parentis and earned the love and trust of the children instead of the absent parents. As a result, the governess, like the estate agent, occupied a position betwixt and between servant and family member. Such is Mary’s lot. And who can blame her for not liking it?

After witnessing a suspicious death as she arrived in Ireland, Wollstonecraft enters the household of Lord and Lady Kingsborough to take up her duties of educating the three daughters. The household is disordered, ill-managed, and riven with passions. Anger management and control of lusts and jealousies are unknown concepts in this household. Lord Kingsborough is a known rakehell and drunk, his cousin James King (or is that natural brother?) has an equal reputation for seduction, and his son George is fast following in his footsteps. Lady Kingsborough cannot make up her mind whether to treat Wollstonecraft as servant, pet intellectual, or ally, so she moves capriciously among the three positions. As if this were not enough, Wollstonecraft has to contend with intelligent but ill-discipline charges and the tensions of landlord-tenant relations. Something has to give, and it does when James King is murdered and one of Lord Kingsborough’s Irish tenants is arrested, sure to hang for the murder. Although Wollstonecraft feels inadequate to the task, she investigates because she has developed feelings for the accused. She is aided and obstructed at turns by various members of both the Kingsborough household and the tenantry. In the course of her investigation, Wollstonecraft gets an education in Irish estate management that more than confirms her radical prejudices--and Lord Kingsborough is not even one of the absentee landlords. 

The busy plot, so narrowly focused around one household and its tenants in Ireland feels forced. It gins up an unnecessary claustrophobia. So many things happen at a frankly breakneck speed that we have little time to reflect upon the relationships among the characters, including their political and religious affiliations, nor are we invited so to do. If the plot is overdeveloped, then the multitude of characters are underdeveloped. Few are developed at any depth. Furthermore, the plot even overwhelms the ability of Mary Wollstonecraft to carry it. In some places, we lose touch with her. 

Nancy Means Wright has considerable experience writing young adult novels, wherein plot is privileged over all else. This trend shows more with MIDNIGHT FIRES than the THE NIGHTMARE. The claustrophobia that gets in the way of contextualizing and understanding the relationships of the first novel works to the advantage of the latter. THE NIGHTMARE involves the theft of a highly erotic painting done, at the very least, in a proto-Romantic style. Historical context does not need to be so finely drawn; it is 1792, the French Revolution is on, and the radicals, intellectuals, and proto-Romantics in Britain are hopeful, encouraged, and excited. The claustrophobia gives THE NIGHTMARE into an entirely appropriate touch of horror, perfectly in keeping with the Gothick literature of the late 18th century.

THE NIGHTMARE opens with Mary Wollstonecraft living in London by the strength of her pen, always a precarious existence. Despite that, she is justifiably proud that her VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE WOMAN has been published to considerable success--and the irritation of conservatives. Wollstonecraft also lives among more congenial company than she did in Ireland. She is part of a radical circle chaired by her publisher, Joseph Johnson, and enlivened by such luminaries as Thomas Paine, William Blake, and William Godwin. She meets French exiles and French revolutionaries, including the clubfooted Tallyrand. It is through Johnson that Wollenstonecraft meets Henry Fuseli, the Swiss artist who created the painting “The Nightmare”. She finds the painting disturbing, but the artist intriguing; ultimately, she fancies herself in love with him--with disastrous and humiliating consequences. When the painting is stolen, Fuseli, a vindictive hothead, accuses a rival artist, Roger Peale, of the theft, an action that lands Peale in Newgate Prison. If this were not distressing enough for Wollstonecraft, who wishes to aid Peale, then another member of her circle, Isobel Frothingham, is murdered. Wollstonecraft sees the body laid out as if in re-enactment of Fuseli’s painting. Finding her friend’s killer becomes a terrifying, convoluted nightmare indeed for Wollstonecraft.

Like MIDNIGHT FIRES, the plot in THE NIGHTMARE can be overwhelming at times. All the convolutions do not mask the predictable perpetrators of two of the crimes. However, the characterization is deeper and more believable than in MIDNIGHT FIRES. Wollstonecraft herself is more in her element here, stronger and more believable. We never lose touch with her. 

Feminism, like Marxism, is a legitimate frame for both history and fiction. It is a requirement here. The real Mary Wollstonecraft was a publicly proclaimed feminist. She articulated a strong argument for women’s rights to education, equality under the law, and independence, both political and economic. Nancy Means Wright delivers what THE VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN cannot--why Wollstonecraft took such a position. In the novels, Wollstonecraft remains haunted by her childhood with an improvident alcoholic father and a dependent mother, worn out by family cares yet with no means of escaping them. Wollstonecraft is tortured by her sister’s flight from an abusive husband, yet she must leave the baby behind to die. It is a tortured history, one that has, too often in fiction, become hackneyed. It was, however, a wretched historical reality for many people. Adult experience confirms Wollstonecraft’s young impressions, making her passionate in her resistance to injustice. To that vehement outrage, Nancy Means Wright does justice.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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