sometimes witty book reviews
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) – ‘founder of modern day feminism.’ A radical lady with ‘loose morals,’ mother of Mary Shelley and daughter of revolution.
Hold it. I think you’ve got the wrong woman.
Early biographers-in-passing of Wollstonecraft often do her the discredit of the above or similar descriptions. Lyndall Gordon (a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford) systematically destroys this archaic narrative and rebuilds the life of this fascinating figure in a compelling and truly understanding manner. This authoritative and thoroughly researched text gives insights into the complexities of Wollestonecraft’s tragically short life. Gordon traces element of Wollstonecraft’s personality right back to the violent nature of her father and an otherwise troubled childhood. From this Gordon guides us through the life of the young Wollstonecraft, escaping financial dependence and even rescuing a sister from a terrible marriage – an illegal action at the time. The formation of her famous ideas on the rights of women and men, her theories of education and her attitude to the place of women in a broader, more republican society are explained in having their roots in her experience as a school mistress and governess. I was ecstatic as Gordon explained Wollstonecraft’s catapulting to fame with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).
With skill and a cool demeanour Gordon extrapolates Wollstonecraft’s experiences of the French Revolution without sensationalising. Her (not quite) marriage to Gilbert Imlay, the birth of her first daughter and the epic quest to find a lost silver-ship are definitively researched – but at points do become a bit bogged down in the intricacies of the legal case. Picking up again, Wollstonecraft’s established celebrity status does not cloud the biographer’s vision of the woman herself. Courtship, sexual relations with and eventual marriage to William Godwin are again – not sensationalised. Gordon has a unique gift for keeping the facts straight but the personality and emotion present at all times. I don’t often cry when reading, and never at a bibliographical work, but I did sniffle and feel quite horrible after Gordon’s poignant description of Wollstonecraft’s cruelly ironic death through childbirth.
Yes – it’s a long haul read. There are many, many dates, lots of names and hundreds of quotations. But stick with it. Gordon has a keen understanding of her subject and is astute enough to follow the narrative through to the lives of Wollstonecraft’s immediate disciples: William Godwin, her daughters Fanny Godwin and Mary Shelly and the fascinating Margaret King (aka Lady Mount Cashell or Mrs. Mason); a former governee of Wollstonecraft who would become a doctor of wide acclaim on the continent.
It is probably safe to say that such a sensitive portrayal of the erroneously titled ‘Infamous Wollstonecraft’ could only be attempted in the current academic environment of the past three decades. For almost two centuries, Wollstonecraft’s name was doomed to scandal and infamy. Fortunately, gifted historians such as Gordon are smashing down the misconceptions of old. The humble subtitle of the book claiming the work as only ‘a’ life of Wollstonecraft, however, illustrates Gordon’s true skill as a biographer; never claiming ownership of her subject’s life-story unlike biographies of yore.