A July 3 Book World review incorrectly identified Mary Shelley as the daughter of Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was his wife. (Published 07/06/05) ----- A July 3 Book World review of "Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft" misidentified the author of an earlier Wollstonecraft biography. Her name is Claire Tomalin, not Claire Tomlinson. (Published 7/12/2005)
VINDICATION: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
By Lyndall Gordon. HarperCollins. 562 pp. $29.95
Claims of "first" are notoriously risky. But Mary Wollstonecraft's declaration that she was the first of a "new genus" rings true more than two centuries after this pioneer of feminism dared make it. Abigail Adams, Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf and the others who followed are in her wake and in her debt.
When Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, she was a 33-year-old virgin. She had vowed never to marry, having witnessed her improvident, drunken father's brutality toward her mother. From the age of 15, she refused to accept a world in which the male was tyrant.
In the England of her time, wives were the property of husbands, who also owned their worldly goods and their children. There was no divorce (except by act of Parliament) and any protest was dangerous -- easily dismissed and punished as female hysteria. As Lyndall Gordon makes clear in Vindication, her exhaustively researched biography of Wollstonecraft, the threat of the madhouse hung over every 18th-century wife.
Yet for a single female with no financial prospects, what were the alternatives to marriage? To become a teacher, a paid companion, a governess or a prostitute. Self-taught, with the assistance of kindly and well-read friends and mentors, Wollstone- craft became all but the last. Her first venture into independent life came at the age of 24, when, with Rousseauistic ideas about letting a child discover its own nature and with the assistance of a generous widow, she and a close friend set up a school in North London. Next she went to Ireland as a governess to the rich Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family and there began her first novel, Mary. Losing her job when Lady Kingsborough became resentful of her superior intelligence, Wollstonecraft found a patron in the form of a London publisher, Joseph Johnson, who gave her writing commissions and found her a room near St. Paul's Cathedral. His support enabled her, at 29, to determine to live by her pen and to help her family.
In Johnson's intellectual circle she met the worldly German-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. While Wollstonecraft was comely with curly hair, a full form and dreamy brown eyes, she dressed plainly -- leading Fuseli to refer to her as a "philosophical sloven." Even so, she became fixated on Fuseli for his "grandeur of soul" and proposed moving in with him and his wife. It was during this period of frustrated love that she wrote her masterpiece, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this acclaimed and controversial book, she attacked the educational and social restrictions that kept women in a state of "ignorance and dependency."
Spurned by Fuseli, she took herself unescorted to Paris to witness at first hand the revolution that promised to restore "natural" rights to women. Instead of a bastion of liberty, however, she found a place of blood and terror and witnessed King Louis XVI on his way to the tribunal that would send him to the guillotine. For the first time in her life, she wrote, "I cannot put out my candle."
In France she also met a dashing and intelligent American cad, Charles Imlay. She surrendered her virginity and discovered physical passion. (She was heard to reprove a Frenchwoman who boasted about her own lack of passion, "The worse for you, madame. That's a defect of nature.") Pregnancy followed, and the birth of a daughter. Imlay went to England and invited her to come as well -- which she did, but he did not join her. In despair she attempted suicide. Unmoved, Imlay directed her to go to Scandinavia and try to recover for him a supposed lost cargo of silver. The attempt was in vain. Imlay never kept his promise to join her and their child; he had another mistress. She wrote a book on Scandinavia instead, and her many deeply moving letters to her betrayer show that a feminist can also be a woman who waits and weeps.
Wollstonecraft eventually returned to London; after more waiting and weeping and another suicide attempt, she met a rescuer in the unprepossessing form of the philosopher and social reformer William Godwin. Love grew, and though the sex was apparently not what it had been with Imlay, another pregnancy swiftly followed. Godwin did the decent thing and married her, although they continued to live separately. But the scales were balanced against the female. At the age of 38, Wollstonecraft died bearing his child.
The tedious question thrown at biographers -- "Do we need another book about . . . ?" -- is demolished by Gordon's adventurous scholarship. Wollstonecraft has been the subject of many biographies, notably Claire Tomlinson's groundbreaking The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1974. Gordon's fresh approach places this early feminist in the context of the American and French Revolutions. What Wollstonecraft saw happening on both sides of the Atlantic led her to call for rights and independence for women -- as well as an end to the "abominable traffic" in slaves.
Goodall's biography unfortunately bogs down in unclear narrative, gratuitous information and indulgent digressions, some of which, such as the Scandinavian episode, should have been curtailed. It is understandable, however, that nearly one-third of this book is devoted to Wollstonecraft's posthumous legacy and reputation. Her first daughter killed herself at 22, convinced that no one wanted her. Her daughter by Godwin lived to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their daughter Mary Shelley went on to write Frankenstein. It is just as well that Wollstonecraft's many 19th-century critics did not realize this, as they searched for insults to throw at the immoral mother of feminism, "Frankenstein's grandmother" would have suited them very well.
Godwin himself, whom she characterized, in her last words, as "the kindest, and best man in the world," gave comfort to her critics. In his Memoirs of the Author of "The Rights of Woman"' he described his late wife as a genius but also as a woman who enjoyed love outside marriage.
This left her open to attacks in the next century, when Browning slandered her in a poem and feminists distanced themselves from her in the fear that her dissolute life would damage their cause. Even the American president John Adams, though he read her book on the French Revolution twice, made notes calling her "this mad woman."
She was not mad but brave. For sheer courage Wollstonecraft's rich achievement will be hard to match, as will her eloquence: "It is time to effect a revolution in female manners," she wrote in her Vindication -- "time to restore them their lost dignity -- and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world."
Brenda Maddox's biographies include "Nora: the Life of Molly Bloom" and "Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA."