The poor historical novelist. It’s so difficult to measure up to the contemporary gold standard of the genre: Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” series. Her novels about Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, are not only riveting stories, but they recast a controversial historical figure while contemplating the nature of power. So Samantha Silva has set herself a particularly difficult task by taking on another famous English historical figure in her new novel, “Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft,” a woman often called Britain’s first feminist.
Silva succeeds in making Wollstonecraft — the critic, novelist, translator, trailblazing feminist and the mother of Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” — a vibrant and forceful personality, full of both love and fury.
The novel opens at the end of Wollstonecraft’s life, as she is about to give birth to the infant who will become Mary Shelley. At first, it is the baby whose health everyone is worried about, and the midwife, Mrs. B — in whose point of view the novel begins — suggests that Wollstonecraft tell the baby her own story, to “talk her into the world.”
And so Wollstonecraft begins telling her life story to her “little bird.”
The novel is structured around these two intertwining perspectives. Mrs. B. relates Wollstonecraft’s last 11 days on earth as her health deteriorates. Though Mrs. B has her own story, Silva mainly uses her as a foil to remind us how unusual Wollstonecraft was for her time — as an advocate for women’s rights, a woman who’d already had a child out of wedlock and an equal in her marriage to the philosopher William Godwin.
As she sits in vigil, Mrs. B. happens upon their letters, eavesdrops on their conversation, and finally reads Wollstonecraft’s work, marveling at one point at the way Wollstonecraft “turns feeling into thinking and thinking into feeling.”
Yet her wonder at Wollstonecraft can sometimes seem heavy-handed, and Mrs. B — her story, the voice Silva gives her — is not as compelling as Wollstonecraft. It is in Wollstonecraft’s own sections, when she relates her life in chronological order, that the story most comes alive.
And what a life she led! After a peripatetic childhood at the whim of a sometimes violent father (she is known to have lain across her mother’s bedroom door to block her father’s path), Wollstonecraft founded a girls’ school in London. She socialized with William Blake, spent time in Paris during the French Revolution and wrote political works including “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” — books that Virginia Woolf described as “so true that they seem now to contain nothing new in them — their originality has become our commonplace.”
This is a lot of life to cover in roughly 200 pages. The later sections of the novel can feel a little rushed, in part because the backdrop is so huge. The French Revolution, for instance, deserves more than the 25 pages Silva is able to give to Wollstonecraft’s more than two years in France. (Mantel’s 1992 novel about the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” runs more than 700 pages.)
But the earlier sections move more slowly, and Silva paints a convincing portrait of a girl finding her way in the world — learning to trust her own feelings of injustice, unearthing a world of intellect and ideas via a friend’s father. As she matures, Wollstonecraft becomes more and more convinced that women needed to be educated — and treated — equally.
A short section in London, when the young writer decides to live by her pen and starts attending long nightly dinners at her publisher’s house with leading intellectuals such as Blake and painter Henry Fuseli, is also exciting to read. As she begins making her views part of the public discourse, the men start calling her “Wollstonecraft,” like she’s one of the blokes.
These events reflect the “fury” of the title, but there is fury in Wollstonecraft’s love, too. Early in life, she develops passionate friendships with female friends; in London, she falls in love with Fuseli; and the first love affair she consummates leads to two suicide attempts, before she falls in love with Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father.
It’s interesting to see Silva explore how her Wollstonecraft — so righteous in advocating “rational love” over sexual passion — adjusts her views as her own sexuality awakens, and how, in the end, with Godwin, she seems to find both.
When reading this book, I kept remembering the statue of Wollstonecraft unveiled in London last autumn, to some praise and much derision. For me, it wasn’t the fact the Wollstonecraft’s statue was a nude that was problematic — surely she would have looked like Mary Poppins if she’d been dressed — but that her generic, everywoman figure is dwarfed by the swirling, treelike plinth she arises out of. The base is meant to signify the struggles of women. Would a historically significant man ever be depicted so naked and so small?
Thankfully, the Mary Wollstonecraft of “Love and Fury” is neither small nor generic, but vivid, flawed, larger than life. Silva gives us a Wollstonecraft who is not overshadowed by historical forces, but who is instead herself a force of nature — and history.
Carole Burns’s “The Missing Woman and Other Stories” won the Ploughshares’ John C. Zacharis First Book Award. She is the head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England.
Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft
By Samantha Silva
Flatiron. 288 pp. $26.99
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