Mary Wollstonecraft

Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I finished reading Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted in 1797 by John Opie

This is Tomalin’s first book, it’s forty years old (originally published in 1974), and it remains the definitive biography of the first feminist. I read the revised edition of 1992, when it was re-issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s incendiary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the revisions are light. And WOW, is good biography ever addictive. There are so many fine, thoughtful, glowing reviews of The Life and Death of MW and I don’t feel the need to add to them. But I wanted to highlight a few things that particularly stood out for me.

– One of Tomalin’s finest traits as a biographer is her measured, conscientious empathy with her subjects. She doesn’t take sides in a blind fashion, but remains alive to how each person in a situation may have felt. She even manages to be balanced in her treatment of Gilbert Imlay, who usually reads like a music-hall villain.

– Mary Wollstonecraft was a hothead and a completely unreasonable prima donna. It’s what enabled her to write such radical polemic, of course, but it makes for difficult reading. The peace-loving part of me wants to beg her to take a deep breath (or ten) before charging into a situation. Then again, what do I know about genius? Maybe it needs to trample a few victims in its course.

– This is hard to express without sounding gender-essentialist, but Tomalin’s very clear understanding of childbirth and breastfeeding really makes a difference to the elucidation of Wollstonecraft’s state of mind, at times. A biographer who didn’t grasp the medical and psychological complexities involved would be less effective at interpreting certain lines in the letters and in (Wollstonecraft’s husband) William Godwin’s diary.

– There is no getting over the bitter irony of Wollstonecraft’s dying from complications of childbirth (retained placenta, septicemia). Her death was excruciating and long-drawn-out. In a different time and place, it could have been averted entirely, either through effective birth control or better medical hygiene and technology.

– Wollstonecraft’s husband, friends, and fellow intellectuals sold short her intellectual legacy. I don’t think I realized how completely alone she stood, in her intellectual position, or just how unready the world was for her arguments. Even the other radical thinkers of her day seemed to think she’d gone too far, and then there were the so-called friends (notably Amelia Opie) who turned around and attacked her once she was no longer alive to defend herself. Wollstonecraft remained as isolated after death as she frequently was in life.

– Wollstonecraft was an unfavoured daughter, a governess, a mediocre schoolteacher, and a hack journalist; an emotional tyrant who lived more frequently in conflict than in peace. She was also a self-taught intellectual, an independent woman who earned her own living, an effective negotiator, a courageous and sturdy traveller, a loving mother, and a genius who knew nothing of compromise. We are lucky to have Tomalin’s portrait of her.

And now that I’ve read about Wollstonecraft’s life, I’m going to re-read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What are you reading right now?

Bookmark and Share

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Mary Wollstonecraft”

  1. Oh, this sounds wonderful. I’m going to hunt it down!

    I would quibble with calling her the first feminist, though – there were some amazing women in the Renaissance who argued passionately for women’s rights, like Christine de Pizan in the 15th century, whom I’d definitely call an active feminist. Wollstonecraft was the first modern feminist, maybe?

  2. GEW says:

    I should read this. I love Wollstonecraft’s argument work (not so much her fiction), and her attack on the French Revolution and Edmund Burke always blows me away. My students tend to gender their responses to her, saying that she “rants,” not giving her logic its due.

    And I’m curious how Godwin comes off in the bio. From my bits of reading of and about him, I don’t like him, and it seems like he treated their daughter like crap. Mary Shelley has always had my GREAT sympathy.

  3. Ying says:

    Stephanie, I think you’d love it! And you’re completely right about Christine de Pizan; clearly, I was wearing my English-lit blinkers when I wrote that description. :) I stand corrected. GEW, I agree: I tried to read Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman and gave up. And Tomalin’s quite crisp in her literary judgement even of the Vindication. She notes that MW gave herself only 6 weeks to write the book (each page going to the printer as she finished it) and was dissatisfied with the result even as she sent the last page to press. MW intended to write a second, better-planned volume, but didn’t get to it. Godwin is a surprisingly minor presence and he comes across as well-intentioned, hapless, and emotionally stunted. He seems to mean well but I don’t think he had much of clue about either wives or children. Actually, I’ve been so haunted by the question of Fanny Imlay/Godwin and the aftermath of MW’s death within her family that I’ve begun ILL-ing biographies. I’m especially excited about Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle. Finally, a thought about your students: have you tried giving them unattributed excerpts from the Vindication? I wonder if they’d find it “ranty” then.

Leave a Reply