Posts Tagged ‘Claire Tomalin’

Mary Wollstonecraft

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

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?

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The inimitable (redux)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Hello, friends. I’ve been enjoying Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life so very much, and I was deliberately slowing down towards the end so as to spin it out a bit longer. (Anybody else do that?) But I finished it last night with an immense sigh of satisfaction. And I’ve been thinking about Dickens’s reckless, utterly driven pace of life and death.

It was clear that his death was approaching. He’d had a stroke, was increasingly weak, and unable to walk at times, but he persisted in keeping up a demanding schedule of public appearances. In his last, dying days, Dickens:

– met with Queen Victoria, rather reluctantly, and fumed about her “preposterous” book, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, behind her back

– gave a final series of public readings, in which he couldn’t pronounce “Pickwick”. It came out, variously, as Pickswick, Pecknicks, and Pickwicks

– dined with the American ambassador and Disraeli, and breakfasted with Gladstone

– advised his daughters in an amateur theatrical they were putting on

– supervised extensive renovations to his country house at Gad’s Hill

– made an inventory of the spirits consumed at Gad’s Hill House: rum, sherry, brandy, and “Very Fine Scotch Whiskey”

– and, of course, worked on his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

As Tomalin points out, there’s a huge amount of contradiction here. Even as Dickens acknowledged his mortality with a farewell reading tour and getting his will and other papers in order, he was also renovating his house, worrying about how much whiskey remained in the cellar, and writing instalments of another full-length novel.

His last days stand in sharp contrast to those of Jane Austen, who also knew she was dying. Austen’s priority (apart from her family) was to finish her last, masterful novel, Persuasion, and I’ve always been convinced by arguments that Persuasion ends so rapidly because Austen was working against time.

Tomalin’s final paragraph is a brilliant compression of the major themes and ideas she develops through the book. It’s too long to quote here, but if you’re at all interested in Dickens as a writer, I urge you to read this bio. It does everything a good biography should: expanded and enhanced my appreciation for the subject, inspired me to read more about people and things related to Dickens, and galvanized me to start re-reading the novels.

I think I shall begin with Great Expectations.

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The Inimitable

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Hello, friends. Yesterday, I began reading Claire Tomalin’s latest biograpy, Charles Dickens: A Life. I had extremely high hopes for this book, so much so that I worried that my hopes were unreasonably high and I might inevitably be disappointed. But it begins beautifully, and this week I just want to share some of my glee with you.

The biography starts with three maps and a Cast List – essential in a book as jammed with places and personalities as this one. One of the reasons I love this kind of front matter and pore over it for ages before launching into the actual book is because they reveal so much about the author’s interests. Her voice is as strong there as anywhere else in the book, and diving into a list like that is a perfect way to get acquainted (or reacquainted, in this case). I’ll show you what I mean:

On the map called Dickens in Central London, the Garrick Club is described thus: “Dickens a member from 1837, resigning and rejoining frequently”. A perfect window into the man, in four words!

Here are a couple of the extremely varied people he associated with:

“Cooper, Louisa… sent to Cape, returned 1856, bringing D[ickens] an ostrich egg…”

“Elliott, Frances… heiress with rackety marital history… persuaded D to intervene in her difficulties in 1860s, questioned him in vain about his private life”

And Tomalin’s judgement on others:

“Morson, Mrs Georgiana… matron of Miss Coutt’s Home [for reformed thieves and prostitutes] from 1849 to 1854 when she remarried. A pearl.”

“Townshend, Chauncey Hare… rich, Cambridge-educated hypochondriac… dedicated poems to D, who dedicated Great Expectatiosn to him, gave him manuscript – huge reward for foolish friend”

Also, Dickens gave his kids really florid names! They often seem to be modified versions of the names of famous people, as in “Walter Landor” (why skip the “Savage”?) and Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson (really? He chose to interrupt Alfred Tennyson’s name with “D’Orsay”?). Other times, he went for the full homage, naming two of his sons “Henry Fielding” and “Edward Bulwer Lytton”.

I’m hooked.

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