The Magazine

Mary, Quite Contrary

A feminist heroine in the Age of Johnson

May 16, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 33 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

by Lyndall Gordon

HarperCollins, 576 pp., $29.95

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is remembered chiefly as a kind of double forerunner: She was the mother of the far more famous Mary Shelley, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, and she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a polemic treatise that deemed marriage "legal prostitution" and denounced the social restrictions that kept her sex "in ignorance and slavish dependence," thus prefiguring two central themes of today's feminist ideology.

Furthermore, Wollstonecraft's writing career did not last long. She worked in obscurity as a teacher, governess, and lady's companion until age 27, spent a feverish decade mostly in London churning out eight books of unevenly written fiction and nonfiction, and then died of puerperal fever at age 38, a few days after giving birth to Mary. Anyone who undertakes, as Lyndall Gordon has done, a 500-plus-page biography of Mary Wollstonecraft must delve deeply into, and spin much out of, the personal and emotional details of her private life in order to fill up the pages.

Fortunately, Gordon had plenty to work with in that department: Wollstonecraft's tumultuous existence included violent unrequited crushes on friends both male and female, a disastrous love affair with an American bounder named Gilbert Imlay that produced two suicide attempts on Wollstonecraft's part, an older daughter, Fanny, born out of wedlock, and a nagging shortage of money that plagued her with debts and financial fears from childhood to death, despite the success of some of her books. Add to that a tendency to melancholia that could be described in modern clinical terms as manic-depressive, and a penchant for displaying open contempt for, and picking arguments with, those she deemed her moral or intellectual inferiors-a category that comprised almost everyone she met, male and female.

Because of the Vindication, feminist scholars since the 1970s have lavished much attention on Mary Wollstonecraft, producing two leading biographies, Claire Tomalin's The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974), and Diane Jacobs's Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (2001). Both have been praised, and also criticized, for portraying their subject as a cardboard feminist stereotype, a victim of wicked men and chauvinist times. A third Wollstonecraft biography, Janet Todd's Mary Wollstonecraft (2000), apparently errs in the other direction by presenting Wollstonecraft as a "moody drama queen" (Gordon's words) so prone to swings of temper and violent verbal recriminations that it was not surprising that the objects of her amorous attentions (Imlay in particular) tended to slip away into the arms of others. In this assessment, Todd has the company of Wollstonecraft's contemporaries. The American president John Adams called her "this mad woman," while the gothic novelist Horace Walpole described her as "a hyena in petticoats." Until the rise of late-20th century feminism, it was customary for literary historians to regard Mary Wollstonecraft as a hysterical, self-defeating oddity whose reputation was only partially redeemed by the achievements of her second daughter.

Lyndall Gordon, author of well-regarded biographies of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, and Henry James, tries to do something different, to synthesize the two Mary Wollstonecrafts: the politically radical, defiantly independent Mary who disdained marriage and social convention, and the emotionally needy Mary who wrote frantic daily letters to Imlay and held herself out as his wife, and then, after Imlay had dropped her and she got pregnant a second time with little Mary, by the freethinking philosopher and publisher William Godwin, persuaded him to marry her-in an Anglican church, no less. In a letter to her sister Everina, Wollstonecraft wrote: "I am . . . going to be the first of a new genus," and Gordon (following the lead of Virginia Woolf, another Wollstonecraft admirer) takes her at her word. Gordon, indeed writing a "vindication" as her title says, argues that Wollstonecraft's inconsistencies were actually part of a process of continuous deliberate self-reinvention, that she was a "pioneer of character . . . reading, testing, growing, but still uncategorized."