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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I am not sure whether Gordon succeeds in supporting this claim. Although she writes with grace and passion and has (as her copious endnotes show) exhaustively researched the primary and secondary sources relating to Wollstonecraft, her book can be as exasperating as its subject. There is no straightforward narrative line, so if you open its pages as I did knowing practically nothing about Wollstonecraft, you will quickly get lost in a sea of allusions to future events yet unnarrated and to other biographies of Wollstonecraft that Gordon seems to have assumed you have read. Although Gordon helpfully furnishes a table of the tangled Wollstonecraft and Shelley genealogies, there is no chronological list of Wollstonecraft's published writings (a gaping omission in a literary biography) or even a clear laying out of the arguments in her most famous tracts, such as her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786), which proposed teaching girls a substantive curriculum instead of ladylike "accomplishments" such as drawing and music.

Gordon is often vague about crucial details. She informs us that Shelley's grandfather, a self-made, American-born "prototype of Jay Gatsby" named Bysshe, "grew rich" after moving to England in an apparent reverse-immigrant's success story, but never tells us how he made the fortune that enabled both his son and grandson to attend Oxford-or indeed, what exactly was Gatsby-like about the old man. Where the record is thin, Gordon likes to toss out speculations, some shrewd, some totally unsupported, as when she surmises that Henry Fuseli, the painter with whom Wollstonecraft became infatuated to the point of proposing a ménage à trios that would include his wife, had a homosexual affair with Wollstonecraft's London publisher, Joseph Johnson. Most irritating is Gordon's feminist jargon: the word "gender" on nearly every other page. Her comparison of 18th-century land enclosure to "the enclosure of women's bodies" reads like notes left over from a Women's Studies 101 class.

Nonetheless--and this is a tribute to the power of Gordon's writing, jargon notwithstanding--Wollstonecraft comes across as a highly intelligent and deeply sympathetic figure, a victim mostly of her own boundless energy and high-minded naiveté. Not surprisingly, Abigail Adams, John Adams's wife, was an admirer of Wollstonecraft's Vindication, which bluntly blamed women themselves, with their fixation on clothes and frivolities, for men's refusal to take their sex seriously.

Mary Wollstonecraft's life was indeed hard. She was one of six children born to John Edward Wollstonecraft, who inherited a small fortune from his own father, a prosperous London weaver, and decided to rise to the landed gentry without realizing that even gentleman farmers have to know something about agriculture. As the Wollstonecrafts moved haplessly from farm to farm all over Britain, the fortune slowly vanished, including a portion earmarked for Mary's dowry. That was disastrous, for even though, as her portraits show, Mary was a robust and buxom beauty with peaches-and-cream skin and masses of auburn curls, dowerless middle-class girls of the 18th century had slim chances of finding husbands, and even slimmer chances of making decent livings in the few genteel occupations open to them.

The marriage-related anxieties of mothers and daughters in the novels of Jane Austen, Mary's younger contemporary, reflect grim economic realities. It was impossible for an impecunious young woman even to dress fashionably; not only were 18th-century gowns expensive, with their yards of hand-sewn pelisses and panniers, but they laced up the back, requiring a lady's maid to help put them on. John Wollstonecraft had a violent temper, regularly beating not only his wife but his dogs, and Mary's mother, Lydia, favored her oldest son, not the girls.