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."

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.

By age 19, Mary, largely self-educated, was on her own. She became a paid companion to a rich widow, a near-servant's job that she loathed. In 1784, she and her two sisters opened a school in Newington Green, two miles north of London. There she started attending a dissenting chapel presided over by Richard Price, a famous London rationalist who did not believe in the biblical doctrine of original sin but did believe in the American Revolution and its republican promise. The Adamses, when in London, were part of Price's congregation. Through Price, Wollstonecraft met the chemist Joseph Priestley, another rationalist and republican, and also Joseph Johnson, who persuaded her to write her first book about female education. She also met Samuel Johnson and got along with him surprisingly well, considering their different politics. She spurned several suitors, lavishing her emotional energies on intense female friendships. In 1786, she became a governess for a family of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, the Kings, but she declined to make herself agreeable and was dismissed within a year.

She returned from Dublin to London determined to make a living by her pen, which was almost unheard-of for a woman. Joseph Johnson gave her work doing translations, for which she taught herself French and German. She also wrote the first of a series of heavily autobiographical novels. In 1789 Price preached a sermon praising the French Revolution, and in response, Edmund Burke wrote his famous anti-Jacobin Reflections on the Revolution in France. In response to Burke, Mary published a tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, denouncing not only aristocracy but also slavery (the abolitionist William Wilberforce was an acquaintance of the Price set), which won her the admiration of Thomas Paine. Her Rights of Woman followed in 1792, making her famous although not rich, as did her pursuit of Fuseli, who turned down flat her offer to move in with him and his wife.

Perhaps stung by Fuseli's rejection, Mary sailed off to France to take a firsthand look at the French Revolution she admired so much. She arrived just in time for the trial and decapitation of Louis XVI and the attendant bloodbath, which horrified her but did not dampen her support for the rising. In Paris she met and fell for Gilbert Imlay. As Gordon suggests, despite her advocacy of free love, Wollstonecraft was probably still a virgin at age 33, although not for long.

Typical of America-worshipping intellectuals of her time, she took Imlay for a backwoods philosopher, when he was in fact from a well-off family in New Jersey. Imlay was a piece of work through whom only a bluestocking like Wollstonecraft could have been innocent enough not to see. He already had left a trail of broken female hearts in his wake, and in Paris he was simultaneously conniving to get himself appointed governor of French-held Louisiana and trying to make money off the Terror. Fanny was born in 1794. Shortly thereafter, he left Mary and the baby to live in London. By the time Wollstonecraft and their daughter joined him in April 1795, he had taken up with an actress. Wollstonecraft swallowed an overdose of laudanum, to be rescued by her lover at the last minute.

As a kind of consolation prize, Imlay made Wollstonecraft his business partner, sending her and toddler Fanny off to Sweden to pursue a lawsuit over one of his ventures: a shipload of silver seized from guillotined French aristocrats. The ship had disappeared, only to turn up partially wrecked and missing its cargo. Wollstonecraft was supposed to recover the silver, or else compensation, from the ship's captain. But the trial dragged on without resolution, and when she returned to London, Imlay had acquired yet another mistress. This time Wollstonecraft jumped off a Thames bridge; she was rescued again, although not by Imlay. Through all of this she wrote furiously: novels, a Scandinavian travel memoir, a book about the French Revolution, sheaves of letters.

Eventually she resolved to seduce Godwin, a minister-turned-atheist whom she had met through Joseph Johnson. Godwin was a cold fish of unprepossessing looks who carefully noted each of his sexual encounters with Wollstonecraft in coded diary entries, but he was loyal enough. Although he was as philosophically opposed as she to marriage, the two were wed just five months before little Mary's birth, and he adopted Fanny. They tried to make it a union of two independent spirits, but Wollstonecraft felt hurt that Godwin interpreted that to mean regular dining out with his own circle of friends (including Johnson and Fuseli), a circle that did not include her. One wonders what would have happened had she lived longer.

As Gordon points out, the high drama that was Mary Wollstonecraft did not end with her death. Godwin soon married again, and there was a third daughter, Clara Mary Jane. All three girls took over the Wollstonecraft impetuosity, and as with Wollstonecraft, it did not lead to happiness. Mary eloped with Shelley at age 16 and pregnant, ignoring the fact that he already had a pregnant teenage wife, Harriet, with whom he had also eloped. Harriet committed suicide, and Mary had to endure several infidelities herself before Shelley drowned at age 30. Meanwhile Fanny, who had been Shelley's first love in the Godwin household and was clearly heartbroken that he turned to her half-sister, committed suicide, too. Clara, professing free love, threw her virgin self at Lord Byron, but the poet not only declined to marry her when she got pregnant (she was beneath him socially) but refused to let her near their daughter, Allegra. Clara at least lived long enough to know Henry James at century's end. And then there was Wollstonecraft's Anglo-Irish tutee, Margaret King, later Lady Mount Cashell, who frolicked all over the continent of Europe cross-dressing and bearing offspring legitimate and illegimate by a number of men.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a powerful and eloquent writer. Much of what she wrote has not stood the test of time, nor have many of her ideas. Yet she did advocate rights for women in a day when women had precious few of them and when life without a husband was a terrifying prospect instead of, as now, merely a lonely one. She urged the creation of "an open road by which [women] can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence," but, unlike many of today's feminists, instructed women that they had to take responsibility for being treated seriously by men.

Wollstonecraft had the misfortune to live at "that dawn" of modernity at which, according to her contemporary, William Wordsworth, it was supposed to be "bliss . . . to be alive." It was not, at least not for Mary Wollstonecraft. But she did not have the benefit of two centuries of experience with some of the brave new theories she espoused.

Charlotte Allen is author, most recently, of The Human Christ.

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